January-February 2011

A taller, louder sheriff in town

Mike Fouts

District Attorney in Haskell, Stonewall, Kent, and Throckmorton ­Counties

My first attempt at a column, and I should say this ain’t fair. The prior President, C. Scott Brumley, was editor of the University Daily, the liberal wipe-rag of my double alma mater, Texas Tech. I barely passed my English classes, so if you are expecting Shakespeare, put the magazine down now. My preferred medium is oration laced with poor grammar and profanity—the written word in its refinement and eloquence is better left to the pencil-neck geeks like Brumley who are really just frustrated accountants. (I write this with the greatest affection for Scott. It’s not often a man of his mental prowess retains some dignity and is a fun guy.)

But let’s get this straight, there is a new sheriff in town, albeit one who is heavier and louder.

Unlike some within our esteemed organization, I can’t say that my dream was always to be a prosecutor. In my formative years a more realistic dream was probably, “I want to avoid being prosecuted.” After passing the bar exam and 10 years of private practice, I was elected District Attorney of the 39th Judicial District, serving Throckmorton, Haskell, Stonewall and Kent Counties in Texas. The 39th District has been described as the “big empty” and is populated by lots of cows but not so many people. It is, however, the best place on earth to live.

While being a prosecutor may not have been my dream, it is a dream job. We may not make the most money and we may go to an office adorned with county-issue particle board furniture—and in my case one without heat—but at the end of the day, we get not only the opportunity to seek justice but also the satisfaction that comes when that justice is meted out. We get the opportunity to tell crime victims that we will do all we can to see that the perpetrator pays for the crime committed against them and that they have nothing to fear because the resources of the State of Texas will be at our disposal to protect them. The satisfaction that comes from this job is immense.

I had handled many criminal matters as a defense attorney and, at least in my opinion, was well-prepared to take a criminal case to trial; however, I had no experience in a prosecutor’s office. I remember shortly after my election receiving an invitation from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association (TDCAA) to attend the Elected Prosecutor Course in Austin. I will reluctantly admit that I considered not attending. While I had many friends that were prosecutors, heading to Austin on my own nickel to meet with folks, most of whom I didn’t know, frankly did not seem too appealing to me. My good friend Joe Lee Rose, the newly elected District Attorney in Coleman County, persuaded me to attend, and what a difference in my life and career that decision made!

On the first morning, we newly elected prosecutors left the Omni Hotel and were bused to the La Quinta (Spanish for “next door to Denny’s”) for a morning orientation meeting. The bus ride and lavish setting of the La Quinta banquet hall provided great insight into the life of opulence and luxury I would enjoy as a prosecutor. (For my less refined Panhandle buddies, the previous statement was an attempt at sarcasm and not an example of the pretentiousness that you find so deplorable.) In any event, I am a man of simple taste and La Quinta suited me fine.

Then-TDCAA Executive Director Tom Krampitz welcomed all into the profession and the organization. We were provided a wealth of information, ranging from resources TDCAA could provide and funding sources for our offices, to details on retirement and insurance and too much other immensely helpful information to name. At the end of the meeting I approached Rob Kepple, now the executive director, and inquired about a number of civil cases I had pending and what I should do about them. Rob provided a concise answer then, and I cannot count the number of times since that I have called upon Rob and the rest of the staff for their help, input, and advice. I know clichés are thrown around with impugnity, but I can say without hesitation that TDCAA is the best, best, and I repeat best service organization in existence. The staff of our organization are always available to help with any matter. If they cannot provide you with an answer, they know the person who can, and they will put you in touch with them. I encourage every member to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of the TDCAA staff. They are available to serve you and are happy to do so. For their commitment to our profession, I genuinely thank them and remind all our members to give them a pat on the back the next time you run across them.

On the afternoon the conference began, I sat at a table and met Michael Ward, County Attorney in Crosby County. Within 10 minutes Mike gave me a business card and told me to call him anytime with anything I needed, and he would do his best to help me or point me in the right direction. How many times over the years have I enjoyed a similar outreach from prosecutors with a helping hand? I would like to think I have repaid the favor a few times myself with a word of advice to fellow prosecutors or their staffs. The connections formed within TDCAA are an invaluable resource in the prosecution of cases. If you need help or advice, pick up the phone, call another office, and I can almost guarantee you they will take the time to give you that helping hand or get you the information you need. I can’t put my finger on it, but prosecutors as a group are undoubtedly the most helpful, selfless individuals I have encountered, and for that I say thanks.

That evening a reception was held in the hotel, and while I might be described as introverted with a serious nature (is the sarcasm too obvious?), I attended the social. Mike Ward was there and was sitting with a group of other attendees. I was introduced and thought we had a good time. Evidently I did not make much of an impression as the next September at the Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update I was left standing on the curb as they casually drove off to the dog track. I humbly shouted as they drove away, “Shane, come back!” They have since confessed that at that moment they just didn’t know what to make of the loud guy who sounded like Gary Busey. I’ll stop here and not bore you with details of karaoke at the Holiday Inn that evening, except to say I was brilliant. You better believe that they don’t have the guts to leave me standing on the curb anymore, and we have since made more than a few trips to the dog track. (FYI, if you take a cab to the track in Corpus Christi and your cab driver, Cornbread, gives you a hot tip, don’t risk the kids’ college fund.)

The people I met through TDCAA are incredible and some have become a few of my best and closest friends. The next time you go to a seminar or TDCAA event, take the time to enjoy the good company of your colleagues across the state and meet some new people.

Our organization so impressed me that I wanted to be more involved than as just a member. At the Annual, I ran to serve as a regional director of TDCAA, and while it was not as expensive as my other election, it did involve more mud slinging. Actually I think I ran unopposed. I was elected and have served since then as a director, representative to the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), and executive officer. The experience has been fantastic and has provided me with an ever-greater appreciation for what TDCAA and its staff do for prosecutors. I encourage every member to become involved in TDCAA; your service on committees and the board will be rewarding to you and helpful to the association.

I am honored to serve as president of this wonderful organization. I value its staff and all of its members, and while I don’t know every member, I would love to meet everybody. So the next time you are at a TDCAA event and you see a loud, large guy who wants to dominate the conversation, that’s me. Don’t be shy—come on over.