Interim Update: October 2019

October 31, 2019

            Tonight’s freezing Halloween #protip: Stay home, light a fire in your fireplace, and eat your own candy.

NOTICE: TDCAA Annual Business Meeting

            The Texas District and County Attorneys Association will hold its Annual Business Meeting in conjunction with the Elected Prosecutor Conference on Wednesday, December 4, 2019, at 5:00 p.m. at the Lakeway Resort and Spa in Lakeway, Texas. The agenda will include the election of officers for terms beginning on January 1, 2020.  The board positions to be selected are President-Elect, Secretary/Treasurer, District Attorney-at-Large, Assistant Prosecutor-at-Large, and Regional Directors for Regions 3, 5, 6, and 8 (see map, below, for regional boundaries).

            Last week, the Nominations Committee met and forwarded the following nominations to the full membership for consideration at the annual business meeting:

President-Elect: John Dodson, Uvalde County CA
Secretary/Treasurer: Jack Roady, Galveston County Criminal DA
District Attorney-at-Large: Julie Renken, Washington County DA
Assistant Prosecutor-at-Large: Tiana Sanford, Montgomery County Asst. DA

For more information, contact Rob Kepple.

Lame duck Speaker

            By now, we assume all of you have seen the big news from Austin: Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) will not run for re-election following multiple public “no confidence” statements from former supporters on both sides of the political aisle. Those statements followed the release of a surreptitious recording of a private meeting at which the speaker made several controversial statements—both personal and political—to the CEO of Empower Texans, a right-wing PAC. (For more details on this saga, read this recap by the Texas Tribune and this discussion of the resulting criminal investigation by the Texas Monitor.) Your news source of choice will no doubt have its own hot take on these recent developments, but allow us to point out some aspects of this story that might not be covered in detail by those sources.

            For starters, we note that this was the first time the legislature’s new public integrity system (adopted in 2015) was invoked in a case in which a legislator was a potential suspect. While the situation was resolved in a manner that did not result in a criminal prosecution, the fact that the Speaker’s retirement announcement came just two days before his local district attorney declined to file charges led to immediate—and wholly unsubstantiated—claims by some political opponents that “the fix was in,” implying that the speaker avoided prosecution by agreeing to eventually step down. Leaving aside the fact that such agreements may be a just result in a particular case, this politicization of the prosecutor’s decision should serve as a reminder to all of you of how sticky these public integrity cases can be. In light of those complications, we want to commend Brazoria County Criminal DA Jeri Yenne and her office for their professional conduct in this investigation and encourage you to read her public letter explaining her decision.

            Second, among the many reasons Speaker Bonnen lost support among his own party was his controversial anti-local government commentary. The speaker was recorded referring to certain city and county officials as “dumbasses,” and he and State Rep. Dennis Burrows (R-Lubbock)—who has resigned from his position as chairman of the House Republican Caucus but is still seeking re-election to his House seat as of now—both bragged about how much they “hated” local government officials. (Yes, that is the word they used.) All of this was in the context of their professed desire to pass a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbying, which—as we’ve told you before on multiple occasions—(1) is not limited to hired-gun lobbyists but also includes professional associations like TDCAA, TAC, and TML, and (2) is sought by certain conservative and libertarian activists who want to silence opposition to their policy proposals for property tax restrictions, school vouchers, and certain criminal justice “reforms” like eliminating civil asset forfeiture or grand jury secrecy, among other ideas. The speaker’s display of animosity on the secret recording toward local officials had the potential to make things very uncomfortable for other House Republicans seeking their endorsement for the upcoming elections, so his retirement announcement is seen by some observers as an olive branch to assuage local officials’ fears. You’ll have to judge the sincerity of your local legislators for yourself, of course. All we will add is to note that this recording is yet further proof of the validity of that old saying that “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you are wrong!”

            So … what’s next? Speaker Bonnen is still the speaker for another 14 months, meaning he has the power to appoint committee chairmen (such as a replacement for the recently retired chairman of the Appropriations Committee), assign committees interim charges to study, and perform other ministerial acts. However, all his decisions now have an expiration date, and House members will operate under a cloud of uncertainty between now and January 2021. As a result, all bets are off when it comes to making predictions about the politics or policy of the 86th Regular Session that begins that month. If anything, this change only heightened the significance of the 2020 elections (if that is possible).

