District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has pleaded guilty to drunken driving, was sentenced to 45 days in jail and immediately taken into custody.
Lehmberg’s blood alcohol level registered at 0.23 when she was arrested April 13, her attorney David Sheppard said.
Sheppard said the the punishment is “without a doubt” the “harshest” sentence for a first-time drunken driving charge in the history of Travis County.
Lehmberg’s driver’s license was also suspended for 180 days.
I didn’t think she’d see the inside of a cell. I was wrong about that, but not because jail time is the norm in these cases. I’ve heard some chatter that she preferred the jail option to probation on the grounds that after the 45 days are up (*) she’s done, she isn’t tethered to a probation officer for a year or two, which can be quite onerous. It’s not long ago that choosing jail over probation was commonly done in Harris County. I don’t know what I’d have done in her shoes, but I can see the appeal of this.
With that aspect of the case now over, the focus is on the political fallout.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said she won’t resign despite pleading guilty to drunken driving and being sentenced to 45 days in prison, though the drumbeat for her to do so is getting louder.
It’s a decision that may have its roots in party politics.
That’s because the DA in left-leaning Travis County oversees the state-funded public integrity unit, which investigates allegations of malfeasance against elected officials, and has been a thorn in the side of GOP lawmakers.
If Lehmberg resigns, as the Austin American-Statesman has editorialized that she should — or if she’s forced out by a lawsuit under a rarely used tenet of state law that authorizes the removal of county officials over drunkenness — Gov. Rick Perry would get to appoint a replacement to finish out her term, which isn’t set to expire until 2016. That would almost certainly put a Republican (or a conservative Democrat Perry believed could hold the seat in future elections) in the highly politicized post.
Josh Havens, a Perry spokesman, said that whenever there is a DA vacancy, the governor appoints the replacement, “just like what happened in Kaufman County” this month after the murder of that jurisdiction’s chief prosecutor and his wife.
The Travis County DA holds the lead responsibility for enforcing the state’s government and election code. It was created under the leadership of Ronnie Earle, the Democrat who served as Travis County DA for three decades until his retirement in 2008. Earle captured national attention with his investigations into former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and became the poster child for what Republicans view as the unit’s politically motivated prosecutions.
Dismantling the unit is a perennial platform plank of the Texas Republican Party, and numerous members of the GOP, including DeLay and Hutchison, have criticized what they view as its politically motivated prosecutions.
Lehmberg has continued to maintain that she will not resign. I don’t know if that petition that’s been filed can force her to resign or if only political pressure can do it. If it’s the latter then I doubt she will step down, even if the threat of Rick Perry messing with the Public Integrity Unit is temporary and overblown. But you never know – political scandals often unfold in unexpected ways. The thing about DUI is that while it’s a serious offense, it’s not necessarily an indicator of an underlying character issue, at least for a first time offender. Unlike scandals involving money or sex, you can fairly credibly claim it was a mistake. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences – certainly, Rosemary Lehmberg is facing consequences for this – but it might mitigate the extent of them. Who knows? If this is still being talked about in a week or two, then maybe the pressure builds up enough to knock her over. If not, then I think she survives. Ask me again in two weeks. BOR has more.
(*) – In Harris County, at least, non-violent inmates can get time shaved off their sentences for doing things like enrolling in educational or work programs. I rather doubt that would apply to Lehmberg even if the Travis County jail offers a similar option. Point being, Lehmberg might wind up serving fewer than 45 days. I could well be wrong about that, I’m just saying it does happen in some cases.