Finding a New D.A.
Three D.A. candidates duke it out for a shot at the Dem primary
Travis County has seen two district attorneys since 1977. From that year through 2008, the post was held by Ronnie Earle, an icon of the city who made the D.A.'s Office one of the more respected in the nation. His successor, former First Assistant Rosemary Lehmberg, has faced more troubles through her eight years. After winning a second term in office in 2012, Lehmberg was arrested for a DWI in April 2013 and sentenced to 45 days in jail. That same year, the state defunded the Public Integrity Unit, which Lehmberg headed, and she fought off an effort from Travis County Attorney David Escamilla to remove her from office. She won an indictment of manslaughter charges against former APD Detective Charles Kleinert in the death of Larry Jackson Jr., and garnered headlines for her 2014 indictment of former Gov. Rick Perry, but ultimately couldn't escape her controversies. She'll be known for her disheveled mug shot as well as any contribution that she made.
Two of the three candidates chasing the Democratic nomination to succeed Lehmberg ran against her in 2008, and boy, have things been dirty. Gary Cobb, the only name in the race through November, comes from Lehmberg's office after also having served as attorney for both Austin and Travis County. He brings 25 years of cumulative experience at the D.A.'s Office, returning as an assistant D.A. in 2008 after endorsing Lehmberg in the primary run-off following his exit. Rick Reed, a longtime assistant D.A. in Dallas who relocated to Earle's office in 1998, left his job in 2008 to run in the election. He opened a private criminal practice after losing alongside Cobb in the first round of the primary. Since November, he's been Cobb's most vocal challenger. Like third candidate Margaret Moore, he entered the race after the Statesman broke news that Cobb had spent 21 years skirting payment on a six-figure court-ordered debt to his ex-wife, Gigi Edwards Bryant.
On Dec. 16, Reed filed a complaint with the Travis County Democratic Party to remove Cobb's name from the ballot, alleging that the signatures he'd collected for the petition to accompany his candidate application weren't properly prepared and notarized. The TCDP said "naw," and Reed holed up for the holiday. On Monday, Jan. 4, he filed a lawsuit in the 3rd Court of Appeals alleging that the TCDP had screwed up its decision. Those claims were rejected; the Court of Appeals told Reed he had filed in the wrong court altogether. That same day, the TCDP filed a motion for temporary injunction in Judge Stephen Yelenosky's 345th Civil District Court to try to put the case to bed. At issue are 44 signatures on Cobb's petition that Reed insists were signed by individuals not registered to vote in Travis County.
A final hearing is set for February, but Yelenosky ruled against the injunction request on Jan. 15, four days after ballots locked for the March 1 primary. Though it appears unlikely to happen, a ruling in favor of Reed here would mean that votes in Cobb's name would get thrown out and disregarded upon their tallying, meaning Travis County Democrats could nominate a candidate who can't actually campaign in the general election. Lone GOP candidate Maura Phelan would run without a major party challenger.
Last Thursday, Cobb told the Chronicle that he doesn't believe that his personal life should factor into the race "unless it holds some relevance to my responsibility to my job" – a qualifier that holds a bit more weight in certain local attorney circles. Depositions from Cobb's lengthy divorce proceedings, including a videotaped deposition delivered in early August, reveal a man who at the least has been god-awful with regard to record-keeping (Cobb, to wit, in the August tape: "My record-keeping sucks."), and at most, as Reed also claims, lied under oath about his finances.
Cobb has no firm understanding of where any of his money was distributed at any point over the past 20 years, and could not remember the addresses and name spellings of certain relatives he says he has mailed cash to since April 2014. Cobb also failed to produce any type of paperwork that could verify he did in fact sell a property in Mississippi to his brother, and appeared irresolute throughout the questioning. Asked why he was so uncertain during questioning of how he spent his money since 2014, Cobb told the Chronicle: "They're trying to get me to remember stuff that I was not keeping records of. There's no reason to do that. A lot of this stuff happened 20 years ago, and it wasn't relevant to me."
Cobb refuted any allegations that he's fabricated facts under oath and accused Reed of only digging up this dirt because he can't beat Cobb another way. "That's the only way that he can possibly win a race," Cobb said. "But he will not win a race by doing that."
