Rick Perry can't stop messing with Texas, and with Travis County.
Yesterday, Rick Perry threatened to line-item veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit, which has statewide prosecutorial authority over fraud and corruption, if District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg does not resign.
The PIU is expected to receive $7.5 million from the state over the biennium to support its ongoing prosecutions in more than 400 cases, ranging from insurance fraud to public corruption investigations, according to Assistant Travis County District Attorney Gregg Cox, who runs the unit.
I've previously argued that Lehmberg needs to stay to prevent Perry from getting his dirty hands on the PIU, among many other reasons. Now, it appears that Perry's motives may be even more self-serving.
As Progress Texas noted yesterday, Perry may be trying to shut down the PIU to stop the investigation of CPRIT and his alleged efforts to divert state cancer research funds to his donors and cronies.
Now, it turns out Perry's mere threat to veto funding if Lehmberg does not resign may be a violation of the Texas Penal Code.
Yesterday was a very dramatic day in the Texas House.
Looming with the deadline that any non-local House Bills must be passed out of the full House by tomorrow night, tensions can run high, and that came to boiling point yesterday.
With the passage of HB 500, a bill that was debated for several hours yesterday, the stage was set for drama. HB 500 cuts taxes for businesses to the tune of almost $666 million dollars. There was vigourous debate on the bill and on the priorities of using these extra monies for tax breaks. Sylvester Turner, proving to be a budget hawk, like most Democrats this session was most notably against the spending, as his displaying of an abacus made clear.
But one of the most tense and contentious moments, forcing R's to battle with one another was what came next, an amendment to HB 3153, a fairly non-contentious bill without the proposed amendment.
The amendment, authored by Representative Phil King, would have transferred funding from the Public Integrity Unity to the Attorney General's Office, unless the current District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg resigns. Lehmberg was convicted of a DUI last month and is currently serving her sentence in the Travis County Jail.
The Public Integrity Unit is a unique entity because it is funded by the state, but it is meant to investigate and prosecute officeholders in the state. It is housed and run under the umbrella of the Travis County District Attorney's Office. If Lehmberg resigns, Rick Perry would have the power to appoint someone as the Travis County DA until her term expires.
The amendment had a point of order overruled on it for germaneness, and caused several prominent members to speak against it, noting that it is bad public policy, and bad politics for a myriad of reasons. Democrat Sylvester Turner and Republican Charlie Geren both spoke against the amendment.
Rosemary Lehmberg's drunk driving episode has clearly captivated the local news media as they roll in the increased readership that comes with a high profile local story that has statewide ramifications. You can see it in the almost breathless coverage of the latest video, or recording inside or outside, or report filed, or motion granted, or quirky update, or what brand of sweater our District Attorney was wearing that fateful night. Of course, the public will consume as much of that as is supplied because this has all the elements of the classic story rolled into one big package.
But what happens when the media frenzy runs out or moves on? We already know Lehmberg is guilty and there aren't a whole lot of details left to the imagination. How much of it is political, from both the right and the left? Do people care that the person who filed the petition to discharge Lehmberg from office was a Republican or that Republican Governor Rick Perry would appoint any replacement prior to the next election?
There are a lot of opinions and likely even a few agendas all at play here so let's cut through the noise and look at the very simple reality of what Katherine wrote yesterday and why it matters a great deal.
Rosemary Lehmberg's troubles continue. Or maybe not. In a case whose importance cannot be gainsaid, Judge Lora Livingston yesterday granted the application for issuance of citation in the petition to remove the beleaguered Travis County District Attorney from office.
The course of this case is far from clear, however.
In the debate about whether or not Rosemary Lehmberg should resign, what's really at stake is whether the entire state of Texas can afford to let Rick Perry control the office of Travis County DA. Given Perry's history and the unique faculties of the office, the answer is clear: Lehmberg needs to stay.
This goes beyond mere partisan politics and gets at the nature of good government itself, which is admittedly a hard argument to make when videos of the embattled elected official in a spit restraint are circulating on the Internet. Those calling on Lehmberg to resign need to recognize the severity of handing the Public Integrity Unit and the environmental prosecution division over to a Perry crony whose attitude on everything from pre-trial release to the death penalty is likely to be out of touch with Austin's progressive community values.
