For decades, Anna McKinney was the face of Denison to many, having started at the Denison Area Chamber of Commerce Chamber as a secretary in 1977 and becoming its president in 1995.
Then in October, she retired suddenly. Shortly there after, the Herald Democrat learned her retirement had come during an internal audit that saw the Chamber’s board of directors bring in outside auditors to help. Though it was soon clear McKinney was being accused of taking money from the chamber and the Denison the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the question still remained of why she would have done such a thing.
Gambling ate up funds
An investigation report from Texas Ranger Brad Oliver, obtained by the Herald Democrat through on open records request, seems to shed some light on that question. In his report, Oliver said documents show that McKinney lost $48,968 at an Oklahoma casino between January 2014 and March 2017. Oliver’s report states McKinney told him she spent the money she stole at the slot machines.
On Aug. 11, McKinney pleaded guilty to one theft of over $30,000 and under $150,000 and was sentenced to five years of deferred adjudication and a fine of $1,000. The plea was entered in the 59th state district court and McKinney was required to pay $55,477.35 as a condition of the plea. This represented all losses and costs to the chamber, visitor’s bureau and city of Denison as a direct result of McKinney’s theft.
The charge against McKinney is a third-degree felony that is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. McKinney did not return a message left Wednesday afternoon seeking an interview and has not returned numerous calls seeking comment since the Herald Democrat learned of the investigation.
The money McKinney repaid included money taken in extra bonuses she paid herself, including one for which she forged the signature of then-chamber board President Jennifer Reed. A transcript of McKinney’s plea hearing shows McKinney was not asked any questions about how or why she committed the thefts.
Oliver’s report makes reference to a depression McKinney said was deepest when she was taking the money, but does not elaborate on what kind of depression or how long McKinney suffered from it.
Attempt made to keep plea out of the public eye
The documents also included emails between Grayson County District Attorney Joe Brown and McKinney’s attorney, John Hunter Smith, in which the two discussed the plea agreement with some back and forth about how long McKinney would be on deferred adjudication. Smith wanted three years and Brown insisted on five, saying that the judge would likely let her off early if she behaved as he suspected she would. He also agreed to drop the forgery charge.
“We certainly could have charged her with the forgery charge,” Brown said via phone on Wednesday. “The decision not to file that was part of the plea offer, and it is common to allow defendants to plead to some charges and not others as part of the agreement. It was my belief that there was sufficient punishment range with the theft charge to adequately punish Ms. McKinney.”
Brown said his office often questions defendants on the record at the time of their guilty plea to make a record of them describing the conduct in their own words to use in case a defendant later attempts to challenge the guilty plea.
“This is not done every time, but frequently,” Brown said. “When we have a defendant, like Ms. McKinney, that we have little concern that she will later challenge her guilty plea, we may not ask those questions. Those types of questions are also requested at times by the judge, so that he can be familiar with the facts of the case. In this case, the judge did not request a recitation of the facts from the defendant.”
The emails between Brown and McKinney’s attorney show Smith was trying to keep the plea out of the public eye. He wanted it entered on a day when the court would not be hearing any other matters and asked that Brown not advise the media. Brown said his office doesn’t normally advise the media of guilty pleas but he wasn’t going to do anything that would make it look like he was trying to hide anything. Brown also told Smith he planned to issue a news release immediately after the plea was completed.
“The accommodations Ms. McKinney received were based on the particular facts of her case,” Brown said via email. “In every case, we look at the acts of the crime, the level of harm caused, the wishes of any victim, the history of the defendant, and any mitigating or aggravating factors. What she did was certainly criminal, certainly a felony, and she deserved to be punished — which she was, and continues to be. However, there were mitigating factors. She was 68 years old, with no criminal record, was very cooperative, paid back everything she stole plus some, and had a record of very good service to the community.”
Smith did not return a phone message left Wednesday afternoon.
How it all unfolded over the past nine months
In late November, the Herald Democrat submitted requests for public information related to McKinney’s personnel files, information related to her departure, and any previous investigations or disciplinary action against McKinney during her time with the Denison Chamber.
The chamber and the city of Denison forwarded the request to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, citing multiple exemptions related to “litigation of a civil or criminal nature to which the state or political subdivision is or may be a party.” This exemption applies to any litigation that is pending or “reasonably anticipated.”
In addition to the exemption related to ongoing litigation, the city also cited an exemption related to information that is “held by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that deals with the detection, investigation or prosecution of crime.” The letter was also forwarded to Oliver. Legal representation for the city later confirmed that the requested files included records related to a pending matter with the Texas Rangers.
Despite this, officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Denison Police Department said, at that time, there were no ongoing criminal investigations related to McKinney, the Chamber or any of its past or present employees.
In late December, the DPS Office of General Counsel sent a response to the attorney general, citing exemptions from public release of information. In the letter, DPS indicated that the release of the requested information would interfere with a criminal investigation into the Chamber and McKinney. However, in January, officials with DPS said that this did not indicate that an investigation was indeed ongoing.
In late February, the AG’s office denied the request for public information related to McKinney’s departure from the Chamber, citing that it “would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers.” However, officials with the Texas Rangers said it was not investigating the situation.
That changed the next day as the chamber announced it was asking the Texas Rangers to investigate the theft.
“The Denison Chamber of Commerce and city of Denison have been working jointly on an in-depth audit of both the Chamber and the Convention and Visitors Bureau funds since identifying the need for such a review toward the end of 2016,” the Chamber said in a statement at the time. “The city and Chamber have been in contact with the Texas Rangers on the discoveries of the audit and are in the process of turning over the information to the Rangers for investigative purposes.”
Brown said earlier this month McKinney waived indictment on the charges brought against her. In a statement regarding the plea deal, Brown said McKinney was cooperative throughout the investigation.