Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Aggravating Zoom People

As most of you know, the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, like many courthouses around the country, is using Zoom video conferences to conduct court appearances and hearings.  With several weeks of this under our belts, certain personalities for Zoomers have emerged and Cabin Fever-induced irritability has manifested.  In the spirit of Stupid Elevator People (and its lesser-known Addendum to the Elevator People), I now present to you the Top 10 Aggravating Zoom People.

10.  Zany Background Guy -- I'm not exactly sure why Zoom provides whimsical backdrops for users, but I have to assume that it was designed for kindergarten teachers who need to talk to their students.  It's not really necessary for licensed attorneys and judges.  From those of you who look like you are broadcasting live from the Golden Gate Bridge to those of you with motivational messages as a background, it really isn't necessary.  Most conspicuous offender:  Joe Vinas with his "Shall We Play a Game?" backdrop which harkens back to 1983's obscure nerd movie Wargames.  Objection, Joe,  Relevance.

9.  The Radio Prosecutor -- This goes out to the prosecutor who wants to make sure that absolutely nothing about the Zoom video conference gives away anything about his or her personal appearance, including, but not limited to, what they look like without the makeup that they definitely will not be putting on this morning.  This prosecutor's video screen is filled only with big block letters announcing his or (usually) her name.  When you indignantly read probable cause, your name flashes across the screen like Closed Captioning from the Gods.  Most conspicuous offender:  Casey Little, whose zealous advocacy on behalf of the State, coupled with her name on the screen, makes it feel like Justice is screaming at you through a bullhorn.

8.  The "I'm Not That Great with Technology" Close Talker -- This is the lawyer who has been, um, let's just say "practicing for awhile" that is still trying to figure out what is going on with all of this technology crap.  Rather than turning up the speaker on his or her computer, he or she edges in real close to the computer screen and yells into the microphone.  It comes across as a really angry extreme close up.  Most conspicuous offender:  Skip Cornelius, who in a conference yesterday was yelling both when he was angry and when he wasn't.  The best part of this video was seeing his brother, Terry, standing over Skip's shoulder through the whole thing.  I couldn't tell if Terry was Skip's tech help or just waiting on him to go play golf.

7.  The "Hey! I just got here!" Guy --This tone-deaf Zoomer is the guy who just logged into a Zoom docket that has been going for some time, but seems unaware of the fact that his arrival is really not that remarkable of an event.  Upon logging on, he or she immediately begins talking to the judge as if the judge had been sitting there all morning just waiting for the lawyer to arrive.  I'm not sure if this is a lack of technology awareness or just simple rudeness.  Would you walk into a courtroom under normal circumstances and immediately demand attention?  No?  Then mute yourself and shut up until called upon.  Most conspicuous offender:  Every criminal defense attorney who has been licensed for less than a year.

6.  The Grey Poupon Background Guy --  This is the lawyer who has found the most sophisticated looking place to set up his or her computer so that you can admire the interior decorating.  Whether you are sitting in front of your diplomas at your office (yes, Brian Roberts, we all are licensed by the State Bar of Texas) or just want to show how nice your house is, we get it.  You are fancier than the guys in the Grey Poupon commercials.  Most conspicuous offender:  Todd Dupont, who strategically placed his computer camera facing a doorway with perfectly balanced, tasteful artwork on either side of it.  It was elegant and understated.  Less elegant and understated:  the short sleeve buttondown shirt you were wearing.  Hey, Detective Sipowicz, NYPD Blue went off the air in 2005.

5.  The Muting Refuser -- Here's a fun fact about Zoom that some people seem to have not picked up on yet.  When you are the person talking (or making noise), the software gives you the spotlight and you take up the main screen.  Kind of like in an interview via satellite on the news.  Some Zoom participants either don't know how to mute their microphones or just refuse to.  Every time they (or someone or something at their location) makes a noise, we all hear it and the camera cuts to you.  If your dogs are barking or your kids are yelling, we can all hear it and we know it is coming from you because the camera zooms in on your face.  Most conspicuous offender:  Eileen Bogar, who recently seemed to be battling allergies during a Zoom conference.  Her sniffling and sneezing led to multiple staccato cutaways to her like a Claritin commercial meshing with a 1990s Pop Art video while other lawyers were talking to the judge.