But this issue is not just about a progressive orientation towards criminal justice. This debate is fundamentally about what the Travis County DA's office does, by virtue of being located in our state's capital city, and whether Rick Perry should have control over those faculties of the office. It's about good government, and that's something Rick Perry can't be expected to provide.
Bottom line: this debate is about the capacities of the office of Travis County DA, not about the major mistakes made by the elected official currently in that office. Anyone arguing for Lehmberg to step down needs to explain why the Public Integrity Unit and statewide environmental prosecutions are in better hands with Rick Perry than the current staff of the DA's office.
Lehmberg was taken into custody this morning.
Photo credit: Austin-American Statesman
This morning, Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg pleaded guilty to drunk driving. She was sentenced to 45 days in jail and taken into custody immediately. She was also given the maximum $4,000 fine and her license was revoked for 180 days.
On Wednesday, Austin attorney Kerry O'Brien filed suit to remove Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg from office after her DWI arrest last week. "Lehmberg violated the public trust, demeaned her office and created a substantial risk of injury to others," O'Brien said.
Today, Lehmberg's lawyer David Sheppard defended Lehmberg in a statement that emphasized Lehmberg's admittance to her "terrible mistake" and the fact that she will serve the longest sentence ever handed out, of 45 days. "Rosemary is a woman of her word, she's served this county for 35 years as a valuable public servant, she runs probably the best district attorney's office in the state of Texas if not the nation. This is a terrible mistake on her part but it really should not override the fact that she has accepted responsibility today," Sheppard writes.
He also revealed that tapes of Lehmberg's initial arrest would be released in the coming days and that "[t]here have been some very serious misstatements and inaccuracies said both in the news media and in a lawsuit about Ms. Lehmberg spitting and kicking at officers. I can categorically tell you that did not happen."
The Travis County DA's office said that senior staff will take over operations, "the same as when the officeholder is away from the office."
The Statesman captured video of Lehmberg's sentencing:
Read Attorney David Sheppard's statement below the jump.
MODELING THE GUN VOTE: Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver produced a very interesting logistic regression model that seeks to explain with five variables each United States senator's voted on the background check amendment proposed that failed to muster 60 votes. The five variables are: gun-ownership rates in the senator's state; whether or not the senator caucuses with the Democrats; the senator's voting record on a liberal-conservative scale, based on the the DW-Nominate system; the share of the vote that Obama received in the senator's state in 2012; and a variable indicating whether the senator is running for re-election in 2014.
PAYDAY LENDING: After what the Texas Tribune called a "raucous" debate, Republican Senator John Carona pulled his payday lending bill from the Senate floor on Thursday. During the debate, which became at times heated and personal, Republican Senator Troy Fraser and Democrat Senator John Whitmire, criticized Carona and suggested that senators needed more time to consider six proposed changes to SB 1247 that would have strengthened consumer protections.
An Austin lawyer is asking the courts to removed Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg from office, saying her arrest last weekend on a drunken driving charge undermined her abilities as a prosecutor.
"As a prosecutor with other 35 years of experience prosecuting drunk drivers, Lehmberg was well aware of the extreme danger of getting behind the wheel of a car intoxicated and driving it at night on a public road," Kerry O'Brien said in his petition to the district courts of Travis County.
"Lehmberg violated the public trust, demeaned her office and created a substantial risk of injury to others."
The petition from O'Brien, an employment attorney who owns his own law firm, was filed with the courts on Tuesday and cites Lehmberg's own letter to the courts saying that she planned to plead guilty.
O'Brien specifically asks the court to temporarily remove Lehmberg while a case is prepared to have her permanently stripped of her office.
In Travis County, however, the District Attorney's office doesn't prosecute most DWI offenses, misdemeanors handled instead by the County Attorney's office.
Below the jump, watch Harold Cook explain that and other problems with Lehmberg leaving office.
As the acrimonious race for Travis County District Attorney heads to the finish line, the campaigns of incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and challenger Charlie Baird seem determined to illustrate whether or not each candidate possesses the discretion and temperament required for the job as our county's top prosecutor. With the start of early voting last week, Baird's campaign has gone extremely negative with a series of live phone calls that verge on a push poll -- according to the Austin Chronicle, three separate voters reported receiving calls asking what they would think if they knew Lehmberg had taken money from people in return for not prosecuting them, i.e. did she take bribes. Baird claims it wasn't a push poll and that the callers are remembering it incorrectly.
