Travis County District Attorney

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 15, a Travis County grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry for abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Perry, the state’s longest-serving governor, entered into political fisticuffs with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg last summer when she refused to step down after her much-publicized arrest for drunk driving. Perry had made it clear that he would not allow state financial support to continue flowing to the Public Integrity Unit — which prosecutes political misconduct across the state and is overseen by Lehmberg — if she did not heed his calls for her resignation. In the face of her disobedience, Perry made good on his threat and vetoed $7.5 million of state funding for the PIU. At the time, the unit was investigating misconduct at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, but not by Perry himself, according to a Travis County prosecutor. Perry entered a plea of “not guilty” to both charges on Aug. 22. On Aug. 24, Democrat Mindy Montford, an Austin defense attorney, confirmed that Perry had offered her the job. Below, we have sought the opinions of key leaders of College Republicans on the matter. This is part of a Point/Counterpoint. To see the opposing viewpoint, click here

We have to admit, we are not law students. However, it doesn’t take much legal know-how to understand the recent charges against Gov. Rick Perry are nothing more than political theatrics caused by a scorned district attorney’s office. But as a history major, Amy recognizes that this DA’s office is notorious for unsuccessfully attacking major Republican politicians, from former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to former Congressman Tom DeLay. This is another desperate attempt for Democrats to maintain power in Travis County while taxpayers foot the bill. 

When Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — who’s ironically the head of the state’s Public Integrity Unit — was arrested for drunk driving, she completely tarnished her office. Not only was Lehmberg driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, she berated police officers, had to be restrained and was forced to wear a “spit shield” to stop her from spitting on the jail staff. Soon after this occurred, footage of Lehmberg’s erratic behavior during her booking was made public on YouTube. 

Anyone with an ounce of integrity would have apologetically stepped down from the office after an incident like this. Lehmberg selfishly continued to run the Public Integrity Unit even though she had previously endangered the lives of Texas residents and verbally abused policemen. Naturally, Perry asked Lehmberg to resign from her office. When she remained defiant, Perry said he’d defund her unit, which would result in the loss of her position. Again, Lehmberg defied Perry’s request and, unsurprisingly, he vetoed the spending bill to the Public Integrity Unit. 

The exchange between Perry and Lehmberg is a classic example of shrewd political bargaining. It is seen in all levels of government. If this qualifies as coercion, then it could be applied to almost any political power struggle. There is no need to create a legal precedent that allows common political squabbles to be criminally prosecuted. However, given the history of the Travis County DA’s office, we all know this is a purely political prosecution, most likely initiated out of a fear that Perry would appoint a Republican DA. Even liberals outside of Texas agree this is a shoddy indictment. From The New York Times to David Axelrod, there is national public criticism from the left.

Texas Democrats can claim Perry used bad judgment or that he should have sought another route to remove Lehmberg, but to pin him as a felon is childish. They don’t care if this lengthy case will be paid by taxpayers, or that our governor could spend the rest of his life in prison, as long as they control their blue dot in a deeply red state. 

Pursuing this case against Perry is more than just reckless with taxpayer money. It sets a terrible precedent of interfering with how officeholders carry out their duties. Perry fully explains the reasoning for his veto of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding, which has become the focus of the indictment. The governor states that “despite the otherwise good work [of] the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued State funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence. This unit is in no other way held accountable to state taxpayers, except through the State budgetary process. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.” Perry has simply used his constitutionally-mandated power of a veto to shape policy. He even replaced the old district attorney with another Democrat, demonstrating this wasn’t even about politics for Perry. If the governor can be charged for ensuring through legal means that the Public Integrity Unit has a leader with integrity, what is an appropriate use of constitutionally-mandated powers? No politician — Republican or Democrat — benefits from an environment where a use of legal power becomes illegal simply because it makes the other side unhappy. 

Laws concerning coercion and abuse of power by public officials were never meant to stop actions sanctioned by one’s office. They were meant to combat outright violations of an officeholder’s duties like bribery and embezzlement. These laws should never be weaponized to fight in political disputes. Let debates and elections decide the merits of legal acts by our public servants. A fear of indictment and even punishment for performing legal actions only hinders officeholders from carrying out the duties of their office.

The indictment of Perry is reckless for many reasons. The governor never should have been prosecuted for using powers sanctioned by his office to remove an official who had so obviously failed in her duties. The case against Perry is largely frivolous and sets a dangerous precedent of using courts as a battleground for political disputes.     

Nabozny is the president of College Republicans. She is a history junior from Farmington Hills, Michigan. Parker is the communications director of College Republicans. He is a Plan II and Business Honors sophomore from Plano.