4.  The "I'm here to Socialize" Guy -- This goes out to the attorney whose business with court was brief and concluded, but still keeps on talking to the judge, prosecutor and/or other attorneys, much to the aggravation of the other attorneys waiting to speak to the Court.  Shut up, man.  Some of us need to get done with this Zoom conference so we can catch The Price Is RightMost conspicuous offender:  Murray Newman.  Sorry, everybody.  I miss y'all!

3.  The "I'm Not In Court, You Can't Tell Me What to Wear" Guy -- Sure, it's a pandemic and we are all broadcasting from home.  None of us are dressed in our Sunday Best, exactly.  I've modeled some of my finest concert t-shirts from the past decade myself.  But then there's that guy who has to take it a step too far by clearly getting dressed (or not) to show his irreverence for the situation.  Apparently, this became so out of control in Florida (go figure) that a judge had to drop the hammer on some attorneys who were appearing a little too laid back in their video appearances.  Most conspicuous offender:  Mark Lipkin, who is rumored to have appeared shirtless in a recent Zoom appearance in court.

2.  The Boring Background Prosecutor --  This one describes the prosecutor with the least imaginative background while talking.  While some prosecutors are sitting at their breakfast table or perhaps home office, the Boring Background Prosecutor has selected the blandest setting possible to set up shop.  Also qualifying under this category is the prosecutor who has selected something really boring as their artificial backdrop.  Seriously, if you are going to use a backdrop, be somewhat imaginative.  A courtroom setting and/or a view of the CJC, for instance, is lame, Ryan McLearen.  Most conspicuous offender:  Cristina Platter, who conferenced in from a white-walled room devoid of photos, artwork, windows, or color. I was concerned that perhaps she had broken into a vacant apartment for the conference call. Seriously, I've seen hostage videos filmed in locations that showed more pizzazz.

1.  The "Let Me Take You on A Journey" Attorney -- This is the lawyer on a laptop who just can't sit still while waiting for his or her turn to talk.  He or she picks up the laptop and goes for a stroll around the house.  This, as it turns out, also makes the camera cut to you and gives everyone watching the screen a severe case of sea sickness-induced nausea.  For the love of God, please stop.  I will chip in to get you a desktop, just please stop moving.  You have the option of turning the camera off for whatever reason you need.  Movement is one of those reasons!  Most conspicuous offender:  Beth Exley, who took us all on an IMAX-worthy-tour-of-her-house-as-seen-over-her-shoulder yesterday in the 185th Zoom conference.

So, there you have it.  If you have additional categories that you would like to add, please do so in the comments.  If I named you in this post, don't be mad.  I wouldn't have named you if I didn't think you could take a joke!

Lucy Forbes for State Bar Director

I know everyone has a lot on their plates with everything going on at the moment, but if you are an attorney reading this, I hope you will take time to vote in the State Bar elections today.

The deadline is at the end of the month and the ballot is very short.  It literally takes less than a minute to vote and you can do it by clicking on this link:  https://www.esc-vote.com/SBOT/default.asp?L3=email

You should have received an e-mail about voting in the race that included your Voter Authorization Number (VAN), but if you can't find that e-mail, the above link will locate it for you.  Just please take the time to vote.

I don't normally pay too much attention to the State Bar elections, but in this race, I wanted to ask you to vote for my friend, Lucy Forbes, who is running for District Four, Place Four on the Texas State Bar Board of Directors.

Although Lucy primarily practices in the Civil Appellate field of law, she has spent the past months reaching out to those of us who practice Criminal Law in an effort to learn the issues that we face in our line of work.  She is Baylor Law School graduate who has been practicing for 21 years.  She has listened at length and has a strong desire to help fix those problems that we may have.  She definitely wants to make sure that the State Bar is more responsive to the needs and issues that the Criminal Bar faces.

