D.A.'s Race Heats Up With Lawsuit

Reed files suit requesting TCDP reject Cobb's candidacy

Gary Cobb (l) and Rick Reed (Source: Gary Cobb's Facebook page / Source: Rick Reed's LinkedIn profile)

Democratic Travis County District Attor­ney candidate Rick Reed has filed a lawsuit in Texas' 3rd District Court of Appeals requesting that Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Hard­ing reject competitor Gary Cobb's application for candidacy on the grounds that it violates Texas' Election Code. The suit, filed Tuesday, alleges that Harding failed to "properly review Cobb's application to determine whether it complies with requirements." A win for Reed would leave the onetime assistant district attorney campaigning against only former County Attor­ney Margaret Moore in the March 1 primary. Reed said he hopes to get a decision from the CCA before the end of the week.

The suit stems from a complaint Reed filed with the TCDP on Dec. 16. arguing that Cobb's candidate application should be voided and thrown out because Cobb had violated a number of codes on the 58-page petition of signatures accompanying his paperwork. (Prospective candidates may either submit a $1,250 filing fee or a petition with the signatures of at least 500 registered voters.) One part didn't mention the office's title; eight parts didn't include the party name; 44 signatures didn't include their dates of signing. Most important to Reed, however, was that Cobb neglected to have the two individuals who circulated the petition include certified affidavits on each page of the petition.

Five days later, Cobb said through his attorney Buck Wood that the absence of any affidavits wasn't the result of ignorance, but rather a different interpretation of the law: Pages can conjoin into one part if there's indication that's what's happening. Cobb also delivered five more pages of signatures to ensure that he had the 500 necessary if the 44 signatures without dates were invalidated. That afternoon, Harding told Reed that he would not remove Cobb's name from the ballot, offering no opinion on his decision. (Harding had already been informed of eventual lawsuits). He attached the five pages of additional signatures to the memo, as per Reed's request.

Reed's camp spent the holiday week running a "complete audit" on Cobb's petition, and on Sunday, Jan. 3, leaked a press statement giving Harding until noon on Monday, Jan. 4, to pull Cobb from the race, lest they "be compelled to pursue other legal actions." The cause for Reed's double-down, according to campaign representative Hal Hens­ley, is that they'd noticed a significant number of issues with Cobb's signatures that they hadn't seen the first time. Six more lacked dates of signing; 44 weren't registered to vote in Travis County; 43 had addresses "inconsistent with information found in voter records." All told, said Reed, Cobb had only accrued 485 valid signatures.

Reed also contends that Cobb's petition deals with the presence of signatures from members of the Travis County Democratic Party staff (save for Chairman Harding and Communications Manager Joe Deshotel), as well as Harding's wife. Particularly, TCDP Executive Director JD Gins' name appears three times on the petition. Reed argues that the inclusion of TCDP names represents a conflict of interest for the party.

"Given that [the Democratic Party] performs an administrative role in the administration of their specific primary, it seems to us that those people in those administrative roles should maintain clean hands," Hensley told the Chronicle on Monday. "They shouldn't be involved, or take sides, in any campaign, because it presents a conflict of interest, we think."

TCDP says there's no foul play at hand, and that it's not unethical for anyone to sign a petition just to put someone's name on the ballot. "It's not an endorsement," said Deshotel. "The rule is that you can only sign one petition per race [signing two or more renders your signature invalid], but that's just stating that you're in favor of allowing that person to be put on the ballot. It's not an indication that you're supporting, or would vote for them."

A representative for Cobb was a bit more blunt in her return. "Rick Reed likes to live in a fantasy land where his only chance of winning is to get Gary off the ballot," said campaign manager Katie Naranjo. "That's why he's making such extreme allegations."

Asked to respond, Reed justified his decision to pursue this move by considering it a requirement of the job. "I am running against him, but he and I, and Ms. Moore, are running to be the chief law enforcement officer of Travis County," he said. "My attitude is that anyone who is running for that office ought to be held to the standards that the law requires. My research persuades me that Gary was aware that his petition was deficient when he filed it."

This week's standoff doesn't represent the only development in the race. Cobb also announced that he had settled a longstanding debt to his ex-wife, Gigi Bryant. The two divorced in 1994; debts for attorneys' fees and court costs paid by Bryant at the time had grown from $22,000 to $163,000. Bryant's attorney Michael Grimes told the Statesman Monday that the two settled for $60,000.

Asked by the Chronicle if the debt was settled only to get the story out of the press, as Grimes insinuated Monday, Naranjo said that Bryant stalled on previous attempts at a settlement, rejected Cobb's previous offers, and only chose to act when it appeared he'd run for district attorney uncontested. (Reed wasn't publicly vying for the office until learning of Cobb's longstanding debts in late November. Moore held off until Dec. 7.)

To that point, Grimes told the Chronicle that Cobb never made any legitimate attempts to settle before beginning his 2015 campaign for district attorney, and lowballed his ex-wife with an offer over the summer that included her signing a nondisclosure agreement to keep news of his debts in private.

"Twenty-one years," Grimes said of the back-and-forth. "We renewed the judgment twice. There were motions for contempt, because he refused to answer some discovery requests. There was a contempt finding. All of that is in the records."

Election Day for the party primaries is March 1; see more info at austinchronicle.com/elections.

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Gary Cobb, Rick Reed, 2016 Democratic primary, Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding, Buck Wood, Hal Hensley, Katie Naranjo, Michael Grimes, Gigi Bryant

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