Executive Director's Report
March-April 2009

Welcome to the newly elected!

Rob Kepple

TDCAA Executive Director in Austin

An official “Welcome!” to the newly elected district and county attorneys who took office on January first. Normally I’d list our new folks in this column, but by my count we have a record number of newly elected prosecutors who are too numerous to list here—74 out of a total of 330 elected positions. The full list of new prosecutors can be found as a separate article in this issue.

If you run through the list and see someone in your area whom you haven’t met, I hope you take the time to call and introduce yourself. If there is one thing we have learned, we are better off as a profession if we share our experience and accumulated knowledge.

College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007

By now you have probably read about a student loan forgiveness program making its way through Congress. One bill that has passed is the John R. Justice Act, which offers flat-out student loan forgiveness of at least some debt to prosecutors with federal loans. However, that bill has not yet been funded. The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is working on the money, so stay tuned.

However, another bill, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, passed too and can help new prosecutors starting as early as this July. Here are the two parts of that plan, as described by the Equal Justice Works (which you can access in full at www.equaljusticeworks .org):

Income-Based Repayment (IBR). This program is designed to significantly reduce monthly payments for borrowers with “partial financial hardship” (high debt and low income). Annual educational debts under IBR are capped at 15 percent of discretionary income (defined as adjusted gross income minus 150 percent of the poverty level for the borrower’s family size). The following example uses the 2007 Federal Poverty Guideline for a single-person household of $10,210:  Jane Justice owes $100,000 in qualifying debt at 6.8-percent interest and takes a job in prosecution paying $40,000. She elects the IBR plan, which means that in her first year, Jane’s monthly loan payments are $309 (as opposed to $1,151 under a standard 10-year repayment).

What loans are eligible? All federal direct loans (FDLP) and federally guaranteed loans (FFELP) are eligible, including subsidized and unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans, Federal Grad PLUS Loans, and Federal Direct Consolidation Loans.

What loans are not eligible? Loans made by a state or private lender and are not guaranteed by the federal government are never eligible, nor are Parent PLUS Loans. Finally, Perkins Loans are eligible only when part of a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Borrowers should seek advice before consolidating a Perkins Loan because those loans include cancellation provisions.

When can you elect IBR? IBR goes into effect July 1, 2009. The best way to join the IBR program is to register at www.ibrinfo.org to get the updated information and materials as it becomes available this spring.

Loan forgiveness for public service employees. While it is good to cut down the size of loan repayments, it still leaves new prosecutors with a chunk of debt. That is where the loan forgiveness part of this 2007 act comes in. Congress created loan forgiveness for public service employees if the employee makes 120 payments on one of the qualifying loans. If the employee makes the proper payments, then the balance of the loan is cancelled. For example, Jane Justice started out owing $100,000 in qualifying debt at 6.8-percent interest and took a prosecutor job at $40,000 a year, with annual cost-of-living increases of 5 percent. Jane stayed in public service for 10 years and made the proper IBR payments of $49,132. Under this plan, the government then cancels the $118,868 remaining principal and interest.

When can you begin counting your time? Beginning October 1, 2007, borrowers who have the qualifying loans may begin counting their time for purposes of the 10 years (120 payments).

The “prosecutor combine”

In the last edition of the Texas Prosecutor, I discussed our initiative to connect prospective prosecutors with offices that are hiring. Our first step was to interview law students at the state-wide public service job consortium at the UT School of Law February 5 and 6. I want to thank the prosecutors who came to interview third-year law students from all law schools in Texas who are seeking positions as assistant prosecutors when they graduate: Matt Powell (CDA in Lubbock), David Weeks (CDA in Huntsville); Gary Cobb (ADA in Austin); Jack Choate (ACDA in Huntsville); Efrain De La Fuente (ADA in Austin); Jarvis Parsons (ADA in Bryan); and Julian Ramirez (ADA in Houston).

We interviewed about 30 students who are looking for a job in a prosecutors’ office, and we met some folks who we believe you will want to meet and probably hire. We have told every one of those students with interest in prosecution once they graduate and pass the bar to keep an eye out on the TDCAA website’s job bank. If they see a job that interests them, we have encouraged them to apply and to let us know when they do. We will follow up with the respective prosecutors’ office to offer our input on that particular applicant. We will also keep tabs on our top prospects, so if you have a job opening for a new lawyer come November, you might give us a call and see who is on the top of our “must hire” list.

In the future, the TDCAA leadership plans to educate more law students about the opportunities that exist in our profession. We know this is a great job, and it’s time to share that information in a regular way.

Biker assistance for victims

Steve Reis, District Attorney in Matagorda County, recently told us about a sexual assault and solicitation of capital murder trial he and his staff recently finished. What stood out for Steve was not the life sentences, the ugly facts, or the 8- and 12-year-old victims; it was a gang of bikers who attended the trial to offer their quiet support to the children.

Bikers Against Child Abuse (or BACA for short) provide physical and emotional support for children in court. You can check them out and find the chapter nearest you by visiting www.bacausa.com. At this website you can read about their mission, activities, and code of conduct. (This journal has also featured BACA awhile back; see the November-December 2004 issue for a feature article on these bikers.)