I wholeheartedly recommend Lucy based on her years of experience, her enthusiasm, and her work ethic.  She is someone who is here to help and we would all benefit from having her on the Board of Directors.

Her opponent is a member of Kim Ogg's upper administration, and that's the only comment I will make about that.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Kim Ogg's Pandemic Witch Hunt

It started innocuously enough, a little over a month ago.  That seems like a lifetime ago, now, doesn't it?  The Coronavirus was just beginning to take a foothold on the western side of the country and maybe a case or two had been identified in Harris County.

As noted in an earlier post, the Office was already working around-the-clock to deal with the virus by relaxing the dress code.  They weren't sending their non-essential employees home back then, for some reason.  But Division Chief Tanisha Manning decided to get out ahead of the crisis by creating a worksheet to keep track of the Office's internal mortality rate.

Since the powers that be had no intention of issuing a blanket "stay-at-home" order at that time, the Office clearly needed to keep track of those less dedicated employees who weren't coming into work.  On its face, the chart is laughable.  So much so that I initially was curious as to whether or not it had been created facetiously.  

The beautifully color-coded chart for each day of the work week allowed for supervisors to document those employees within their respective divisions who were missing work for 1) non-COVID related reasons, 2) quarantining without symptoms, 3) being diagnosed with COVID or showing symptoms, or 4) something having to do with being in Court or at the Office's headquarters at 500 Jefferson.    The crown jewel of this ridiculous worksheet, however, was the top portion, which requested notification of those "Employees Seriously Ill or who have Passed Away due to COVID-19."  

As one employee noted:  "I'm supposed to call in dead?"

To be fair, Tanisha didn't come up with the questions being asked; those were apparently from the overarching Harris County government.  But, she did make it a very pretty worksheet that was sent out to other employees.  It wasn't really that big a deal, but it caused a couple of gallows-humor inspired chuckles amongst many of the employees at the Office.   Others took it to be an all-too-frightening warning.  That same morning was when news of an exposed prosecutor had resulted in a shutdown of the 8th floor of the CJC and people in HAZMAT suits were greeting visitors when they entered the building.

At some point, someone took a photograph of the worksheet while it was displayed on a computer monitor and sent it to a friend or two.  And that's where the trouble started.  

A troublemaking, bald-headed defense attorney (who strangely enough was not me) posted that photo on Facebook and lightly made fun of it.

It is important to keep the timeframe in context here, because it's very relevant.  

The day after this silly worksheet came out, everything got real serious over at the CJC.  Prosecutors were sent home and told to work from there.  The CJC began aggressively shutting down bond dockets and keeping people out of the building entirely.   In short, the crisis of the coronavirus was hitting home and we were all in full-fledged crisis mode.

But for Kim Ogg, the real crisis wasn't the coronavirus.  

It was finding out whoever leaked that photograph to a defense attorney.  It was time for a good old-fashioned witch hunt.

For what it's worth, I had no idea that any of this was going on at the time.  My first clue that something was afoot came when I e-mailed a senior Felony Chief prosecutor about a case and never heard back.  Having dealt with this Chief before on many occasions and knowing him to be an extremely responsible and diligent prosecutor, I found this to be unusual.  I made mention to someone else that I found this to be unusual.  That person then told me the story that I'm about to tell you (if you don't already know it).

Now, before going any further, I want to make a couple of things VERY clear.  By the time you get to the end of this blog post, you will understand why.  The first thing I want made clear is that I am 100% confident in the information I'm about to write.  The second thing is that I received this information from multiple, multiple sources and I'm not going to name them under any circumstances.  If Kim Ogg would like to know them, she can call me on my direct line at 713-BITE-MYASS.  And finally, I'm not going to name the prosecutors targeted in this witch hunt.  They were all treated unfairly and I have no intention of making it worse for them by naming them.  If you comment on this post and name any of them, I won't be publishing your comment.  