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

Update (Aug. 16): Gov. Rick Perry addressed the grand jury's indictments at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol on Saturday, calling them a "farce."

“I intend to fight against those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes, and I intend to win,” Perry said. “We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this county.”

Perry said he would explore all legal avenues to bring the issue to a close quickly. Before turning the discussion to the border, Perry defended his decision to veto legislation providing $7.5 million in state funds to the Travis County District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit, which brought about Friday's indictment.

“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto and will continue to defend this lawful action of my executive authority as governor,” Perry said.

Original Story (Aug. 15): A Travis County grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on felony charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant Friday.

The charges against Perry carry punishments of 5-99 years and 2-10 years, respectively, each with fines of up to $10,000.

The charges are related to Perry’s attempts to force the resignation of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she was arrested for drunken driving in April 2013.

Perry vetoed legislation in June 2013 that would provide $7.5 million in state funds to the district attorney's public integrity unit. He had previously threatened to take such actions against her.

“I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” Perry said at the time.  

The Texas Democrats have called for Perry to step down, saying he “has brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas," in a statement on its website.

Perry, who has served as governor since 2000, decided not to seek reelection and will leave the position when his term ends in January.

At their meeting Thrusday, the UT System Board of Regents approved recommendations made by board Chairman Paul Foster that call for expanding public access to the System's website. 

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

Monday, the Travis County District Attorney’s office began writing what may be the last chapter in the saga of the battle between UT System Regent Wallace Hall and UT-Austin when they opened an investigation into potential criminal actions committed by Hall during the course of his massive open-records requests to the University. 

Now, Hall is not only facing impeachment but also possible criminal charges as the result of overstepping the boundaries of his role as a regent and viewing protected documents. 

We’d celebrate, but the office hasn’t yet determined whether they will pursue criminal charges against Hall. And, given the amount of time we’ve all already wasted speaking about Hall’s transgressions when we should have been discussing the serious challenges facing higher education, it’s hard to see even a potential resolution to this struggle as a positive. 

Hall’s actions, of course, are only one part of a large ideological battle that began in 2011 when the UT-System Board of Regents appeared to be moving toward a more efficiency-based model for the University. But, since last June, when the Texas House Select Committee on Transparency began investigating Hall after University administrators and legislators raised questions about Hall’s conduct in University affairs, the struggle has largely devolved into a personal battle among Hall and a few members of the legislature, namely, those on the committee investigating him. 

University officials claimed that Hall was micromanaging the UT-Austin campus by looking into specific student applications in an effort to uncover unfair student acceptance to the University. Hall also personally investigated UT Law School records after the dean gave himself a forgivable loan, to identify whether anyone else had been involved, specifically UT President William Powers Jr. Hall even began interfering with athletics by starting his own search for a football coach to replace Mack Brown when he contacted Alabama head coach Nick Saben in September. This was despite the fact that hiring a coach falls well with the responsibilities of the University president. 

Hall is most infamous, however, for his amateur investigative work. Hall’s look into UT’s various departments included an open-record request to the University amounting to more than 800,000 pages worth of documents. UT eventually denied the request, claiming it was too taxing to accomplish.

The investigation concluded in December and has cost the state more than $400,000 in attorney’s fee alone. That’s on top of the $1 million that Hall’s massive open records requests reportedly cost the University. 

Ultimately, the committee issued a report, made public last week, that stated there were grounds for Hall’s impeachment, as well as potential criminal action by Hall for violating student privacy laws. Though the report didn’t make a specific recommendation, on Monday, the committee sent a letter with the report to the Travis County District Attorney’s office. 

If that office gets involved, Hall might actually face  legal consequences for his actions. The committee plans to reconvene April 23-24, with the Travis County District Attorney present to help decide on further action.

Unsurprisingly, given his established willingness to waste everyone’s time, Hall has refused to resign from his position, even as the case against him intensifies. 

In the best-case scenario, the investigation could lead to real consequences and set a precedent for regent conduct going forward. Hopefully, part of that precedent is to behave as if you’re willing to fight for the students before you fight for yourself. 

Prosecutors from the Travis County District Attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against public affairs graduate student Gene Vela, who is being charged with aggravated assault against a public servant after he was allegedly involved in police stand-off Nov. 10.

Vela, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, was booked in the Travis County Jail on Nov. 11 at 3:26 a.m., the day after being shot in the torso by police. He was shot after alledgedly aiming a handgun equipped with a laser at two policemen through his apartment window in North Campus. Police were originally summoned to his apartment following a 911 call from a friend of Vela’s.

