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Taxpayer-funded dysfunctional DA’s (Part Two): Travis County’s Lehmberg still making headlines

As we continue the update on dysfunctional district attorneys and the damage they create, Rosemary Lehmberg comes up next. Where do you begin on this one?

Lehmberg was arrested on April 12 for drunk driving. Her Blood Alcohol Level was reportedly nearly three times the legal limit.

Shortly after her April arrest, Lehmberg entered a guilty plea to intoxication and an open container violation. She was then sentenced to 45 days in jail with her license suspended for 180 days. Credit for good behavior allowed Lehmberg’s release after serving half the time.

During the same timeframe, a petition was filed seeking the DA’s removal from office based on an obscure, rarely used Texas law allowing removal for intoxication “on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.” Calls for Lehmberg’s resignation came from other quarters as well. The Austin Police Association said she should step down as also did the Austin American-Statesman.

In June, Lehmberg entered into a political showdown with Gov. Rick Perry as the state’s top official made good on his threat of a line item veto of state funding for the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit (PIU) when Lehmberg refused to resign in the wake of controversy surrounding her drunk driving arrest.

Lehmberg faces the court action seeking to remove her from office through violating local government code by being intoxicated, but a July 22 jury trial on the intoxication action was postponed upon the appointment of former Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner to investigate a criminal complaint alleging Lehmberg committed felony obstruction by threatening jailers the night of her initial drunk driving arrest.

The complaint alleges Lehmberg may have abused her district attorney position following her arrest. Per KVUE.com, jailhouse recordings reflect the district attorney “dropping the names of both Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.

If Turner determines the facts and the law support prosecution, he says he’ll present the case to a Travis County grand jury. Lehmberg’s conviction of this charge would result in her immediate removal from office.

A grand jury has been seated to hear both Lehmberg’s case and a similar abuse of power complaint filed against Perry over his veto threat with regard to the PIU funding issue.

Meanwhile, in late July, attorney Kerry O’Brien – also the petitioner in the removal from office civil action – posted this on the Remove Rosemary Lehmberg Facebook page:

Last week, I discovered that Lehmberg was paid while in jail and kept her 22 days of jail money (almost $10K). Once that info became public, she scrambled quickly and made a pledge to MADD for $10K, saying there “isn’t really a mechanism” to pay back the public. So at least (once outed) she even agreed she shouldn’t be keeping her jail money.

The first problem is it appears she can pay it back – easily. The second problem is that it took me about *15 minutes* to locate and read the laws that allow her to simply make a donation back to Travis County, earmarked for her staff. I searched Google and the Attorney General’s website. Both are free. She didn’t even take 15 minutes to figure this out right. She sat on her jail money, and, I believe – would have kept it had she not been called out. (She may still keep it, after all.)

But this is the same lady who is asking Travis County to give her an additional $3 million dollars a year, and put us taxpayers on the hook – indefinitely – to fund the Public Integrity Unit, just because she values her job above anyone else’s.

Does she sound like a responsible steward of the public’s money?

The public certainly received no benefit from the thousands of dollars paid Lehmberg during her incarceration.

Travis County residents are now also on the hook for a new $1.8 million expense after county commissioners voted in August to fund a portion of the PIU whose funding was cut after Lehmberg refused to resign.

With this funding reinstatement, a district attorney’s office report suggests only 12 of the unit’s 30+ employees who expected their jobs to end Sept. 30 will actually be out of work. The Public Integrity Unit will also continue under Lehmberg’s control.

Travis County taxpayers can expect additional expenses for the special prosecutors investigating Lehmberg’s arrest booking behavior and Perry’s use of the veto threat with regard to the PIU funding.

Assistant District Attorney Brandon Grunewald was arrested on a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in connection with an Aug. 11 crash in Austin.

The Remove Rosemary Lehmberg Facebook page offered this quote reportedly from Lehmberg’s Travis County District Attorney Employee Handbook (dated 09/03/10, p. 4):

“All employees are expected to adhere to the highest standards of conduct in both their professional and private lives. By statute, all DA employees work at the will of the District Attorney. Any illegal acts or any conduct bringing disrepute on the office are grounds for immediate termination.”

Meanwhile, after the arrest, the Statesman reported Lehmberg in a statement saying “her office doesn’t usually fire employees for a first-time DWI offense and that she will wait until ‘all the facts are known’ before making any final decisions.”

So Lehmberg doesn’t “usually fire employees for a first-time DWI offense”? Has it happened so many times to have developed such a specific course of action? And if so, what of the DA’s “standards of conduct” and how do DA staffers maintain credibility in prosecuting other DWI offenders or offenses that involve drunk driving?

Yet Austin’s KVUE reported this in response to Lehmberg and employees’ first-time DWI offenses:

While DA Rosemary Lehmberg said she has never fired someone for a first DWI offense, KVUE News has learned that Frank Dixon and Cynthia Bell with the Travis County DA’s office were fired after offenses of DWI. A source also tells KVUE News a victim witness counselor was fired after a DWI offense.

More questions of credibility, truth-telling.

Questions of credibility are arising in drunk driving cases as well. The February conviction of Gabrielle Nestande is one such case as the defendant received a suspended sentence and is serving 180 days in the May 2011 hit-and-run death of a west Austin woman.

The sentencing of David Wayne Sherrill is another such case:

A 21-year-old man who caused a fiery fatal crash in April 2012 has served six months in prison under a “shock probation” sentence and is now on community supervision for the next 10 years, according to records filed in Travis County district court.

David Wayne Sherrill pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter in February in the death of John Phillip Myers, 57, and spent six months incarcerated before he was able to apply for a reduced sentence under the terms of his plea agreement, in which a judge granted “shock probation” — a program meant to deter first-time offenders from breaking the law again.

He was transferred to community supervision Aug. 21 and must now hold a steady job, serve 600 hours of community service, avoid places of “disreputable character” and use an ignition interlock system in his car for at least five years.

The congregation of Austin’s Dayspring Fellowship Church offered this analysis with regard to the pending intoxication manslaughter case in which paramedic Terri Munoz-Elmore faces charges in connection with the 2011 deaths of the Rev. Ernest Jackson Boyett and his wife, Barbara.

Due to certain public events within the District Attorney’s office with their own DWI driving indictments and one conviction, we feel that this situation will compromise the intoxication manslaughter case against Terri Elmore. The alcoholics at the DA’s office who drive intoxicated and who are speaking publicly about first offenses as being no big deal, have laid a ground work for a loss of confidence in the DA’s office to prosecute the Elmore case with an actual view toward justice for the slaying of the Boyetts. We fear that they’d rather make a deal to make intoxication related cases go away quickly rather than face the publicity of a trial and another public reminder of their own gross and recent hypocrisy. Miss Elmore has already been given an offer for 10 years in prison as a plea deal and has turned it down. Obviously her lawyers feel that due to the current situation that she can get less time for killing 2 people. The troubles also at the DA’s office have already directly led to a delay in the Boyetts case.

Instead of the plea deal feared by the congregation, Elmore is set for trial on Oct. 23.

With Elmore’s trial date set, one Dayspring Fellowship Church member wrote this:

The ultimate good that we hope to see on this earth is that a Travis County jury will finally dispense justice to one defendant and slow the unpunished slaughter of innocents by drunks now going on in Travis County. It might even lead to the removal or resignation of a convicted DWI offender shamelessly serving as District Attorney, although I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

Lou Ann Anderson

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist. As a contributor at Raging Elephants Radio and Examiner Austin, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the creator and online producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

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