GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) – When Chief Mark McAdams picked up his phone Tuesday, his boss was on the other end needing a favor. It wasn’t something his boss had ever asked him to do before.
“Judge Gravell called me and asked me if he could use a piece of equipment because it was his grandson’s birthday and he wanted to go by and visit and just say hello to him on his birthday without risking contamination,” McAdams told KXAN.
Judge Gravell is Bill Gravell, the man who holds the highest-elected office in Williamson County government and the county’s budget chief.
McAdams runs the fire and EMS station in Williamson County Emergency Services District #5 in Jarrell. Gravell wanted to use one of McAdams’s fireman’s equipment sets for the birthday party.
“I agreed to let him use the equipment understanding that he had been trained on that type of equipment in the past. He came by, picked up the piece of equipment and went for a visit and was back in about 20 minutes,” McAdams said.
But, just two weeks before, Gravell signed an order banning Williamson County taxpayers from doing exactly what he was about to do. On March 24, Gravell signed an order, making it a crime for anyone in the county to leave their home to do anything that wasn’t considered “essential business.”
The penalty for doing so: a $1,000 fine or up to six months in the county jail.
The birthday party Gravell wore the fireman’s uniform to did not meet any of the county’s definitions for an “essential business” trip. The day of the party, Gravell extended his March 24 “Stay Home Stay Safe” order through April 30, 2020.
McAdams initially declined an interview with KXAN about loaning taxpayer resources to Gravell for personal use but changed his mind and went on the record, saying he wishes he made a different decision on loaning Gravell the fire gear.
“I, at this point, regret making that decision because I know a lot of people will now say: why can’t I do that? And, of course, I can’t do that for anybody. But, given the conditions we’re going through and his separation from the family and the requirements of his job, I did let him borrow the piece of equipment,” McAdams said.
The chief appeared to describe Gravell as being a victim of his own separation order and wanted to help Gravell in visiting his grandson on the child’s birthday.
“I think it was mostly driven by my feeling that under his conditions of his job right now that that may be good for him to maybe do that with his grandson, so I allowed it — again — it was not a good decision on my part.”
‘Please remove it from your page’
What Gravell didn’t know when he stepped out of his pickup truck was that someone was watching and photographing the judge. The photographs show Gravell dressed in a fireman’s bunker gear wearing an oxygen tank and a full-face mask.
The photographs show Gravell standing beside his truck. The county judge was holding a green fabric shopping bag with something inside it.
Another series of photographs show other members of Gravell’s family standing on the porch and a woman with her cell phone out appearing to take pictures.
The person who took the pictures of Gravell sent them to a Twitter account known as “Buddy Falcon.” The account has published information about the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office for going on two years now. The information is often critical of Sheriff Robert Chody’s administration and — at times — Gravell.
Buddy Falcon posted the pictures at 2:52 p.m. on April 7. At 4:02 p.m., Gravell sent the account a private message asking for the post to be taken down, “That is a picture of my daughter’s home and my grandson. Please remove it from your page. You can come after me but this picture is out of line!”
We contacted the person behind the Buddy Falcon account. The source agreed to an interview only if we concealed their identity.
“I think it says everything about the leadership: do as I say, not as I do,” the source told KXAN investigator Jody Barr.
When asked about the reason for posting the pictures, the source said it was about exposing what the source — and the person who submitted the pictures — thought was an elected official breaking the law.
“The county judge is abusing his power. The county judge is doing things that he’s telling other people that they will be arrested for or fined,” the account owner told KXAN. “And yet, he felt that it was OK for him to go to his grandchild’s birthday party dressed up in a fireman’s suit that he borrowed.”
“I merely posted a picture of him going to a birthday party,” the source said.
“After he told the rest of the county to stay at home?” Barr asked.
“Exactly,” the source responded.
