Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lessons in Leadership

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick was formally sworn in during his investiture ceremony yesterday.  The Houston Chronicle's Gabrielle Banks wrote this article describing the ceremony, which I noted was a little different from the original article she wrote about the event yesterday.  I tried to find the original article online because it had some interesting quotes from some of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys that work for Patrick, as well as some quotes from Federal judges and defense attorneys.  Unfortunately, the original version seems to be unavailable.

This quote from Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal did make it into the final version of the article:
"He comes from a political family but his current focus is not on politics, it's on policy," Rosenthal said. "And that is how it should be as he faces intensely tactical problems of running this large and complicated office in our large and very complicated district . . . at a large and complicated time."
In the original article, Banks quoted a few others, including Mark Donnelly,  Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney, who noted that Patrick's approach to leading is dictating the policies of the Office and then relying on his experienced AUSAs to do their jobs effectively.  Apparently, this is causing a high boost in morale within the U.S. Attorneys Office and, lo and behold, the Office seems to be running well.  The original article quoted defense attorney Charles Flood, who was also highly complimentary of the way the Office is being run by Patrick.

The original article was striking because it described an office of prosecutors that seemed to run on a philosophy that is the polar opposite of the Harris County District Attorney's Office under D.A. Kim Ogg.  In the earlier article on Patrick, it described his desire to stay away from micro-management, in favor of relying on professional prosecutors who were doing the job and doing it well before he took office.

By contrast, Kim Ogg has . . .  well, Kim Ogg has JoAnne Musick.

While Ryan Patrick is getting lauded for running an office where prosecutors are enjoying their jobs and their office's clearly stated principles, Musick continues to run through low level disposed cases with a microscope.  While Patrick treats the prosecutors who held their jobs long before he arrived with the respect they earned, Musick continues to talk to prosecutors (with far more prosecutorial experience than her) as if they were children.

Just a side note here, let's not forget that JoAnne originally left the D.A.'s Office as a relatively new Felony Two.  She never got close to earning the stripes of Felony Chief, but that still doesn't keep her from dressing down far more senior prosecutors.  I've mentioned this twice before.  The first time was back in February.  The second time was less than a month ago.

In the four weeks since I wrote that last post, two more senior Felony Chiefs have declared their intention to leave the Harris County District Attorney's Office and head to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office under the leadership of Ryan Patrick.

Who could blame them?  If one were given the choice of working for an Office with a clear vision statement that comes with being treated with respect versus an Office guided solely by public opinion where senior prosecutors are treated like dim-witted children, it really isn't much of a contest, is it?

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas is thriving while the Harris County District Attorney's Office is a sad shell of what it used to be.

Kim Ogg should learn a lesson in leadership from Ryan Patrick.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

A Well-Deserved Retirement

It was a bittersweet moment this week as judges, prosecutors and members of the defense bar gathered to say goodbye and happy retirement to longtime defense attorney and friend Ricardo Rodriguez.

Ricardo has been a fixture of the Harris County Criminal Justice world for decades and was a courtroom gladiator on many notorious capital murder cases.   Tall and lanky with his signature mustache, Ricardo was someone I had seen around the courthouse for years before I actually met him in person when I was a brand new Felony Two in Judge Ted Poe's court in 2002.

I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground and I was initially extremely nervous to be in Judge Poe's court.  I was uncharacteristically quiet at first -- something that Ricardo initially interpreted as me being either stuck up or painfully shy.  He made it his personal project to get me to loosen up and we became very good friends.  I learned about his service in the Army in Vietnam and about his family in Laredo.  We both shared a love of crawfish and would get together from time to time to go eat some mudbugs.

I tried my first murder case against Ricardo while in Poe's court and learned he was a formidable opponent who defended a tough case with honor and painstaking attention to detail.  I've never worked so hard in my life to get a Judgment and Sentence admitted into evidence.  I've always been proud to say that I tried my first murder case in front of Judge Poe, but I'm equally proud to say I tried it against Ricardo.

My rotation in Judge Poe's court was shorter than I would have liked -- I was only in there for three or four months before getting moved to another court -- but it was easily some of the most memorable and enjoyable time I spent during my tenure at the Office.  It is hard to believe that was over fifteen years ago.

I'm very happy that my dear friend is taking his well-deserved retirement, but I'm sad that he's moving off to Laredo to enjoy it.  I will miss him.  I've always said that the best thing about working within the Harris County Criminal Justice System is the opportunity to walk amongst giants. 

Ricardo Rodriguez was definitely one of those.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Technical Issue with the Comments

If you've made a comment on the blog over the past couple of months and it didn't get published, I owe you an apology.

Apparently, something was going on with my spam filters and it swept a lot of babies out with the bathwater when it came to blog comments.  I think I have the problem fixed and I think I've published all of the old comments that didn't post right away.

