Brazoria County, Travis County: Comparing and contrasting two drunk driving tales (TX)

Upon being arrested by Houston police on a driving while intoxicated charge, a Brazoria County prosecutor has resigned. This development becomes especially notable as controversy continues related to the April drunk driving arrest of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and four months later that of Assistant District Attorney Brandon Grunewald.

Michael A. Abner, 30, was arrested Oct. 19 after a Houston police officer responded to a call about a swerving vehicle the Houston Chronicle reports. He was later released from jail on a $500 bond and is scheduled to return Nov. 11 to Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 4.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne told The Chronicle Abner resigned last week.

“After his arrest became known, Mr. Abner and I had a discussion,” she said.

Yenne said her office has a policy of no drinking and driving.

“I came to the conclusion years ago that there are certain standards you have to have when you prosecute people for DWI,” she said. “I don’t ever want somebody to say, ‘You do the same thing.’ No good can ever come from drinking and driving, anyway.”

Yenne said she has had the policy in writing since 2011.

“It is my sincere hope that everyone who works for me complies with it,” she said.

Travis County, on the other hand, approaches drunk driving of district attorney’s office employees much differently.

Despite repeated calls and ongoing legal actions stemming from the arrest, Lehmberg has refused to step down. Hypocrisy and diminished credibility overshadow the district attorney’s office and its effectiveness as the county’s chief prosecutor of other DWI offenders or offenses that involve drunk driving.

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.

Adding insult to injury, it was later learned that Lehmberg continued receiving her salary while in jail and kept the almost $10,000 of public dollars paid to her. Weeks later upon discovery of this information by attorney Kerry O’Brien who has also filed a removal from office civil action, the embattled district attorney quickly announced a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) claiming there “isn’t really a mechanism” to pay back the public.

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.

The Public Integrity Unit investigates and prosecutes state officials and politicians. Its Travis County location and control by Lehmberg comes as ethics violations often center on activities around the Capitol or at other Austin-based state agencies.

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

Meanwhile, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Brandon Grunewald was arrested Aug. 11 on a misdemeanor drunken driving charge in connection with a traffic accident in Austin.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Lehmberg 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.”

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.”

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?

Also worth noting, however, all news for Lehmberg is not grim.

A 12-member Travis County grand jury recently declined to indict the district attorney on charges relating to her jail conduct in the aftermath of the drunk driving arrest. The grand jury review was based on a complaint filed by attorney Rick Reed, a former Lehmberg political opponent. Reed’s complaint alleged Lehmberg committed 16 counts of official misconduct ranging from coercion of a public servant to retaliation. If affirmed, Lehmberg could have faced third-degree felony obstruction charges.

Austin’s KOKE-FM compiled this booking footage of Travis County’s top prosecutor.

The civil jury trial seeking to remove from office Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg based on her drunk driving arrest has also been cancelled. This cancellation prompts serious questions of if this development is a move to save taxpayer funds and more efficiently move forward the legal process? Or is merely a tactic which might later be used to help the district attorney avoid removal?

As Brazoria County taxpayers can take a degree of satisfaction that their interests have been protected at least in this instance, Travis County taxpayers still deservedly have legitimate questions regarding the operations of their district attorney’s office and its impact on the county’s entire legal process.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks about a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses the growing issue of probate abuse in which wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney are used to loot assets from intended beneficiaries or heirs.

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