Fort Worth Council Member Sued Over Debt, ‘Good Friends' With Judge

Judge vows to recuse herself after presiding over city leader’s debt collection case

A Tarrant County judge says she will remove herself from a two-year-old debt collection case involving her 'good friend' who is a Fort Worth city leader after NBC 5 asked about the status of the case and possible conflicts of interest.

The case began in March 2017 when Fort Worth city council member Kelly Allen Gray was named in a lawsuit over $2,041 in unpaid credit card bills.

Gray has represented southeast Fort Worth since 2012.

"So yes, I do owe it," Gray said in an interview.

Gray said her husband is ill, has large ongoing medical bills, and they've had to put off paying some debts.

"I'm not rich by no stretch of the imagination," she said.

The lawsuit ended up in Justice of the Peace Court 8, run by Judge Lisa Woodard.

The two acknowledge they are longtime friends.

"It's not a secret that Judge Woodard and I are friends," Gray said. "I've thrown fundraising parties for Judge Woodard."

Woodard agreed.

"Kelly is my friend, yes she is," she said.

Amid questions about personal conflicts, experts say judges should recuse themselves.

"The first premise is the judge should avoid the appearance of impropriety," said former Judge Joe Spurlock who now teaches law at Texas A&M University.

Gray said even though Woodard was the judge presiding over the case, she was never personally involved.

"She never had anything at all to do with it," Gray said.

"The judge said she handles hundreds of cases a week and never knew her 'good friend' had been sued in her court -- until Gray showed up for a court-ordered mediation.

"I don't know what cases come before me until they're in front of me," Woodard said.

Records reviewed by NBC 5 show the two have exchanged campaign contributions.

Woodard gave $200 to Gray, which Gray reported on her April 2017 campaign disclosure form. The exact date of the contribution was left blank.

Gray later gave two $100 donations to Woodard, including one the very day she was at the courthouse, according to the judge's campaign finance report. It did not specify whether the donation was made in person or by mail. 

"Kelly did not give me a $100 campaign donation and I don't know where you got that from," Woodard said.

Informed the donation was listed on her own report, she continued to claim she did not receive it.

"OK, well, I did not," she said.

Court records show that's the same day – Nov. 30, 2017 – that Gray was in court for mediation with the collections agency. The mediation failed.

Asked about the donation, Gray said she 'probably' gave it.

"I probably mailed her a check. Yes probably," Gray said.

Gray said she contributes to a number of candidates' campaigns.

"I make campaign contributions. That's what I do," she said. "I don't worry about anything. My integrity and my character speak for themselves."

Spurlock, the law professor, said judges should not accept campaign contributions from people involved in an ongoing case.

"While the case is going on, I'd say absolutely not. That's a slam dunk call," he said.

Now, it's Gray who's running for re-election.

Just last month, Judge Woodard posted on Facebook a cover picture of herself with Gray, and a separate posting of Gray with the hashtag '#teamkelly,' the same phrase used by Kelly and her campaign supporters.

Texas judges are not supposed to endorse candidates, Spurlock said.

"That’s a no-no," he said.

The judge said her Facebook posting was not an endorsement and that she's not endorsing anyone.

Asked what she meant by the words '#teamkelly,' she declined to answer.

Meanwhile, the nearly two-year-old debt collection case is still pending.

It was set for trial in June last year, but an attorney for the collections agency cited a conflict and asked for it to be reset.

It never was -- even though the judge acknowledged a new trial should have been scheduled within 60 days.

"Why that case has not been put back on the docket, I have no idea," she said.

The judge added it had nothing to do with their friendship.

"I have integrity. I would not have done that," Woodard said.

Gray denied she received improper help.

"If I had preferential treatment, I would have been settled by now," she said.

Kelly said she still plans to pay the debt as soon as she can.

"Everyone has things they have to deal with in their lives. I'm no different," she said.

Woodard also blamed her clerks for not rescheduling Gray's trial.

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