Newly-elected Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg was elected as a “reformer” with plans to clean up the local criminal justice system. Some of her stated goals are lofty indeed:
- Concentrate on the prosecution of violent offenders while diverting non-violent offenders away from incarceration.
- Treat people with respect.
- Make the community safer.
- Work to keep people in the work force.
- Change Harris County’s notoriously unfair and corrupt bail system.
Kim Ogg Ready to Assume District Attorney’s Office with Priorities
The former prosecutor and head of Houston’s crime stoppers program convincingly defeated Devon Anderson to capture the powerful District Attorney’s position in November. Ogg won the election with the campaign slogan that “it’s a new day for justice in Harris County.” She promised to accomplish this objective by creating two special divisions of prosecutors – one to go after gang members and the other to prosecute sexual assault cases.
Shake-up at Harris County District Attorney’s Office
And Ogg hasn’t wasted any time is working toward these goals. She informed at least 37 current assistant district attorneys in Anderson’s office, about 10% of 329 prosecutors on staff, that they would be replaced.
This is not an uncommon, and certainly not an unreasonable, course of action. Political and professional reform not only demand a change in attitude but often personnel as well. The new DA has an absolute right to choose prosecutors who will be committed to the reform objectives she plans to put in place and remove those who expressed hostility against her during the election cycle. That is politics.
It is known as the “patronage system” (more commonly referred to as the “spoils system”—to the victor goes the spoils. This system is frequently utilized after a political candidate an election and gives leadership and policy jobs that he or she controls to supporters, friends, and loyalist. There is nothing wrong with this practice, especially when the jobs are important to the leadership or changes to office policy.
Disgruntled Prosecutors Sabotaging Cases
But among the 40 or so attorneys losing their jobs at the office, some didn’t take kindly to Ogg’s plan to “sweep out the old and bring in the new.” The incoming DA began to hear complaints from crime victims who told Ogg that the current prosecutors handling their cases informed them that, due to firings at the office, lenient plea deals would be given or no prosecutions would be undertaken.
Calls to Investigate Assistant District Attorneys
The Houston Press reported that Ogg was not pleased to hear these reports. She called upon outgoing DA Anderson to investigate, and secure the files of, those prosecutors engaged in what she described as “political retribution.”
“It appears that some of these individuals are sabotaging their own cases,” Ogg told reporters at a press conference. “It’s the use of victims as pawns by disgruntled employees that sows not just a profound disrespect for other people but a lack of professionalism that won’t go unaddressed.”
Ogg can expect no cooperation from outgoing DA Anderson, who released a statement claiming the pre-Christmas firing of experienced prosecutors “is endangering the citizens of Harris County.”
Harris County DA’s Office in Need of Reform
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has not known consistent “professionalism” since the 1970s when Johnny Holmes as elected as the county’s top law enforcement officer. The office has been plagued with prosecutorial misconduct, cronyism, corruption, and a host of other problems for the past four decades.
These latest acts of political retribution are not surprising.
Ogg suggested the disgruntled acts of prosecutors could support criminal charges. Misusing of information gathered by law enforcement is a third degree felony in Texas with a penalty ranging from probation to 10 years.
Abuse of Power by Members of DA’s Office Has Long Tradition
Regardless of what DA Anderson elects to do about this matter, Ogg should conduct her own investigation, even if that means calling in outside counsel, to determine if any of the current prosecutors (or other staff members) have engaged in any illegal “political retribution” simply because they lost their jobs.
It’s long past time to stop abuse of power in the DA’s office. This can only be accomplished through investigation, discipline and, in the proper circumstances, prosecution of any member of law enforcement who abuses their position. We hope the DA-Elect will continue scrutiny of attorneys in her office and demand the highest level of ethics and professionalism from those under her command.
If the new District Attorney is seriously committed to “reform,” then she should be prepared to prosecute corrupt prosecutors and abusive police officers as vigorously as she would a gang members or a sex offenders. After all, both have wreaked untold abuses on the people of our community and contributed to the lack of respect and growing hostility towards our criminal justice system.