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Star-Telegram.com

Fort Worth lawyer indicted on charges of falsifying campaign contributions

Posted Thursday, Apr. 26, 2012

By Dianna Hunt

dhunt@star-telegram.com

A Fort Worth attorney who worked to persuade the Arlington and Fort Worth school boards to dump their delinquent tax collection firm and hire another has been indicted on charges that he falsified campaign contributions to Arlington school Trustee Aaron Reich.

Mario X. Perez, who was a partner at Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson until late last year, is charged with six counts of fraudulent tampering with a government record in an indictment handed up this week by a Tarrant County grand jury.

The indictment accuses Perez of making false entries on the finance reports filed by Reich's campaign for the May 2009 election, when Reich was first elected to the Arlington school board.

Reich, who is running for re-election May 12, did not respond to a telephone call Thursday seeking comment.

Reich's wife, accountant Debra Freiheit, is listed as the campaign treasurer on the report. The indictment does not explain how Perez would have been responsible for the false entries.

Tarrant County prosecutor David Lobingier, who is assigned to the economic crimes unit of the district attorney's office, said in a statement that no charges have been brought against Reich or the Linebarger firm in connection with the transactions.

"We cannot comment about anything that occurred in the grand jury or about the specifics of any investigation, except to say that this investigation is ongoing," Lobingier said.

Defense attorney Greg Westfall said Perez plans to fight the charges.

"This is a case that needs to be fought," Westfall said. "This is a political stunt and we should approach it as such."

He declined to elaborate.

False filings alleged

The indictment accuses Perez of falsifying four transactions on the May 1, 2009, finance report filed by the Reich campaign.

The campaign reported a donation of $1,000 and an in-kind contribution of $338.70 from Bassam and Leila Darkazally of Arlington, who at the time were Perez's in-laws.

The report also lists an in-kind contribution of $4,216.06 from a Mansfield man.

The two in-kind contributions total $4,554.76, which is the exact amount of a payment that the campaign reported making to the Murphy Turner & Associates consulting firm for "production, mailing, voter contact."

The indictment says all the filings were false.

Craig Murphy, a partner in Murphy Turner, said the firm did robocalling to voters and produced campaign mailers for the Reich campaign, but he declined to discuss details about the payments.

"The DA's office asked us not to talk about this," he said.

He said that the firm is on standby to do work for the Reich campaign this year as well but that the firm's services have not yet been needed.

The contributions cited in the indictment are similar to filings made and then retracted by Fort Worth school Trustee Tobi Jackson.

Jackson told the Star-Telegram last year that she filed an amended campaign finance report for the May 2010 election to include a $4,200 loan from Perez. She said Perez told her she should report the money quickly or face possible ethics violations. She said he was an adviser to her campaign.

Jackson said she then reviewed an itemized statement from her campaign consultant, Murphy Turner & Associates, that showed her account paid in full and no expenses covered by Perez.

She then amended her campaign filing again to delete the loan. Perez, however, maintained that he temporarily made payments to a communications firm run by a friend of his that had done work for Jackson until the firm received payments from Jackson's campaign.

'No knowledge'

Perez, who has been active in local Democratic politics, worked in 2009 and 2010 to help persuade the Arlington and Fort Worth school boards to hire Linebarger and dump the firms they had used for years to collect delinquent taxes.

The Arlington school board voted unanimously in December 2009 to switch to Linebarger from Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, which the district had used for nearly 30 years.

The Fort Worth school board voted 6-3 in October 2010 to switch to Linebarger from Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt and Burns Joint Venture, which had served the district for 17 years.

But Fort Worth trustees voted in August to terminate the contract with Linebarger and reopen bidding, with some saying they feared bidding had been compromised.

That decision followed opinion columns in the Star-Telegram that revealed that Perez had had contact with school trustees during a no-lobbying period, including sending text messages with sample questions while trustees were grilling the two competing firms.

Perez was a Linebarger partner at the time but left in October. He then had a consulting agreement with the firm, but that was recently terminated, officials said.

"Mr. Perez is a former employee of our law firm," Linebarger spokesman Joe Householder said in a statement. "He had a limited consulting agreement with the firm, which we have terminated. The firm has no knowledge of the activities alleged in the indictment."

The charges against Perez are state jail felonies, which carry sentences of 180 days' to two years' incarceration and up to $10,000 in fines.

Dianna Hunt, 817-390-7084

Twitter:@DiannaHunt

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