4 Harris Co. employees may face charges in probe
HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Attorneys for the Harris County District Attorney's top assistants say their clients are being bullied by a judge. Those comments are part of the twisted mess that starts with potentially faulty DWI tests and ends with prosecutors facing six months in jail.
Inside a packed courtroom Monday morning, a judge and lawyers were supposed to clear up allegations that the DA's Office went around the law and got transcripts of secret grand jury testimony.
You may remember the DA was kicked out of the investigation into how her office handled potentially faulty DWI tests. But nothing was cleared up today. Instead, it got a little more confusing when the judge kicked herself off the case.
Their lawyers said they did nothing wrong, but the four DA's Office employees charged with contempt didn't defend themselves today. Instead leading a parade of cameras they took off without saying a word leaving their lawyers behind.
"This is like the playground bully kicking sand in the little kids' faces and then the little kids go home and get their big brothers... and all of a sudden the playground bully is like 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, no, no, I just want to be your friend,'" said defense attorney Randy Schaffer.
In Schaffer's version of this drama, Judge Susan Brown is the bully, two court reporters along with two of DA Pat Lykos' top assistants are the little kids, and their defense lawyers are the big brothers.
Schaffer represents Steve Morris, one of the DA employees charged with contempt.
"A contempt proceeding is not the appropriate remedy for what in communist countries would be called an inquisition," Schaffer said.
He wouldn't say if his client had any of the supposedly secret transcripts. Only that if they did, it wouldn't be a crime. In fact, he and other defense attorneys say the judge ordered court reporters into the secret hearing to record them and then tried to charge them with contempt for doing their jobs.
"It just has a total absence of the appearance of fairness," said defense attorney Bill Hawkins.
And that's likely why the judge opted to let another judge to decide the issue. She might end up as a witness in a case that now questions the tactics of the Houston Police Department, the elected District Attorney, a secret grand jury and an elected judge.
"You just never know what might happen," Schaffer said.
There is not a new date for the contempt hearing, nor a new judge. The grand jury that started this investigation will meet again Tuesday.
13 Undercover's reports exposed problems with the BAT vans back in March.
On Monday, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland released a statement reading:
- "There has been a tremendous amount of publicity questioning the accuracy and reliability of the Houston Police Department (HPD) Breath Alcohol Testing (B.A.T.) vehicles. There is a misconception that the Intoxilyzers in the B.A.T. vans are not reliable, which is incorrect.
The Texas Department of Public Safety's experts tested HPD's B.A.T. vans months ago. The Texas Department of Public Safety found the Intoxilyzers operated in an accurate and reliable manner despite claims to the contrary.
The Houston Police Department will continue to utilize protocols established by the State of Texas and continue periodic testing by the Department of Public Safety to ensure the accuracy of the Intoxilyzers used by the Houston Police Department.
We will continue to use the B.A.T. vans as valuable tools in the fight to help make our streets safer by removing drunk and impaired drivers from our roadways. The Houston Police Department is committed to making our streets safer and maintaining the public's confidence in our struggle to keep the public safe from impaired drivers and ensure the integrity of the legal process."
Two Harris County prosecutors and two court reporters are on the other side of the judicial system, trying to convince a judge they did not break the law when the district attorneys were given secret information from a grand jury. That grand jury was actually investigating the Harris County DA's Office.
The hearing is the latest chapter in an investigation sparked by 13 Undercover.
A grand jury is trying to determine just how much the DA's Office knew about problems with the Houston Police Department's BAT vans -- the vehicles used to catch drunk drivers.
The two district attorneys and two court reporters are standing before the judge to answer charges that they were in contempt of court for having transcripts of what was supposed to be secret grand jury testimony.
The four people involved are Assistant District Attorneys Carl Hobbs and Steve Morris, and court reporters Javier Leal and Katherine Chagaris.
This all dates back to a hearing last month when the grand jury asked the two district attorneys to leave the room so they could hear testimony from a witness about the HPD BAT vans that are used to test for blood alcohol levels.
Our own 13 Undercover investigation revealed problems with the vans that may have lead to some false results. The grand jury was hearing testimony because the DA's Office was under investigation for possible wrongdoing pertaining to those BAT vans.
A special prosecutor was appointed to that case and our legal analyst says that is the reason that the four DA's Office employees could face separate criminal charges.
"The question is was the special prosecutor appointed on this matter before they got access to the stuff. It seems clear that they were, but everybody's entitled to a defense, everybody's presumed innocent and the positive about this is that the system is working. The court is challenging the District Attorney's Office as to whether they had access," said Joel Androphy, KTRK Legal Analyst.
Obtaining records of that grand jury testimony by these four would be a violation of a court order. At today's hearing they must prove why they should not be held in contempt, and sanctioned.
If they are found to be in contempt of court, these four will face a misdemeanor charge that carries a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. What's more serious is that they could be found to be in violation of state law which could lead to a separate investigation and additional charges against all four employees.
The other big question is just how far up the chain of command did this go and who gave the order for these records to be obtained. That still remains a mystery, but one that will certainly be looked into by a special investigator.
Stay with Eyewitness News and abc13.com for the latest on this story.
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