Different Views of the Current D.A.
Needless to say, these weren't the talking points Cobb was planning to discuss when he was the lone candidate and presumed runaway victor as recently as November.
Inside the courtroom, Cobb has earned a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor of violent crime, who at the same time has led a noble campaign to provide diversion options to nonviolent offenders. He's been knocked in the past for ignoring potential evidence in favor of chasing a conviction – most notably during his mid-Nineties prosecution of 11-year-old Lacresha Murray for the murder of a 2-year-old girl.
His most prominent victories over the last five years include the 2010 conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for money laundering; his capital murder conviction (and subsequent securing of a death sentence) of Brandon Daniel, who shot and killed APD Officer Jaime Padron in 2012; and the April 2015 sentencing of George De La Cruz, found guilty for the 2012 disappearance of his wife.
Cobb was complimentary of Lehmberg and the work she's done during her eight years in office, telling the Chronicle that he plans to retain the diversion programs that Lehmberg helped establish. But he admitted that his boss has still sent too many nonviolent offenders to jail, and also stressed a revamp of the way prosecutors decide on potential jury trials. "They've dropped over the years, which is indicative of doing too many plea bargains for violent offenders," he said.
Cobb also said that he plans to create a specialized sexual assault unit with two prosecutors to handle cases, noting the difficulty of those cases and the expertise necessary to do it effectively. He pointed to Lehmberg's shortcomings interfacing with the community as another area of improvement. "In this day and age there's so much distrust about how prosecutors handle cases. You have to be very open about how you're doing your job."
"A Detail-Oriented Goober"
Reed, who initially filed to remove Lehmberg from office in June 2013 before Escamilla's efforts superseded, was predictably critical of the current administration, mentioning only her implementation of the aforementioned pre-trial diversion program when asked for signs of progress. "From what I've observed from the outside looking in, that ship has been without a captain for a long time," he said. "It just seems to be sailing on its own. There doesn't seem to be any strong leadership from the top impressing upon the prosecutors what their primary duty is: to see that justice is done."
No surprise, he's planning to draft a "strict written code of conduct that would apply to all employees, from the D.A. on down."
His primary indictment against Lehmberg's administration is rooted in the office's intake and grand jury division – coincidentally (or maybe conveniently) led by Gary Cobb. Speaking last Wednesday, the still-fresh criminal defense attorney unspooled a lengthy story about an indigent client with a history of felony convictions who spent nearly 12 months in jail on assault charges for events he said never happened. The man, Michael Kerr, was arrested Jan. 29, 2015, after an ex-girlfriend called the Travis County Sheriff's Office to say Kerr had strangled her twice within an hour. An affidavit issued by the TCSO describes a violent scene, but Reed says responding paramedics and further investigations into the case revealed conflicting arguments. Earlier this month, two business days before Kerr's case was set for trial, a prosecutor offered to reduce his offense to a misdemeanor if he'd plead guilty to the charges. Kerr declined the offer, saying he'd go to trial. The D.A.'s office came back with a dismissal of the case altogether. He was released on Jan. 7.
"There are symptoms that law enforcement and the prosecutors who prosecute these cases have been trained to look for, and they didn't find any of this stuff," said Reed. "But they arrested this guy, and he's still in jail today, even though ... when they offered him an opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, he refused that.
"These are Michael Mortons. They didn't serve 25 years, but they served a lot of time. It could be put to a stop if the D.A. required that police agencies do an adequate investigation before they bring those cases over here and required that prosecutors screened them carefully. There's a lot of junk that gets indicted. ... I doubt that [Cobb] spends much time at all actually supervising what goes on in that division."
Elsewhere, Reed said he'd like to see further development within the pre-trial diversion program, and a revamp of the family justice division. He's long held that the death penalty be eradicated. After eight years in criminal justice, he said he's a changed man with respect to his perspective of criminal justice. "It's been an eye-opener."
Still, he's been dogged through his campaign as a candidate who only ran because he thinks the front-runner is unelectable. Upon filing, he told the Statesman that he wouldn't have run had he not caught wind of Cobb's outstanding debt. "Until I saw that ... I did not think it was realistic [to challenge Cobb]. I don't have the establishment connections that someone like Margaret Moore has, or certainly who Gary Cobb has. Although it was something that I thought about, and I really wanted to [run] because I saw so many problems, I didn't think it was realistic until I read that."