Adam Reposa, who represented Vela in court Tuesday, said the district attorney’s office may be pursuing a life sentence against Vela.

Steve Brand, prosecuting attorney for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, said that no plea offer had yet been made on the case.

“I can see the argument why he should spend life in prison, but there is currently no offer on the case,” Brand said.

Brand said more investigation into the incident is required before plea negotiations can begin.

“It would be premature to say there are currently plea negotiations,” Brand said.

Vela, who is in custody, is scheduled to appear in court next Friday. Brand said the district attorney’s office would not support reducing Vela’s bond — which is currently set at $100,000 — in order to more quickly release him from custody.

The court hearing for the man accused of injuring Kylie Doniak, communications senior and UT soccer player, was postponed for May 1 by Judge Clifford Brown on Wednesday.

The hearing was postponed in order to allow parties more time to review the case brought against Nicholas Colunga by the Travis County District Attorney, said Billy Pannel, the bailiff of the 147th District Court, which is overseen by Judge Brown. Pannell said the next set court date is May 1, although the hearing will not necessarily take place then — especially if the hearing is postponed once again.

Colunga allegedly collided with Doniak and two other pedestrians after running a red light at the intersection of Eighth Street and San Jacinto Boulevard February 3. He was taken into police custody that night after being pursued and apprehended by a witness and has remained in jail since then. Robert Mueller, Colunga’s attorney, represented him in court yesterday although Colunga did not appear. Mueller received permission from Judge Brown to postpone the hearing. Mueller could not be reached for comment.

Colunga is being accused of four separate offenses including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and failure to stop and render aid. He also had a previous count against him for parole violation, according to court documents.

Doniak is currently undergoing rehab at a hospital in California, according to an update posted by her sister on Doniak’s CaringBridge web page. Doniak has been recovering, although she still struggles with short term memory problems and recently had a feeding tube removed.

“Keep praying for us and Kylie because your prayers are evident every single day,” her sister, Alyssa Doniak, wrote on the blog. “We are continuously thanking God and all of our friends and family because it has only been 10 weeks (such a short amount of time in the big picture) and Kylie is already showing her personality.”

After three days of deliberations, a Travis County jury convicted former U.S. House Majority Tom DeLay of money laundering and conspiracy charges on Wednesday. The trial, which lasted for about a month, stemmed from DeLay's scheme to help fund a conservative Republican takeover of the Texas House in 2002, which was key to the controversial 2003 redrawing of Texas’ congressional districts. “By the time the trial ended, [the jurors] could see that it was more than just a lot of smoke, there was a lot of fire involved in this evidence," said Gary Cobb, the lead prosecutor on the case. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said the jury’s conviction on both counts of the indictment showed the strength of their case. The money laundering conviction is first degree felony that carries a sentence of 5 to 99 years in prison or probation. The conspiracy charge is a second degree felony and carries a potential sentence of 2-20 years in prison or probation. Lehmberg said her office has not considered a sentence recommendation for DeLay. Sentencing has been tentatively schedule for Dec. 20. Dick DeGuerin, Tom DeLay’s defense attorney, promised to appeal the conviction. “To say I’m shocked would be an understatement,” said DeGuerin. “This is a terrible miscarriage of justice. We will appeal.” Tom DeLay thanked God before attacking the verdict handed down by the six men and six women who served on the jury. “I’m not going to blame anybody, this is an abuse of power,” DeLay said. “I still maintain that I’m innocent and that the criminalization of politics undermines our very system. Maybe we can get it before people who understand the law.” On Tuesday, DeGuerin told reporters in the courtroom that if there were a conviction, he would consider appealing on constitutional grounds — arguing Texas’ ban on corporate campaign contributions is a violation of the First Amendment. Once one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, D.C., the former House majority leader's fall from power sprung directly from his efforts to finance and engineer the controversial 2003 redistricting of Texas’ congressional districts. DeLay’s Texas political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, sent $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions to an arm of the Republican National Committee in October 2002, along with a list of seven candidates to donate money to and how much money to send to each campaign. Just a few days later, the RNC sent a total of $190,000 from a separate bank account — money that could be contributed to campaigns in Texas — to the seven listed candidates. The Travis County District Attorney charged that the money swap was money laundering and indicted DeLay. His defense claimed it was standard practice in politics. “I don’t think there’s enough money in politics,” DeLay said. “Money is corruptible to the corruptible, it is up to the individual. There is nothing wrong with participating in the process and [raising money to help] candidates get elected. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”