I just assumed that since I hadn't written much this summer that nobody had anything to say about the few things that I have written.  I firmly believe that the comments are the best part of this blog, so I'm glad to see them still coming in.  There are some especially interesting ones (with accompanying statistics) on A Personnel Problem.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Personnel Problem

My, how times have changed.

Back in the summer of 1998, I was between my 2nd and 3rd year of law school at the University of Houston.  That's roughly the academic time in a law student's life when the big law firms start coming to campus to do interviews with students.  Nervous law students hoping and praying to get hired on with one of those White-Shoe firms wear the same damn suit for days in a row as they talk to all of the legal powerhouses from around the city, state or country.  There is a notable increase in the general level of stress around the school.

In many ways, it was like league dating.  If you wanted to even get an interview with one of the top-tier firms, then your grades needed to reflect that you were a top-tier student.  Some of the smaller firms were a little looser with their standards.  I remember hating that time of law school because all of my normally laid-back friends suddenly became hyperactive stress monkeys.

For me, it was a little less stressful.  I didn't want to get on with a big firm (and with my grades, that feeling was mutual).  I had one place and one place only that I wanted to work:

The Harris County District Attorney's Office.

That was it.  No backup plan.  No safety net.  They were the best in the State.  They were the best in the Country.  They were the best in the World.

I applied for one of the coveted "pre-commit" spots with the Office.  If you received one of those, you had a guaranteed job with them that you held while waiting for your Bar Exam results.  It was job security provided that you passed.

My interview was with Julian Ramirez and Donna Goode.  Julian was fresh off of securing the death penalty on a case where a Houston police officer had been murdered, and I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity.  I interviewed.  I thought it went well.

Back then, after an interview with the Office, you received a letter several days later that told you either: a) congratulations! You're invited to be a Pre-Commit; b) Thanks for your application, but we aren't offering you a Pre-Commit spot, please re-apply once you pass the Bar; and c) Thanks for your interest, but we don't feel you would be a good match for our office.

I got the "b" option.  Although I thought my interview went well, I wasn't entirely surprised that I wasn't getting a Pre-Commit slot.  My grades weren't exactly terrific.  Although I was mildly disappointed, I wasn't deterred.  I wasn't giving up.

I finished school a semester early (shocking, I know).  It was by design.  I wanted to take the February 1999 Bar Exam because it was the last one before the State Bar was adding the dreaded "Federal Income Tax" portion to the exam.  The prospect of dealing with that scared the hell out of me.   I spent all of January and February of 1999 at every bar preparation class that BARBRI had to offer.  In retrospect, if I had studied as hard during the rest of law school as I did during those two months, those White-Shoe firms might have actually been interested.

The last day of the bar exam was February 25, 1999.  I finished and drove straight home to Bryan.  The lease on my apartment ran out three days later, and for the next three to four months, I was a 26-year-old, engaged, law school graduate, living with his mommy and daddy.  It paints an attractive picture, I know.

But I still had my eye on that prize.  I was just biding my time and waiting for that second shot at applying with Harris County.  I worked as a law clerk for the Brazos County Attorney's Office for five (count 'em, 5) dollars an hour, trying cases and waiting on those Bar Results.  When I learned I passed, I applied again within the next business day.

I had my (second) first interview with Maria McAnulty at 201 Fannin.  She told me at the end of the interview that she would be referring me to the full Hiring Committee.  I was giddy.  A few weeks later, I was grilled by the grumpy old men of the hiring committee, and I couldn't have been more nervous.

Much to my relief, a week or so later I received a phone call from then-1st Assistant-later-Judge Don Stricklin, offering me the job.  I accepted on the spot and told him I'd be there in two weeks.  He told me that I didn't have to be there that quickly, but I assured him that it was no problem.  I'd been waiting for so long to work at that Office that I didn't want to wait an unnecessary moment.

Honestly, I don't know that I ever worked so hard to achieve something in my entire life.

I bring all of this up now in response to seeing this today on Twitter.

The job that aspiring prosecutors once had to work so hard to get is now actively seeking new employees.  Apparently, so many prosecutors are leaving the Office now that they are beginning to find themselves in a bit of a desperate situation.  They can't say that I didn't warn them.  The problem remains personnel and internal politics.

Over the course of the summer, three highly respected and senior Felony District Court Chiefs departed the Office for the Feds.  Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two other District Court Chiefs who departed earlier in the year.  For those of you unfamiliar with the hierarchy of the Office, a District Court Chief is someone who has attained the level of experience within the Office to manage a felony court.  They are the ones who have the experience to try death penalty cases.  It is a reward position that honors experience and hard work.  Most prosecutors who achieve that position are considered to be career prosecutors.

Senior Felony Twos (those who are on the cusp of becoming chief) are leaving as well.  One departing Two told me that she was leaving because she was a lawyer and an adult and wasn't going to spend her career being treated the way the Office was currently treating prosecutors.  