Lehmberg's campaign has pushed back against Baird's accusations in an ad in this week's Chronicle that states, "Charlie Baird has sent out 2 dishonest pieces of mail... Baird has no factual basis for any of the charges he has made. A District Attorney has to make decisions based on real facts, not what serves his political interest. Charlie Baird is rapidly proving he is judgmentally unfit to be District Attorney." Lehmberg's response points to an issue that has long simmered in the DA's race: whether Baird has the temperament and discretion to handle the role of Travis County's top prosecutor.
The role of district attorney is a challenging balance between making sure that county prosecutors have enough to convict violent offenders while also looking for ways to rehabilitate people and prevent recidivism (and hopefully not clogging up our criminal justice system and jails with minor drug offenders). Baird has largely been running on the need to make justice work for "everyone," tied to his reputation as a staunch advocate for defendants' rights.
However, Baird's own record on the 299th District Court, one of Travis County's felony courts, suggests that this advocacy manifested itself into an alarming tendency to put serious, violent offenders back out on the streets via personal bonds.
Before we get into why this matters, some explanation is in order. Defense attorneys can seek a personal bond, or PR (personal recognizance) bond, which gets the defendant out of jail until their trial without paying their bail. Before a judge grants a PR bond, the Pretrial Review Services review department looks at the defendant's past criminal record and recommends whether the judge should grant the PR bond or not. Factors include past criminal history -- a defendant with no prior arrests, no violent offenses, or small drug charges is likely to be recommended for a PR bond. However, a person with a history of arrests or violent crimes is likely to be recommended against.
In his four years on the 299th District Court, Baird led our district courts -- felony and misdemeanor courts alike -- in his granting of PR bonds against the wishes of pre-trail services, by an overwhelming margin. His record amongst felony judges is even more alarming. Several of the people Baird released would go on to commit additional crimes that could have potentially been prevented with a more judicious use of PR bonds by Baird.
PR Bonds approved by Travis County's state District Court felony benches after initial "no" recommendation by Pretrial Services, FY 2009
Melissa Goodwin / Jim Coronado:
District Court Magistrate:
A study by the Austin American-Statesman of fiscal year 2009 demonstrates the discrepancy between Baird and the rest of our felony benches here in Travis County. The chart reproduced at right accompanied a lengthy article about Baird's use of PR bonds.
There are plenty of folks who would argue that this was the right decision by Baird, that too many people are in jail, it costs us money, etc. But remember that this is a felony bench where judges heard cases involving murder, rape, kidnapping, aggravated assault, arson, fraud, grand larceny, and other serious offenses. This isn't Baird putting a bunch of dope smokers or frat boys accused of public intoxication back out on the streets. This is Baird deciding that people who plead guilty to armed bank robbery are perfectly safe to be walking our streets.
A search through the archives of the Austin American-Statesman brings up dozens of cases in which Baird actively chose to personal bond violent felons, many of whom went on to commit further crimes while back on the streets thanks to Baird. He gave other serious criminals -- people charged with sexual assault of a child, armed robbery and homicide -- the lightest sentence allowable by law.
Learn more about several specific cases below the jump.
Believe it or not, an end is in sight for the primary season that has been dragging on since last June, when candidates started filing, soliciting support, friending you on Facebook, etc. Our primary candidates got a lot more than they bargained for in the three-month election delay caused by Greg Abbott and the Republicans in the legislature due to their redistricting over-reach. Thanks to all of them for hanging in there and gamely campaigning on, and a special shout-out to the families, co-workers, and friends of the candidates themselves (and their doting staffers) who have put up with this much more than any of them might have imagined!
In any case, Early Voting is going on this week and ends Friday. My colleague Karl-Thomas prepared this handy GoogleMap of early voting locations in Travis County, so find one near you and get to it.
Here's a quick round-up of all of the endorsements meted out this year. Information was culled from candidates' websites and organizations' websites and Facebook pages. Some are incomplete due to the organizations' lack of websites, Facebook pages, or external communication. Fill in the blanks in the comments and I will happily update.
What do these abbreviations mean? DNE: Did not endorse. Some clubs don't endorse in races that aren't in their geographic purview (Circle C, WAD, etc.)
n/a: No endorsement, usually because a candidate failed to meet a threshold within a group for endorsement.
Blank spaces: I can't find a full list an organization's endorsement, or cannot get confirmation that a specific race was not considered OR no candidate met the endorsement requirements.