Critics have discounted his candidacy, casting him as "a detail-oriented goober" who lacks the necessary creativity and leadership skills to head the office. Says Cobb: "I don't believe he knows how the court system works, given that he filed his motion to kick me out in the wrong court."
The Third Option
Lying in the grass is Moore, a former assistant district attorney under Earle who's also held post as a county attorney (1981-1985) and did two stints as an interim Precinct 3 County Commissioner before spending her final working years – she retired in 2014 – as an assistant attorney general. Moore inherited her interest in the law from her father, Tom Moore Jr., who has practiced in Waco since the Forties, and was McLennan County district attorney from 1952 to 1958. He also served in the Legislature from 1967 to 1973, and was one of the legendary "Dirty Thirty" representatives who fought corruption in the House leadership, but also enjoyed the process. Moore recounts her father's April Fools' prank of introducing a resolution honoring Albert DeSalvo for his work in "population control and applied psychology" – it passed unanimously before Moore withdrew it, informing his inattentive colleagues that they had just honored the Boston Strangler.
Some of that impish spirit is reflected in Moore's conversation – as it is in her regular Thursday night gig at the Carousel Lounge playing guitar with her band, Mother Rukkus. But it's also clear that she takes very seriously the role of district attorney. She says she had been a supporter of Cobb until news of his post-marital legal problems hit, followed by the clumsiness of his handling of the petition signatures. "When those facts emerged, I realized his views and mine [of a lawyer's ethical responsibilities] were just too widely divergent." She said people started asking her to consider running as early as November. "I spent three weeks in a state of agonizing over it," Moore told the Chronicle last week. "I finally decided I couldn't stand to see that office go through more turmoil."
"My background is perfectly suited to run this office," Moore explains, citing not only her previous prosecutorial work but her service in the Medicaid Fraud division of the Attorney General's Office, where she not only pursued litigation but administered the division and its budget. "I see [in the D.A.'s Office] a need of new leadership, with a strong reputation in the community for integrity." Referring obliquely not only to Cobb's current troubles, but to Lehmberg's DWI case and fallout over the PIU, Moore said the D.A.'s Office is badly in need of "a renewed vision."
Moore's supporters echo her sense that she's the right person to end the controversy swirling around the office. Longtime friend Mike Sheffield, former head of the Austin Police Association who currently works in community outreach for the Austin Police Department, describes Moore as "ethical, just 'good people,'" and says he and his wife Elizabeth are supporting her candidacy. Sheffield adds, "She's also well-liked within the Democratic Party," important for this primary race. Former Mayor Bruce Todd calls Moore an "outstanding, well-qualified candidate," and that every response he's received from people he's called on her behalf has been positive. "The values she brings to the offices where she's worked in the past speak for themselves," Todd said.
Police Monitor and former Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier was another potential candidate for D.A. She says she was flattered by the interest people expressed, but "it's just not something I wanted to do." She has a long professional knowledge of Moore's work – they first met when Moore was an assistant D.A. and Frasier was a young lieutenant. "I was very impressed by her there," and later when, as county attorney, Moore insisted that the Commissioners Court address serious problems with the jail system. As for the D.A.'s Office, Frasier said: "There needs to be a real sea change over there."
Moore herself says that after a year of retirement she's ready to take on the challenge of the D.A.'s Office. She talks of rebuilding community trust, reinvigorating pre-trial diversion programs that have been languishing for lack of emphasis, and pursuing environmental prosecutions. She even suggests, based on her success in the Attorney General's Office, that she has the best shot of convincing the Legislature to restore funding of the Public Integrity Unit. The Medicaid Fraud division was so financially successful that in 2007 the Legislature tripled its budget, she said, and the politicization of the office under Greg Abbott did not filter down there. "They knew enough to leave us alone."
She argues that she's the candidate most experienced and best positioned to restore credibility to the District Attorney's Office, among both the community and local and state officials. "I have a passion for that office," Moore concludes. "I think I'm the perfect person to bring to that office what it needs right now."
Early voting for the March 1 party primaries runs Feb. 15-26.