December 27, 2007
Why, Chuck, you sly devil

For those of you who enjoy a good politics-and-sex story (and you know who you are), it would seem that Santa was very good to you, if a tad bit late.

A federal judge this morning resealed dozens of e-mails from the Harris County District Attorney's Office that reveal personal communications, including a close personal relationship between District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal and his secretary.

In an emergency hearing, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt said he had meant only to make public Rosenthal's request that the e-mails to be kept confidential -- not disclose the actual e-mails, which were attachments to the document.

David Tang, an attorney for the plaintiffs on the underlying lawsuit, disagreed with the judge's ruling.

"The public should have access to see what's being done by their public officials," Tang said.

Rosenthal's attorney, Ronald Lewis, declined to comment after the hearing.

The e-mails, sent from Rosenthal's county e-mail address, highlight some of the inner workings of the DA's office, exposing details about past lawsuits and criminal cases.

And they include personal, affectionate notes to Kerry Stevens, Rosenthal's executive secretary with whom he said he had an affair in the 1980s.

"The very next time I see you, I want to kiss you behind your right ear," Rosenthal writes to Stevens in a note dated Aug. 10, 2007.

The e-mails are exhibits in a civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Office, alleging misconduct by sheriff's deputies in 2001. Rosenthal was deposed in the case, which alleges sheriff's deputies violated the civil rights of two brothers who filmed police executing a search warrant on a neighbor's house.


During discovery for the case, [plaintiff's attorney Lloyd] Kelley asked for all of the e-mails sent or received by Rosenthal, his first assistant Bert Graham and his general counsel, Scott Durfee from July to Oct. 15.

In court documents protesting the release of the e-mails, attorneys for Rosenthal argue they "relate to private expressions of affection between Rosenthal and Stevens."

While the 51 e-mails between the two contain the phrase "I love you" more than a dozen times, and Rosenthal asks Stevens to let him hold her, the messages are not explicit.

Rosenthal said Wednesday he is not having an affair with Stevens, but that he had an affair with her in the 1980s when he was married to his first wife. He said the affair did not end that marriage, but he did later divorce.

Rosenthal later remarried and said he told his current wife about the affair before hiring Stevens as his executive assistant when he took office in 2000.


Kelley took issue with Stevens' salary and the fact that she drives a county pool car, which is an extra car that belongs to the department pool. County records show that she makes $75,000 a year.

Rosenthal justified the expense by saying Stevens occupies a high position of trust in his administration.

He also said Stevens took responsibility for the car -- a suggestion from one of his administrators -- so it would receive regular maintenance.

Kelley also took Rosenthal to task for preferential treatment for Stevens.

Included in the e-mails is an exchange in which Stevens asks for a day off.

Rosenthal responds, "You do not have to ask. Just tell me what you plan to do. You have to know by now that I'm not going to tell you 'no' about anything you want."

"It is still proper for me to ask," she wrote back. "There may be a day that something could be going on that you would want me here."

Rosenthal writes, "I always want to see you. You own my heart whether you want or not."

Answering Kelley's charge of preferential treatment, Rosenthal said he didn't think he has ever denied an employee's earned time off.

Three things:

1. There's no way that Rosenthal's actions can be made to look good. His justifications for his actions towards Stevens may be plausible, but there's no getting past the impression of special treatment for his girlfriend. This is precisely why the whole bosses-dating-underlings thing is so dicey, and why so many workplaces have strictly-enforced rules about such matters.

2. This may well be a "political hit", as Rosenthal claims (Kelley finished last in a field of five for the GOP nomination for DA along with Rosenthal in 2000), but so what if it is? Rosenthal's judgment is still at issue here, and that's certainly a valid thing for voters to consider. The bottom line is that he could have chosen not to hire his girlfriend, or to not do things that would make people think hiring his girlfriend was a bad idea. Or, you know, to use personal email accounts for this kind of mushy stuff. It ain't Lloyd Kelley's fault Chuck Rosenthal is in this particular pickle.

3. It's not clear to me what the point of resealing the emails is. They're out there now, and nobody's going to forget what they said - we're sure to be reminded of them many times this year. As such, this seems to me this is a clear case of locking the barn after the horse has been stolen. Maybe - and this is just fact-free speculation on my part, so take with an appropriate amount of salt - there's stuff in there that the newsies and other nosey types haven't gotten to yet that he really wants to keep quiet. Or maybe he's just hoping this will play itself out as a story way before November, when other things will be on voters' minds. Who knows? I still don't see the point, but whatever.

That's all I've got for now, but you can bet that kissable spot behind your right ear that this isn't the last you'll hear of this. Grits and Cory have more.

UPDATE: Mark Bennett asks an important question.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 27, 2007 to Local politics