By Alex Wukman
This isn’t…there’s no way it can be real. I mean not in two-thousand-and-fucking-twelve. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. The Harris County District Attorney is actually being investigated for using county resources to investigate members of a Grand Jury, two judges and a fucking political opponent. To say that’s some shady-ass shit is to put it mildly. For those of you who don’t follow local criminal justice matters, and if you don’t shame on you, or only know the criminal justice system from inside County Jail or because you got a traffic ticket I’ll try and bring you up to speed
This story has been building for years, five years specifically. Back in 2007 the U.S. Department of Transportation released a study that showed Texas led the nation in DWI fatalities, later studies showed that Harris County, specifically, had the highest rate of alcohol related fatalities in the nation. About six months after the 2007 study was released, in November 2007, Houston City Council tried to address the problem in the only way it knows how, by throwing more money at the Houston Police Department. At the time it was reported that the City was giving HPD an additional $250,000 to purchase six Blood Alcohol Testing, or BAT, vans. The vans would be sort of a rolling laboratory allowing police officers to conduct spot tests for people who refused a breathalyzer.
The logic behind the vans seems solid, if someone is marginally drunk by the time the cops get him or her back to a station and find a nurse able to do a blood draw the alcohol in his/her bloodstream may be under the limit. So why not take the lab out into the field and do the the testing on site? The reason why the BAT vans weren’t controversial for the first two years of operation was because they weren’t really operating. Channel 13’s Wayne Dolcefino–who is equal parts annoying and intrepid and knows a thing or two about getting a DWI in Houston–discovered that the cost of the vans was far higher than the $250,000 initially reported, actually closer to $600,000, and that at least one of HPD’s “$100,000 vans” hadn’t been used in two years. The only documented cases of BAT vans operating in 2009 and 2010 was when the Houston Chronicle mentioned them being parked on Washington Ave.
Before Dolcefino’s initial story, rife with clips from Batman movies, could be broadcast HPD announced a big crack down on DWI’s. Naturally Dolcefino took credit, and failed to mention that a few months before he “broke” the story the Harris County DA’s office received a grant to expand No Refusal Weekends to every weekend for three years. Dolcefino’s ego isn’t important here.
What is important is that before HPD administration decided to roll out the BAT vans in force in the spring of 2011 they’d been warned about some pretty severe maintenance issues. Including the fact that many of the vans didn’t have working AC, which caused the $6,000 intoxilyzers in the vans to overheat, which threw off their accuracy. That brings us to summer 2011, and while everyone was coming down from their Summer Fest high, a war was shaping up. On one side was the courts, lawyers and judges on the other was the DA’s office and HPD. In July 2011 Amanda Culbertson, a former HPD lab supervisor, testified, in open court that she and two of her coworkers resigned rather than sign off on test results they knew were suspect.
Based on Culbertson’s testimony, and media reports, a defense attorney in a DWI case involving a BAT van tried to get access to HPD’s maintenance records for the BAT van that allegedly proved his client was intoxicated. Surprisingly, HPD ignored the court order to produce the documents. Now normally a law enforcement agency ignoring a court order would be bad enough, but leave it to Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to kick it up a notch. In October 2011, months after Culbertson testified, a contract with her current employer Lone Star College came up for renewal before the Commissioner’s Court. Culbertson and another lab supervisor left HPD to work at Lone Star’s breath alcohol lab and provide services to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Once the Lone Star contract came up for renewal Lykos’ office decided it was in the County’s best interest to use another lab, one run by the Department of Public Safety. This led to accusations of retaliation which were followed by denials which were followed by a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson letting the cat out of bag by saying that “it is our understanding that the district attorney’s office had some problems with some procedures or testimony that was provided by the Lone Star College experts.” Emphasis added.
The conflict driven approach led to a grand jury investigation that has all the hallmarks of the Nixon administration. For those unfamiliar with what a Grand Jury is and does here’s a quick summary from the Harris County District Court’s FAQ “A grand jury consists of twelve people whose job is to review criminal complaints and decide if there is sufficient evidence to issue an indictment. The standard of proof for an indictment is probable cause.”
Normally the way a grand jury works is that prosecutors present the facts of a case and the jurors ask questions. Except when the people being investigated happen to be the prosecutors. At that point a judge may bar the DA’s office from the courtroom and prevent them from hearing testimony or seeing the evidence presented. Assistant District Attorney’s, like most people, are unhappy when they are unable to defend themselves.
Unlike most people ADAs happen to have the wherewithal to find out what’s being said about them in a closed courtroom. So two ADAs–the chief of the grand jury Division and the chief of the government integrity bureau–decided to make a play for the most irony impaired lawyers in Houston award when they did an end-run around the judge and the jurors and went straight to the court reporters to secure transcripts of secret testimony. It’s worth noting that prior to exhibiting a complete lack of understanding about the grand jury process or governmental integrity both the ADAs had been kicked out of the courtroom under penalty of arrest. And once word got back to the judge they’d tried to middle out they were threatened with contempt of court charges.
Figuring that City Council’s failure to disclose the amount of money spent on super-special vans, the police department’s decision to withhold evidence in a trial, her office being accused of retaliating against contractors whose testimony conflicted with her opinion and two of her employees facing contempt charges wasn’t bad enough Pat Lykos decided to double down on her own contempt of the courts. Apparently Lykos felt that turnabout was fair play and ordered her office to investigate the people investigating her office.
Now is where it gets all Watergatey; the irony impaired Lykos called her chief investigator on October 22–a day dedicated to ending police brutality and repression–to collect information on the members of the grand jury. Lykos was specifically interested in the political motives of the jurors, two judges, a special prosecutor as well as an attorney who is being talked about as a potential opponent in Lykos’ re-election bid.
When initially confronted with the information about the investigation Lykos denied it. Then she started quibbling over semantics, saying that it wasn’t really an “investigation” just a “cursory internet search.” And who are we to argue over what is and isn’t an investigation? The only thing we can say is that we wished our “cursory internet searches” of our enemies included county resources and law enforcement databases. In Lykos’ mind there was nothing wrong with retasking governmental employees to get dirt on the members of a grand jury and possible political opponents.
After all Lykos has always claimed that the grand jury investigation of her office was politically motivated. When confronted with the information about her investigation into the grand jury she said that “this politically motivated investigation… is an outrage, it’s an abuse of power and a corruption of the criminal justice system.” To be clear Lykos was talking about the grand jury investigation of her office, not her investigation of the grand jury. After giving news junkies everywhere a chuckle Lykos decided to top it off with a spit-take by reminding everyone that she “restored professionalism and ethics” to the DA’s office. Unfortunately for Lykos the FBI and the Texas Rangers, the cops not the baseball team, don’t necessarily agree with her about the definitions of professionalism and ethics. In fact the disagreement is so profound that both agencies have launched their own investigations into the DA’s office. We’re just waiting for the tapes to surface with an inexplicable 18 and a half minute gap.