January 21, 2008
Replacing Ronnie Earle

This Texas Observer story on the four candidates vying to replace retiring Travis County DA Ronnie Earle (all Democrats; no Republicans filed) is a must-read, especially if you live in Austin. Two points to highlight:

Candidate Rick Reed, an assistant district attorney, styles himself as the one in the race who will truly go after political corruption. He draws inspiration from his father, Dick Reed, a two-term state rep from Dallas who was a member of the famed "Dirty 30" reform group of the early 1970s. Rick Reed, 52, joined the Travis County DA's office nine years ago after an unsuccessful run for DA of Dallas County. Earle transferred him to the integrity unit in late 2003 to investigate allegations of campaign finance violations against DeLay and assorted political action committees. Reed is credited with building much of the case against DeLay.

In an interview, Reed publicly revealed bitter dissention that seized Earle's office before the DeLay indictment. He says his colleagues, including [candidate Rosemary] Lehmberg, wilted at the prospect of seeking an indictment against one of the nation's most powerful politicians. "Everyone felt the pressure. Different people reacted differently to it," Reed said. "I was the only person pushing to present the case to the grand jury."


Reed said Lehmberg opposed seeking an indictment, as did several of the other prosecutors. He said he believes Lehmberg wouldn't have indicted DeLay had she been DA at the time. Reed said he convinced Earle through a series of conversations and memos, besting the three other veteran prosecutors.

Asked about her position on the DeLay indictment, Lehmberg said, "My job as Ronnie Earle's first assistant is to make sure that all sides of every issue are fully considered. It has been my role to participate with Ronnie at the highest level of decision-making. Rick was an important part of the team. He is really good at the legal work. He wrote outstanding briefs. He is passionate about public corruption cases, for sure. But there really was a big difference between Rick's role and mine. My role was to talk with Ronnie about all the pros and cons of the case." She added that she helped present the case to the grand jury.

Earle refused to comment about internal office discussions, but said that Reed's account was "not an accurate description."

It's interesting, because my view of this all along has been that the case against DeLay would be harder to make than the cases against Colyandro and Ellis. That's always been under the assumption that the never-mentioned Warren RoBold was not somewhere in a safe house, set to turn state's evidence against DeLay, in which case all bets are off. Reed claims the evidence was the same for all of them, and more or less calls his colleagues wimps for not being as gung-ho as he was. Let's just say that while I admire his enthusiasm here, it's the sort of thing that cuts both ways, and would not be an unalloyed asset in a DA.

At the other end of the spectrum:

Among the four candidates, none is as close to the Legislature as Mindy Montford. She served as general counsel for state Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat, from 1997 to 1999. Her father, John Montford, is a former state senator who's now head lobbyist for AT&T Inc.

Mindy Montford, 37, worked in the Travis County DA's office for the past eight years, two of them in the Public Integrity Unit on the DeLay case. Though she helped investigate DeLay, Montford wasn't directly involved in the decision to seek an indictment. She asked for a transfer to the child abuse division in summer 2005.

"The reason [the integrity unit] is so important is because if we didn't have it, some of our public officials would be running rampant. Ultimately if you don't have faith in your leaders, you don't have faith in your government, and that really undermines democracy as a whole," Montford said. "Having said that, the average person on the street wants to feel safe and wants to know if there's a sex offender living next to them. You've got to have a balance."

Montford would like to build a closer relationship with state politicians than Earle has had. "We've got to educate the Legislature and the lobby that, 'Look you've got nothing to be afraid of if you're following the law.' We're not on a witch hunt here," she said. "I think you have to be visible and have constant meetings with people who could be before you as a witness or a suspect, and let them know how the unit operates. Then they will trust what you do, and they won't care what political party you are. It's going to the Capitol and meeting. You've got to be able to be welcomed down there. It obviously wouldn't be possible to meet with every elected official, but it wouldn't be bad to have a forum where we explain to them how the process works and ask them what improvements they want to see."

All due respect, but I see the lack of closeness between the DA and the politicians in Austin as a feature, not a bug. I think the Travis DA - heck, all DAs in this state - should be respectful and professional towards all officeholders, but should maintain some distance between them. I appreciate what Ms. Montford is saying here, but I think it's the wrong approach.

Anyway, like I said, good article. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 21, 2008 to Election 2008

"I think the Travis DA - heck, all DAs in this state - should be respectful and professional towards all officeholders, but should maintain some distance between them."

There is no better example of why than Chuck Rosenthal. There seems to be a question as to whether the Public Integrity Unit's authority extends to district attorneys. What a shame if it doesn't. I cannot think of a better legacy for Ronnie Earle than prosecuting the most corrupt district attorney in the country.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on January 21, 2008 10:36 AM

The Travis County DA's Public Integrity Unit is crucial to preventing corruption in Texas. Mindy Montford lacks the backbone or experience to stop the Lege from moving the Public Integrity Office to the AG's office and Republican control. Her lobby and special interest backers are hoping that with $250,000 in TV ads they can elect her and create a stealth coup. Real Democrats need to watch this race very carefully.

Posted by: Fred on January 21, 2008 6:02 PM
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