Steve Reis wrote a letter to the BACA Brazos Valley Chapter President, Dave “Seven Up” Bennet, which is reprinted in part here:

Your members were very professional, courteous and helpful during the trial. At no time did I hear any criticism or suggestion that BACA in any way unduly influenced or impeded the proceedings. In fact, just the opposite—I think that the courteous and supportive presence of your members helped maintain decorum and certainly helped the child victims as they testified.

Few people have ever had to undergo the rigors and frightening experience of testifying during a criminal trial. The fear of uncertainty and of the unexpected can reduce even the most assured adult to a stuttering and nervous wreck. How much more so when that witness is a young child surrounded by adults who, at times, seem to get into arguments with one another as the attorneys make objections? The courtroom can be an intimidating place for those who don’t work there on an ongoing basis. When a child enters that arena, he or she is suddenly immersed in what seems to be an Alice in Wonderland experience where even words don’t seem to mean the same thing they do in real life. And yet, we require that this child speak of the most embarrassing and horrible experiences with an audience of strangers. The rules of court generally require that even the relatives of the victim cannot be in the courtroom because they, themselves, may be called upon to testify. Somewhere, in that sea of faces, we can only hope that the child finds a face which brings comfort. We, as prosecutors, try to prepare the child for this and try to develop a relationship which allows us to be a friendly face for that child to see. Your organization goes a step farther and seems to effectively calm the child and empower him to tell of the horrors committed. You give the child a confidence to do what must be done to secure a proper verdict: to speak candidly and truthfully about how the defendant criminally assaulted the child. The confidence you give this child allows the jury to weigh the necessary evidence and hold the defendant responsible for his crime. By helping one child, I believe you keep the defendant from victimizing other children.

Thank you for having been here, and thank you for the work you and your brothers and sisters do on behalf of children who have been abused.

New categories of offenses

This tidbit comes from the desk of a former Texas DA and TDCAA Board member, Judge John Miller Jr., out of Texarkana.

It seems the judge recently got a written request from a guy doing time in Arkansas to run that time concurrent with some Texas cases. The request was simple and polite: “I have Mister Minors in Texas that I would like to have ran Con Current with my ADC. Can you take care of this for me or let me no what I need to do to get this taken care of? Thank you for considering.”

I will never be one to criticize spelling mistakes, and as you can see this paragraph would sail right through spellcheck. But before you laugh and say, “Sounds like someone from Arkansas, all right,” remember that this guy was probably trying to phonetically spell the words of a Texas county clerk or sheriff when he wrote this letter—and he may have nailed it!

Shameless self-promotion?

Many of you were prosecutors a few years back when we invited Vincent Bugliosi to be the keynote speaker at our annual conference. As you know, Bugliosi is best known for prosecuting Charles Manson for the Tate-Labianca murders. He later co-authored Helter-Skelter, a popular book about the crimes.

We had a huge audience for his talk, but many of you remarked that he didn’t really have much to offer a Texas trial prosecutor. After all, he recommended that you write out your opening—which should be at least 30 minutes long—word for word on a yellow pad. Some marveled at how he had managed to parlay the prosecution of a “whale in a barrel” case into a speaking career.

But Mr. Bugliosi may have the chance to prove himself here in Texas after all. Indeed, he has been sending out a copy of his latest book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder to prosecutors around the nation with a personalized letter asking the local DA to prosecute former President Bush for the murder of 4,000 American soldiers. And he offers to come and act as a special prosecutor in the case!

We are wondering if he has some special venue arguments lined up for Texas prosecutors, or if this letter has gone out to prosecutors in every state in the union. If you take him up on his offer, please let us know. That should be some opening argument!

The kings of pong

Every office finds its way to blow off a little steam. Pressure is the order of the day in many offices, and a healthy way to vent is always appreciated.

When our Senior Staff Attorney, Diane Beckham, offered to donate her ping-pong table to TDCAA, I snapped at the chance:  It could be a great way for staff to relieve stress, do a little bonding, and have fun. Being an Ohio boy who grew up with a ping-pong table in the basement—our sole source of entertainment in those long winter months—I figured I would easily dominate all these outdoorsy Texas types.

The first part has proven correct. A quick visit to the ground-floor ping-pong palace—and, uh, book storage room—can wash away a lot of the day’s problems. The second part has been a bust; my rusty skill has proven to be no match for good old-fashioned Texas top-spin. TDCAA, as it turns out, has some talent.

We have naturally taken this to the next level: competition. Our appetites whetted by an intraoffice tournament, we set our sites elsewhere. Our first match-up took place the evening before the rescheduled Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update when the visiting team—the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, led by CDA Matt Powell—lost a close and spirited contest to the TDCAA crew.

So where does this end? We hope that it doesn’t, and we are practicing regularly in hopes that others will be inspired to begin a regular lunch-time training regimen. We are ready—any time, any place. In fact, if any of y’all want a piece of this well-oiled table tennis machine, let us know and we’ll bring the table to the Annual Conference in Corpus this September! ✤