The source, who is also subject to Gravell’s Stay Home Stay Safe order, said the motivation for posting the photos was to expose what they believed was a criminal act. “When you’re given an order and you’re following that order and you see the very person that gave you that order — and is part of the system that says if you violate that order you will be fined, you will be jailed — violate that order, then it angers you and that’s what happened.”
‘Abuse of official capacity’
Within minutes of Gravell finding the Buddy Falcon Twitter post of his trip to that birthday party, Gravell had Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick on the phone, according to Georgetown defense attorney Robert McCabe. Gravell was demanding to speak with McCabe.
“I got a call not 20 minutes later from my assistant followed by a call from Shawn Dick, a frantic call from Shawn Dick indicating that it was an emergency that Bill Gravell reach me,” McCabe told KXAN.
“The emergency was that Bill Gravell needed to reach me about was these Twitter photos,” McCabe said. The three spent a few minutes on the phone, according to McCabe, and in the call Gravell asked McCabe to have the photographs removed form the Buddy Falcon social media accounts.
“I think he believed that I had some influence over the Buddy Falcon account or whoever those people are that run those accounts and that I could have them taken down. And, I immediately made it clear that I have no control over those photographs, I did not take the photographs and that I would do nothing to help them,” McCabe said.
McCabe said he found out Monday that Gravell planned to have firefighters from the Jarrell fire station drive by his grandson’s house at 11 a.m. with Gravell on the back of one of the trucks dressed as a fireman. McCabe said he planned to have someone go by to photograph Gravell because McCabe believed the county judge was about to commit a crime.
Plans to use the fire trucks did not go through, according to Chief McAdams. McCabe said McAdams did nothing wrong and was put into a “tough position” by his boss, Judge Gravell.
This slideshow shows the timeline between the Twitter posts and the time of the call between Gravell, Dick and McCabe:
McCabe said his concern wasn’t only that Gravell would be violating his own order but that the county judge was abusing his position of power.
“It goes beyond that (the order) because when he’s an elected official when he uses his position as a public servant to obtain a benefit fraudulently, which is what he did, that is abuse of official capacity,” McCabe said.
McCabe also believed Gravell committed the crime of official oppression by having a deputy drive him to Jarrell, exposing the deputy to the health dangers outlined in Gravell’s order.
McCabe told KXAN that Gravell confessed to the crimes in the April 7 call, “Knowing that DA Shawn Dick and I were both on the call — he said that he wanted his daughter and his daughter’s family left out of this and that he knew the DA was on the call and that he was admitting that he had a Williamson County Sheriff’s Deputy drive him and his wife to Jarrell to the fire department, borrowed the fire department equipment — including the respirator and the bunker gear. Had him then drive him to his grandson’s birthday party at his daughter’s house in Jarrell so that he could visit with his grandson because he had not seen him in two or three weeks.”
“And he did that knowing — and even saying he knew he was confessing to these things knowing the district attorney was on the phone and that he could be prosecuted for these offenses,” McCabe said.
District Attorney Dick told KXAN he couldn’t discuss the details of the case because he’s now “A potential witness in this conduct” after the April 7 phone call. Dick said he filed a criminal referral with Williamson County County Attorney Dee Hobbs.
McCabe said he also plans to file a formal criminal complaint with the county sheriff’s office and the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state commission that investigates judicial misconduct.
When we contacted Hobbs’s office Thursday evening, a spokeswoman said Hobbs had not received the criminal referral in the case and since the office was closed for the Good Friday holiday, she suggested calling back on Monday to speak with Hobbs.
Hobbs could be forced to hand the case over to another prosecutor since Hobbs performs legal work for Gravell and the Commissioners Court. Hobbs’s office did not have an answer as to whether he planned to recuse himself in the case once the complaints are formally filed.
We sent written interview requests to Judge Gravell’s social media accounts and to his campaign website. Gravell’s campaign website manager responded, asking KXAN to file the interview request with Gravell’s county office.
County spokeswoman, Connie Odom, told KXAN that Gravell’s office contacted her to return our call. Odom said she’s “working on” gathering a response from Gravell to include in this report.