As I was saying . . .

While everyone else was pulling together to help keep the Criminal Justice System moving forward, Crazy Kim Ogg was ramping up her own version of the Spanish Inquisition.  She dispatched her Chief Investigator Steve Clappart and his team of investigators to locate the dastardly, disloyal person who had shared the photograph.  Prosecutors were interrogated and were asked whether or not they had received the picture, and if so, had they forwarded it on to anyone outside the Office.

A senior felony chief prosecutor acknowledged having received the photo and sending it to a handful of other prosecutors but told the investigator that it had not been sent to anyone outside the Office.  Stunningly, the prosecutor was immediately suspended and the prosecutor's county-issued computer was confiscated.  The investigator then asked for the prosecutor to turn over the prosecutor's personal cell phone for downloading, and the prosecutor declined.

So to satisfy Kim Ogg's paranoia, a prosecutor (who was not the source of the photo, nor the person who forwarded said photo to the above-mentioned bald defense attorney) was suspended for sharing the photo with a group of prosecutors. 

Let that sink in for just a moment.

With the coronavirus in full effect and everyone is involved in a group effort to help, Kim Ogg sidelines an experienced Felony District Court Chief for her arbitrary belief that the prosecutor was somehow "disloyal."

Seem stupid and paranoid?  Probably because it is.

But wait, there's more.  Kim Ogg and Chief Stormtrooper Clappart would do something similar to six more senior prosecutors -- four additional District Court Chiefs, and two senior Felony Twos.  Those six wouldn't actually be suspended, but they did have either Clappart or one of his investigators show up at their doors to confiscate their work computers for a good old-fashioned Disloyalty Download.  Again, the investigators were told to request the personal cell phones of all of those prosecutors for download, and again all were denied.

As a side note, I really want to give a huge shout out to Harris County District Attorney Chief Investigator Steve Clappart.  You have really come a long way from the olden days when you were a respected Homicide investigator with HPD.  From drafting a bullshit Capital Murder warrant to charge a teenager as an alternate suspect on behalf of David Temple's defense team to shaking down senior prosecutors for their personal cell phones.   You've got to be so proud.  I guess what your former colleagues think of you no longer matters.  Hey, I've got a mystery for an old Homicide guy:  figure out who murdered your reputation.  SPOILER ALERT:  It was you.

So, back to the Mad Queen.

Although not suspended, the additional six prosecutors no longer had their computers,  which drastically reduced their ability to do their jobs while the rest of us were trying to figure out Zoom conferences and other things that were desperately needed in the crisis.  Not just any prosecutors, but senior prosecutors who are all highly respected for the jobs that they do.  These were the exact people who needed to be working at full capacity through this crisis, not sidelined to satisfy Kim's paranoia.

The ultimate irony in this was that none of those seven sidelined prosecutors either a) took the photo; b) shared the photo with the defense attorney; nor c) shared it outside of the Office.  They all just got punished for refusing to turn over their private cell phones to the idiots running the witch hunt.  

Kim's ego-fueled paranoia couldn't have come at a worse time.  But it wasn't over yet.

All of the prosecutors were told to come into the Office or participate in a Zoom conference with the Empress herself.  All had refused to turn over their personal cell phones to Clappart and Company, but perhaps they would cave when asked by Ogg herself.  Ogg told them all that they could be fired for failing to turn over their personal phones for download.  They all stood their ground, refusing to turn over their personal, private data in an effort to extinguish Kim's lunacy.

In the middle of this, the actual prosecutor who had sent the picture to the defense came forward.  This prosecutor was also a respected Felony District Court Chief who didn't want anyone else having to suffer Kim's wrath for something that they hadn't done.  The prosecutor explained that the purpose of sharing the photo had been out of concern, not mockery.  The prosecutor offered up their personal cell phone.  Ironically, the investigator declined to take it.

