Just days before the race for the 99th Texas House seat kicks into high gear, a lawsuit has been filed alleging a malicious “political ‘dirty trick’ ” in last year’s election.
The district, which has been represented by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, since 2001, is expected to feature a marquee Republican primary battle between Geren and former longtime family friend Bo French — a repeat of the political face-off voters saw in 2016.
French and his wife, Sheridan, filed a lawsuit this week, alleging that false accusations of child abuse were made against him during the contentious primary race in 2016.
This lawsuit seeks less than $100,000 from David T. Sorensen, who the suit claims is a “professional political operative” who was working on behalf of Geren last year.
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The lawsuit alleges that Sorenson anonymously triggered a Child Protective Services investigation by making false allegations that “Bo French was abusing and neglecting his young children,” which hurt the family, their reputation and likely the political campaign, according to the lawsuit filed with the Tarrant County District Clerk.
This lawsuit, which comes one week before the filing period for the 2018 election ends, states that the entire French family suffered “as the result of a deeply malicious — and at least in Tarrant County, unprecedented — political ‘dirty trick.’ ”
Tuesday, Geren said he didn’t know anything about the CPS complaint until he read preliminary court filings earlier this year.
“I had no idea Bo French had any dealings with CPS,” Geren said. “I was at North Hi Mount Elementary School with Bo French on Election Day and he didn’t say anything.
“If this happened, and I don’t know if it did, I was unaware of it,” he said. “I didn’t instruct anyone to do it. If I had known about it, I would have put a stop to it. I have never, in any campaign, brought up anybody’s family.”
French has announced that he is again challenging Geren in the Republican primary, but has not yet filed. The filing deadline is Dec. 11.
Last year, the battle for the 99th House district “was hard fought and, unfortunately, became increasingly bitter,” the French lawsuit states. “Prior to the campaign, Mr. French and Representative Geren had been longtime family friends in West Fort Worth.
“That, however, apparently changed once it became clear that Mr. French’s campaign posed a real threat to Rep. Geren’s long-held seat in the Texas Legislature.”
The two men and their prominent families have long run in the same circles; Geren’s parents lived across the street from French’s grandparents.
Last year’s race for the district, which stretches from Fort Worth to Pelican Bay and from River Crest to Azle, was watched statewide as an example of moderate conservatives battling it out against movement conservatives.
In the end, Geren, a moderate, won the 2016 Republican primary with 58 percent of the vote to French’s 42 percent — a difference of 3,761 votes, state election results show.
Geren went on to handily win the general election with 83 percent of the vote against Libertarian Dan Hawkins.
Geren, president of Railhead Smokehouse and a real estate developer, has represented the district since 2001 and has served as a powerful top lieutenant of House Speaker Joe Straus who has announced he’s not seeking re-election.
An ‘anonymous tipster’
Sorensen, hired by the political consulting firm Murphy Nasica, was among those working on Geren’s campaign.
The lawsuit indicates that Sorensen and Sheridan French were at the same early voting site Feb. 17 last year when Sheridan began receiving notes from her husband, stating that at least one of his supporters received Facebook messages “falsely (representing) that law enforcement had made numerous trips to the French family house in response to domestic abuse calls.”
Sheridan French “interrogated” Sorensen about whether anyone from Geren’s campaign was behind the messages, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states that Sorensen called Geren and then told Sheridan French that Geren said his campaign was not involved.
“I didn’t know about the Facebook posts,” Geren said Tuesday. “They weren’t Facebook posts by me.”
The next day, Sheridan French was at another early voting site for her husband, talking to a friend about how her youngest son complained about his side hurting, according to the suit.
She ended up taking her son “to a chiropractor to examine the pain and ... the chiropractor had been able to effectively treat and eliminate her son’s side pain by adjusting a rib.”
The lawsuit claims that a campaign worker for Geren overheard the conversation.
Days later, on Feb. 26, 2017, an “anonymous tipster alleged that the French family’s youngest child had suffered broken ribs as a result of abuse by his father, Mr. French,” the lawsuit states.
That night, “a CPS worker and a police officer showed up at the French residence in West Fort Worth to investigate the false report of child abuse and neglectful supervision.”
No police report filed
Bo and Sheridan French were out that night and Sheridan French’s parents were babysitting.
They let the CPS worker check the children for injuries and the next day Bo and Sheridan French took their four children to a pediatrician for a checkup that they say confirmed “there were no signs that any of the four French children had been abused or neglected.”
CPS workers showed up again on Feb. 27, 2016, and Feb. 28, 2016, according to the lawsuit.
“Strangely, after the Republican Primary was held on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, and Representative Geren won re-election, the CPS workers never again returned to the French house,” the lawsuit states.
No police report was filed in the case; CPS officials said there is no information they can release about the case.
“CPS investigations are completely confidential except in a case involving a child fatality,” said Marissa Gonzales, a CPS spokeswoman. “If a child involved in the case was removed and placed in foster care, there would be records filed with juvenile court in Tarrant County.
“Otherwise, there is nothing public to release.”
Sorensen did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment about the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Sorensen “tacitly self-identified as the person who made the false CPS report” by filing an “Anti-SLAPP” Motion to Dismiss earlier this year, after the French family sought to have him testify in the case.
That confirmation came, according to the lawsuit, because Sorensen noted “that the allegations made by the French Family, if true, were nothing more than an attempt to chill Defendant Sorensen’s exercise of his ‘free speech rights’ on a matter of ‘public concern.’ ”
The French family has asked for a jury trial.