Friday, March 20, 2015
The time a congressman punched man | Last Word
This week the Texas Senate’s State Affairs Committee approved a bill it says is designed to take politics out of the prosecution of politicians charged with corruption.
More likely, it is designed to take prosecutions out of political corruption.
The solution, says Sen. Joan Huffman, a former Houston judge who authored the bill, is to have the alleged miscreants tried in their hometowns.
I have a funny story to tell you about that, but first a bit of background.
Under the current system the law provides that such cases are handled by a special Public Integrity Unit, which is part of the Travis County district attorney’s office.
The office through the years has been accused of political prosecutions, both by indicted Republicans and Democrats.
Most recently Republicans have been upset about the indictment of then-Gov. Rick Perry.
But it wasn’t the Travis County unit that won that indictment.
It was a special prosecutor appointed by a respected Republican judge.
Maybe if we want to depoliticize such prosecutions, we should set up a system of special prosecutors selected by respected judges.
But Sen. Huffman devised a more complicated system.
First it goes to the attorney general’s office.
This choice doesn’t appear to be informed by history.
Two of our past four attorney generals have been indicted, democrats Jim Mattox and Dan Morales.
Morales was convicted.
Of our last six attorney generals, three have been elected to higher office and two others ran for governor but lost.
The only exception was Morales, who instead went to prison.
Such political ambition hardly suggests that attorney generals would be above politics.
But under Huffman’s plan, the attorney general is only the gatekeeper for possible prosecutions.
Only if he decides “a reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed, does he refer the matter to the district or county attorney where the suspect is a resident.
That’s where the notion that this procedure would remove politics goes from the ridiculous to the hilarious.
As an example, let me tell you (or remind you) of the story of Fighting Henry B. Gonzalez.
Back in 1986, Congressman Gonzalez was leaving Earl Abel’s Restaurant when an aide reported to him that a customer seated at a table near theirs had referred to him as a Communist.
Henry B., 70 at the time, went back in and asked the three men at the table if any of them had called him a Communist.
When 40-year-old Bill Allen admitted to saying something along those lines, Henry B. socked him hard enough to produce a black eye.
Allen didn’t respond immediately, but later filed assault charges.
The newly elected district attorney, Fred Rodriguez, was clearly worried about the politics of the case.
He tried for five months to negotiate a deal in which Allen would drop the complaint in exchange for a public apology from Henry B.
Only after Henry B. called Rodriguez “a craven coward” at a press conference did Rodriguez finally file a misdemeanor assault charge.
Possible sentence: up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen had come to Henry B.’s defense.
“Henry is an American patriot and anyone who says otherwise obviously risks a punch in the nose.”
And when Gonzalez’s lawyers won a hearing to recuse Judge Tim Johnson from presiding over the case because he was a Republican, Texas Supreme Court Justice Oscar Mauzy, Mayor Henry Cisneros and Attorney General Jim Mattox showed up in court on Henry B.’s behalf.
That’s right: the attorney general.
Johnson recused himself from the case in disgust.
He was replaced by Judge Tony Ferro, a Democrat who had previously practiced law with one of Henry B.’s attorneys.
After considerable theatrics, a settlement was reached on the eve of trial.
Henry B. issued a public apology to everyone but Bill Allen.
The charges were dropped.
But the punch line was clear.
The notion that a prominent politician can be tried in his hometown without politics is laughable.