That was a week or so ago.  Time kind of runs together these days.  Ultimately the Original Seven prosecutors all received letters of reprimand in their files for their alleged insubordination for failing to turn over their phones.   They have been told that they all are going to be transferred out of their current assignments immediately, on the off chance that any of them were happy where they were.

Today, the prosecutor who came forward was fired.  I'm not sure what exactly the rationale was behind firing somebody who a) didn't break the law; b) didn't break an actual rule in the Office's Operation manual; and c) was honest about the prosecutor's involvement in the "scandal." As with the Original Seven, this prosecutor had a stellar reputation for leadership and being reasonable.  Those things are desperately needed right now.

All to satisfy the ego-driven bully currently residing as the Harris County District Attorney.

Kim, you've jumped from being a terrible public servant to just being a terrible person, in general.  You possess none of the qualities of leadership that the prosecutors you punished all have.  You are petty and vindictive, and this ridiculous witch hunt has shown that Public Interest and Safety is far less important to you than your own ego and misguided definitions of loyalty.

I'm embarrassed of you and I'm embarrassed for you.

To the eight of you who got tangled up in this stupid witch hunt, I'm sure that you know your reputations for both integrity and talent far outshine anything that Kim Ogg has ever accomplished in her career.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Court Today

I went to court today.

I didn't want to. 

I mean, I really didn't want to.  Unlike in past disasters, when I found a level of excitement and fun riding out a hurricane or being one of the first people to go back to Downtown Houston after a flood, my courage ran out when it came to the thought of an invisible virus that could kill me and any other family members that I spread it to.  For the past several weeks, my family and I have been staying at our lake house out in the middle of nowhere.  No one can accuse me of not taking the current crisis seriously.

Turns out, as a leukemia survivor who went through chemotherapy, I fall under that unpleasant category of "immunocompromised."  My 6-year-old son, who had his own bout of Immune Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP) a couple of years ago falls into the same category.   There are plenty of other Harris County CJC regulars that fall into the category as well.  Probably more than you or I even are aware of.

So trust me when I emphasize that I really didn't want to go to court today.  I've been dreading it all week.

But it couldn't be helped.  I didn't have to go to court because of a judge being unreasonable about attendance, nor did I feel a financial obligation to show up.  On the whole, I think that almost all of the courts have come into line about not requiring personal appearances.  The court where I made my appearance was, without question, one of the leaders in waiving appearances for attorneys and on-bond defendants.

What compelled me to go in was that my client had the opportunity to go home from jail today with a reasonable plea bargain offer.   But due to a language barrier (with a semi-rare dialect from an overseas nation) coupled with some possible mental health issues, I needed to be there in person with an interpreter if there was any hope of ensuring that my client was properly informed of his rights and had the ability to make an informed decision.

So, this morning, I got up, grabbed a set of latex gloves and an N95 mask and headed off to Downtown.  I stopped at Ace Hardware on the way to see if they had a cooler-looking better mask than the one I had, but unfortunately, they were sold out.  I was somewhat surprised that there was still a moderate amount of traffic on the ride into Downtown.  It wasn't gridlock but it wasn't free sailing, either.

Downtown had a healthy amount of traffic too, although nothing too bad.  I got to the garage, masked and gloved up and headed down the elevator.  Because I'm a forgetful dumbass, I had forgotten my Frequent Visitor Badge at the lake house.  I was greeted at security by a lady who tried to take my temperature.  It didn't work until the fifth try, which gave me a ton of confidence that it was working properly.  I registered a 95 and was allowed to proceed into the building.  Since I had forgotten my badge, I had to take off my shoes and belt for the metal detectors.

I swear I could feel coronavirus permeating from the floor and through my socks when I went through.

The CJC was a ghost town.  There were signs on the elevators that forbid more than two riders at a time, but it wasn't an issue.  I had the elevator all to myself.  There was one other attorney in the court when I got there, and he was hanging out in the jury room.  I went into the courtroom to see if my interpreter had showed up early, by any chance.  He hadn't, so I hung out with the bailiffs and caught up on how everyone was doing.  Most of the lights were off in the courtroom, which made a depressing situation feel even more depressing.