Senate’s interim charges

            Meanwhile, over on the quiet side of the capitol rotunda, the lieutenant governor issued his list of interim charges for various senate committees to tackle over the next 14 months. The full list of more than 100 topics is available here. Some of the more interesting (listed by committee) include:

Criminal Justice: Crime victim support, gang violence, implementation and use of deferred adjudication for DWIs
Health & Human Services: DFPS investigations and parental terminations, Medicaid fraud
State Affairs: Human trafficking prevention, taxpayer-funded lobbying, lobby registration exemptions (such as for government employees), misdemeanor theft prosecutions, court costs
Transportation: Reducing traffic-related collisions and fatalities (including those caused by intoxication)
Veterans Affairs & Border Security: Expansion of veteran treatment courts, border security technology and information-sharing
Water & Rural Affairs: Implementation of HB 1325 (hemp legalization)

We will update you on relevant interim hearings throughout 2020, but if you have specific questions about any of these issues, don’t hesitate to contact Shannon for more information.

Ring out the year with one last CLE

            Our 2019 Elected Prosecutor Conference will be held at the Lakeway Resort & Spa just west of Austin. The curriculum will include topics such as the rise in domestic terrorism, responding effectively to cases of domestic violence and adult sexual assault, the latest information from the DPS crime labs, and numerous opportunities for networking and solution-sharing. Registration information is available here.

            Note that immediately prior to the Elected course, TDCAA is offering a special Prosecutor Management Institute (PMI) Course designed specifically for elected prosecutors. Click here for information regarding that stand-alone course.

Quotes of the Month

“There isn’t a person who is over 45 growing up in Texas—even in metropolitan areas—who didn’t have trucks in the high school parking with a gun rack in ’em, because every boy went hunting in the fall. It wasn’t the ‘killing machine’ that it is today. The philosophy has very much changed.”
            —Karen Funk, athletic director for North East ISD in San Antonio, quoted in an article on how gun violence is changing Friday night football culture in Texas.

“There is much more that we don’t know about cannabis and CBD than we do know.”
            —Kevin Hill, addiction psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in an article on a recent British study that found scarce evidence to support claims that cannabis use improves certain mental health disorders.

“They are a group that you are fooling yourself and you are not respecting your constituents, you are not respecting this institution, if you are chasing their wants and their desires because you will never meet their wants and their desires.”
            —Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), quoted in an interview on May 27, 2019, in reference to right-wing political action group Empower Texans. (He would meet privately with Empower Texans’ CEO two weeks later, a decision leading to the eventual end of his tenure at the legislature.)

Transcript excerpt (page 34) from the private meeting between Speaker Bonnen, then-House Republic Caucus Chairman Rep. Dustin Burrows, and Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans on June 12, 2019 (secretly recorded by Sullivan):
Speaker Bonnen:        “I’m that much closer to passing [a ban on] taxpayer-funded lobbying. Let me tell you something … any mayor [or] county judge who was dumbass enough to come meet with me [last session], I told them with great clarity, ‘My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.’”
Rep. Burrows:             “I hope next session is even worse.”
Speaker Bonnen:         “And I’m all for that.”

Another transcript excerpt (pages 42–43):
Rep. Burrows:             “So, [banning] taxpayer-funded lobbying is the benchmark for next session. … [W]e’re going to spend the entire interim trying to expose what those dollars are being used on, try and get public support built around it, and we want to come back and take [away] taxpayer-funded lobbying.”

“I knew when I requested this [public integrity investigation] that there are no winners and there’s no way to win. All I knew is, I had to make my honest decision because there would be criticism no matter what. That’s probably a good assessment of public integrity investigations. I was willing to assume that because that to me is a district attorney’s job.”
            —Brazoria County Criminal DA Jeri Yenne, replying to unsubstantiated claims that her resolution of the speaker’s public integrity investigation was an act of political favoritism.