A recent article queried Texas district attorneys and misconduct: isolated practices or bigger pattern? Updates on three public officials – Travis County’s Rosemary Lehmberg, Williamson County’s Ken Anderson and Dallas County’s Craig Watkins – again remind of that question.
Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg
Lehmberg is currently in jail serving a 45-day sentence stemming from her April 12 DWI arrest. Her Blood Alcohol Level was reportedly nearly three times the legal limit. Though the sentence is likely to be significantly reduced due to good behavior credits, Lehmberg’s political future remains unknown.
A petition has been filed seeking the DA’s removal from office based on an obscure, rarely used Texas law allowing removal for intoxication “on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.”
On Monday, a Travis County district judge signed an order allowing the petition filed by Kerry V. O’Brien, a former assistant state attorney general and administrative law judge for the Texas Workforce Commission, to move forward. To remove an elected official from office, a judge must first approve the plaintiff’s application to issue a citation before the petition can actually be served to the defendant.
In an April 18 Arrest should end Lehmberg’s career in law enforcement op-ed, the Austin American-Statesman called for Lehmberg’s resignation. Another Statesman article, however, noted “many” DAs, judges and lawmakers who stay in office after DWIs. Lehmberg’s attorney, David Sheppard, reportedly says she will “absolutely not” resign.
The Austin Police Association has also called for Lehmberg’s resignation, but not because of the DWI. “I don’t think it’s because of the arrest itself so much. I think it was the behavior afterwards. The total lack of respect for the process that she’s over. Also, the veiled threats by asking about Sheriff Hamilton, those kinds of things,” Wayne Vincent with the Austin Police Association told KVUE-TV. Other media reports, however, indicate a group of more than 100 lawyers are expected to file a brief in support of Lehmberg.
A poll at KVUE.com asks “Should DA Lehmberg keep her position?” With 813 responses, 24 percent (198 responses) said yes, 73 percent (593 responses) said no and 3 percent (22 responses) said they don’t care.
State District Judge (former Williamson County DA) Ken Anderson
A court of inquiry last week determined criminal charges were in order with regard to State District Judge Ken Anderson’s conduct as district attorney during the 1987 Michael Morton murder trial.
In finding that Anderson hid evidence to ensure Morton’s conviction, Judge Louis Sturns charged the former prosecutor with three counts: tampering with government records (a misdemeanor carrying up to one year in jail), tampering with physical evidence (a felony carrying up to 10 years in prison) and failing to comply with a judge’s order to turn over such evidence, an offense for which he could be held in “contempt of court” (punishable with a $500 fine and up to six months jail time).
Anderson, now appealing Sturns’ ruling, disputes the prosecution of his alleged crimes claiming the statute of limitation has passed. Though his appeal does not address the contempt of court charge, he argues the other two charges had to be filed within three years of the felony and two years of the misdemeanor.
Per the Statesman:
Sturns accused Anderson of intentionally hiding two police reports generated within two weeks of Christine Morton’s murder in 1986 — a report about a suspicious green van in the neighborhood, and a transcript of a police interview showing that the Mortons’ 3-year-old son witnessed his mother’s murder and said his father wasn’t home at the time.
Morton’s lawyers have argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the reports were hidden away in county files until recently.
But Anderson’s appeal attempts to make a finer distinction, noting that the state cannot prosecute Anderson for hiding reports that the state possessed in files kept by the district attorney’s office or sheriff’s office.
“Because the ‘green van report’ and the transcript … were both indisputably in the possession of the state during the entire time period from the creation of the reports to the present, the statute of limitations as to any potential charges to be brought by the state” has long expired, it said.
“Judge Sturns’ decision to issue arrest warrants for time-barred charges appears to be based on the belief — which (Anderson) respectfully contends is mistaken — that the court of inquiry statute permits the pronouncement of criminal charges by a judge when an actual prosecution of those charges could never occur,” the petition states.
“Even if the law permitted such a prosecution, which it does not, attempting any such prosecution when the basic underlying facts have been obscured by the passage of time would only compound the error,” the petition said.
The petition also said Anderson “continues to decry any precedent from this court of inquiry that will allow Texas prosecutors to be prosecuted for their conduct in pretrial discovery in decades-old criminal cases.”
Anderson’s filing seeks an expedited hearing and asks for appointment of a lawyer to represent the state should one not be available. Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty, meanwhile, will reportedly ask the state attorney general’s office to pursue the case against Anderson.
Suggesting Anderson should weigh consequences to justice system before continuing as judge, the Statesman editorialized how the justice system cannot be sustained without public trust and that trust relies on a basic tenet that when people break the law, they are held accountable. It further noted that tenet must apply equally to all, especially law enforcement officials.
With that, the paper concluded:
As for Anderson, state law does not require him to step down as the case advances. But he should give serious thought to resigning to prevent further damage to the office with which he is entrusted. It’s time for him to consider whether he can any longer be effective in his job as a district judge overseeing criminal cases, and it would signal that at last he is taking personal responsibility for his conduct in the case that deeply damaged Morton and the public’s trust in the Texas justice system.
Dallas County DA Craig Watkins
It’s been a bit quiet on the Watkins front in the past weeks, but with the Dallas DA, things can always change quickly.
The Dallas Morning News this week does, however, report a new dustup that involves roofing work performed at Watkins’ DeSoto home, work that is now the impetus for at least two lawsuits – one alleging a failure to pay on Watkins’ part, the other that the contractor did poor work and caused damage.
In March, the district attorney was cited for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions on potential prosecutorial misconduct in filing mortgage fraud charges against Al Hill III, the great-grandson of oilman H.L. Hunt.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas have reportedly opened criminal investigations of Watkins while he’s also in the sights of the Texas Attorney General’s office for his handling of a major fraud case against Dallas dentist Dr. Richard Malouf and his former company, All Smiles Dental Center, based on the DA’s lack of cooperation and the “sweetheart deal” he offered the dentist.
Watkins’ tenure has been marred by allegations of trading favors and access for campaign cash, much of which has been used to support his family’s businesses and homes. In September 2012, The Morning News showed that judges who hear cases brought by Watkins’ office paid Watkins’ wife Tanya more than $227,000 in consulting fees in the last three years. Additional stories showed how Watkins’ campaign funds have been used to pay for utilities and other services for his campaign office building – which also houses his family’s private businesses.
District attorneys are the highest officeholder in a county’s legal department. This office plays a vital role ensuring that those who break the law are held accountable with prosecutions being pursued and laws applied in a fair and impartial way.
While undoubtedly there are honest and ethical district attorneys aptly serving the residents and other taxpayers of their counties, one does have to wonder if these ongoing instances of misconduct and questionable practices are in fact isolated examples or indicative of a bigger pattern?