The judge showed up promptly at 9 a.m.  Normally, he is one of the most cheerful and cordial people in the courtroom, but he seemed beatdown today.  He was pleasant, but he wasn't himself.  He seemed tired and sad.  Quite frankly, I don't know how he could avoid being tired and sad.  He's been working his ass off since the crisis hit.  I've done many zoom conferences over the past several weeks and he's always in court, handling his docket.  He's not zooming in.  He's there in person.

I told him the details of the anticipated plea bargain and he said, sadly: "I'm sorry you have to be here.  I've been trying to keep anyone from having to be here."

I told him that it couldn't be avoided.  About that time, the interpreter showed up -- a nice, cheerful man who I had dealt with on other court settings.  He didn't bring a mask or gloves, but seemed unconcerned about needing them.  We went into the holdover where we spent a painstaking amount of time, talking to my client about his legal options.  My interpreter communicated with him through the plexiglass window to the holdover.  My client was wearing a mask, as were all of the other inmates. 

The holdover was far from full.  There were only a handful of inmates there and I could see other inmates in the adjacent holdover.  They all looked scared and I couldn't help but think that they reminded me of trapped animals in a lab.  In normal times, the holdover is a place of unmitigated testosterone, noise, and bravado.  Now it just felt like a hospital waiting room where everyone was just waiting to hear hopelessly bad news.  It was strange and it was depressing.

After being fully advised, my client signed his plea paperwork.  I told the coordinator that we had a plea ready for the judge.  Normally, I can expect a high level of good-natured banter with her when I see her in court.  But, she seemed stressed and scared.  I kept my normal routine of smart ass comments to myself.  I didn't feel like making them, anyway.

The judge had me and the interpreter stand at the back of the courtroom when my client came in to take his plea.  The prosecutor chimed in her parts via a zoom conference.  Her face wasn't even on the screen.  When the plea was over, my client was taken back into the back.  He had more paperwork to do with the probation department but my job was done.  The poor interpreter still had a long morning ahead of him.

I said goodbye to everyone in the courtroom.  The judge gave me a solemn "Thanks for coming in."

And I left.  I felt overwhelmingly depressed about it all.  I think the past few weeks of living out in the country shielded me from the reality of what it is like in Houston and the CJC right now.

I pulled off my N95 mask once I got outside. Nobody tells you how much those damn things make your nostrils itch,  They are also really lovely accentuators of how fat your face has gotten over the past few years.  Man, I really hated that thing.

I took off the gloves when I got to my floor at the parking garage, and I liberally poured hand sanitizer all over my hands and forearms.  My inner paranoia made me feel like I had contamination all over me.  I went home, threw my clothes in the washer and immediately took a shower.  It didn't ease the paranoia any.  I'm pretty sure that my visit to the CJC will add to an already impressive level of hypochondria that I've had ever since going through chemo.


But, more than the feelings of germaphobia, hypochondria and Dear-God-I've-GOT-to-start-on-a-diet,  I think the overwhelming takeaway from my visit to court today was how incredibly sad all of this is.  I missed seeing all of my friends on both sides of the table.  I hated seeing the judge and the coordinator depressed.  I missed the noise and bravado coming out of the holdover.  The fear in the eyes of the inmates scared me. 

I don't think that I'll be back inside the CJC for awhile.  Today's client had a rare situation that couldn't be handled by a phone call or teleconference.  I feel relief at the thought of not going back for a bit, despite the people that I miss not seeing.  To the judges and court staff who are physically going into the building every day to make sure the Justice System keeps moving, you have my respect and appreciation.  I hope you stay safe and well.

I hope that ALL of you stay safe and well.  

I look forward to the day when we can all be back together under happier and safer times.

Episode Seven: The Voters Awaken - A One Act -Sci-Fi Play

SCENE:  The Death Star orbits over Downtown Houston. [INTERIOR] The Imperial Council Chambers. EMPRESS OGG sits at the head of a long table ...