Earlier this week, a recently promoted Felony Chief turned in her two-week notice, leaving Harris County to go work for the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office as a Felony Two.  To put this in perspective, pretend that you are in the Army and you just got promoted to General.  You then resign from the Army to go work for the Marines as a Sergeant.  It's kind of like that and with an accompanying pay cut.

I have to admit that I'm not all that surprised by this current rate of attrition.  When Kim Ogg took over as D.A. and immediately fired 38 senior prosecutors, she pretty much made it clear that she valued loyalty to her over experience.  Is she starting to realize what a mistake that was?

From what I've heard, the Office is trying to offer some incentives to get people to stay.  They are now giving badges to prosecutors on their 3-year-anniversary with the Office (it was four years back in my day).  I've also heard that they are looking into providing free parking for people who have been there for three years (as opposed to when you make Chief).  

Those are nice gestures, but I remain convinced that if the Ogg Administration truly wants to stop losing experienced prosecutors, Kim needs to restructure her upper-echelons.  The current situation that her rank and file are working in is miserable enough post-Hurricane Harvey.  She can still make a change in the way she treats her people.  Being a Harris County Prosecutor is still something that can be one of the best jobs on Earth.  Retaining good, experienced prosecutors drastically reduces your chances of hiring a convicted felon as a new recruit.

I remain hopeful that Kim Ogg will realize that it isn't too late for her to turn this bus around.  She can still have an office that upholds the platform that she wants as District Attorney and back it up with a formidable squad of experienced trial prosecutors.  She just has to stop running off good people.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Roger Bridgwater and Regrettable Words

Every morning when I wake up, I grab my phone off the bedside table and immediately scroll through our Nation's most important news source:  Facebook.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but that's pretty much how I start every day.  I consider it a quick debriefing on how everything is going in my friends' lives.

This morning, as I was scrolling through the morning feed, I saw one of those annoying ads in the midst of puppy photos and political rantings.  It was an ad for Roger Bridgwater's candidacy for Harris County Court at Law # 15.

I was drawn to the partial quote that appeared above the logo.  

"There was actually something very Judicial about Roger Bridgwater long before he became . . . "

Something sounded familiar about that quote -- especially the unnecessary use of the word "actually."

Oh yeah.  That quote came from me.

I did some quick research and sure enough, I had paid Roger that compliment back in October of 2008 when he was running for re-election against then-candidate-later-Judge David Mendoza for the 178th.

I'm not one to deny words that I've said in the past, but I was pretty taken aback to see old Roger using a ten-year-old quote from me as an implied current endorsement.  Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity over the past ten years knows that I'm not a fan of his any longer.  Although I said those words about him back then, my opinions of Bridgwater evolved as I watched him in action after he lost the bench.

By 2009, after his highly publicized attack on senior Bureau Chief Donna Goode, I wrote "the Roger Bridgwater I used to know ain't there anymore."  For a quick refresher on that incident, Roger bristled at Donna questioning his decision to revoke an invitation to speak for Rusty Hardin, and he subsequently had her investigated by the Disciplinary Committee for "insubordination."   He then had her locked out of her office computer, which ultimately led to her resigning from the Office.

Then there was the time that Roger gave advice to a friend of his who was on a capital murder jury panel, which led to the whole trial having to be started over.  That's when I realized that not only was Roger kind of a power-hungry narcissist, he was also kind of dumb.

Oh, and although I never blogged about it, I heard from a potential client one time that Roger was a family friend and he had counseled them against hiring me.

So, it should be no small wonder that in the multitude of times that Roger has attempted to be elected to a bench, I've supported his opponent -- in both the primary and the general election.  As a side note, I went on to become a tremendous fan of Judge David Mendoza, although I had not known him prior to his taking the bench in 2009.  He was a great judge and a great man.

I think that we've all stated opinions that later changed due to subsequent events, and this is certainly not the first time this has happened to me.  The phrases "playing high school football in the summer in Texas sounds fun," "I don't like the taste of beer," and "I do" come to mind.

But Roger utilizing something that I said in 2008 on his 2018 campaign website is misleading and dishonest.

He knows damn good and well that I don't support him or his candidacy, and he's deliberately misleading people to believe otherwise.  The Catch-22 of the situation is that if you know me well enough to think that who I endorse actually matters, then you probably know me well enough to know that I would never support Roger Bridgwater for Judge.

So, in case there is any questions about my feelings in the 2018 election, let me be clear:  I don't think Roger Bridgwater would make a good judge.  His actions since 2008 have led me to believe he is arrogant, dishonest, and not that bright.  Otherwise, he wouldn't be listing me as an endorser.

I'm voting for Tonya Jones in the race for County Court at Law # 15.  And I approve that message.