TYLER, Texas (KETK) – The Smith County Commissioners Court approved the contract and budget on Tuesday of James “Jim” Wheeler as court-appointed counsel for the 7th district court.
Wheeler, who Smith County officials confirmed is formerly the Wood County District Attorney, was hired and has been working in Judge Kerry Russell’s court since Aug. 1. The 4-1 vote by the commissioners has ratified his contract.
“This is totally Judge’s decision as to who he hires,” Commissioner 3 Terry Lee Phillips said.
Wheeler served as the district attorney in Wood County until he resigned in 2018 amid investigations of sexual harassment regarding his conduct with another attorney.
“It is up to the district court to hire the individual who they believe will best be fit to represent defendants in Smith County,” Thomas Wilson with the Smith County District Attorney’s Office said.
Wilson said the commissioners court’s decision to ratify the contract was purely budgetary, and unrelated to Wheeler’s hiring.
“This is the judge’s decision,” Commissioner 4 JoAnn Hampton who opposed the motion said. “The only thing this court does is pay the bills.”
According to a report by the Texas Rangers, Wheeler continuously sexually harassed an assistant district attorney who told investigators he made sexual advances towards her despite her telling him to stop. She also submitted video recordings of Wheeler that showed him asking her to run away to Wyoming with him, according to the report.
The woman eventually told investigators she did not want to move forward with the investigation because of the potential damage to her reputation, and according to the report said she would instead continue to tell Wheeler “no.”
The report said Wheeler later “agreed to resign from his position as Wood County District Attorney in lieu of prosecution.”
Wheeler is now contracted to serve as court-appointed counsel to defendants, and his contract will be up for review the next fiscal year following the county’s standard procedures.
Officials with Wood County have declined to comment at this time.