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Analysis: The Final Punishment is Up to the Voters

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Photo illustration by Emily Albracht
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The Texas Tribune

It’s odd that one officeholder could be convicted, exonerated, re-indicted, convicted and sentenced without completely endangering his political career while another could get knocked out of contention while blaming an indictment that has not yet taken him to trial. 

But that’s politics.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Missouri City Democrat, was convicted on five counts of misdemeanor barratry — ambulance chasing, in the vernacular — and sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay $4,000 in fines. He is appealing that conviction, and in the meantime, he has filed for reelection to the House.

Former Gov. Rick Perry quit his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination citing — whether you buy it or not — his indictment on misuse of authority charges as a fatal injury. Perry vetoed state funding for the Travis County district attorney’s office after the DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, refused his demand that she retire in the wake of a drunk driving conviction. Prosecutors accused him of trying to coerce another government official. He has spent more than a year contesting that; one charge has been dropped and his challenge to a remaining charge is pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Perry hasn’t had a trial, but he says the charges themselves undermined his campaign. Aides said the doubt those indictments created was enough to scare away financial and political supporters critical to his success. They have a point, but it’s also an easy out that saves them having to explain what might have been unsuitable about the campaign or the candidate.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who took office in January, finds himself somewhere between Reynolds and Perry. He was indicted earlier this year on charges he solicited investors for a company without telling them he was being compensated for that and for acting as a securities adviser representative without a license.

His lawyers are fighting the indictments. He’s not up for election anytime soon, but he has recused himself from working on anything that might have something to do with securities until this is sorted out. And he is finding that it is hard to put your mark on your new state office when you’re also fighting criminal charges.

The strange bit is that Reynolds — the only one of the three who has actually had a trial, been found guilty and spent the night in jail — appears to be suffering the least amount of political damage.

The law does not require the convicted Reynolds to resign from office and does not prevent him from running again. A felony would knock him out of future contention, but his was not a felony conviction.

His voters have been through this before. Last year, he was convicted on similar charges related to the same set of circumstances. Reynolds and seven other lawyers were accused of paying Robert Valdez Sr. for client referrals, and since he was finding them clients by scrounging through fresh accident reports, prosecutors said the lawyers were in effect illegally soliciting business.

Reynolds has argued that he didn’t know Valdez had illegally solicited the clients and said that will be the basis of his appeal.

This happened a year ago, too, and Reynolds was elected to his third term in November 2014 in spite of the fact that he was then on trial for barratry charges. In fact, he was found guilty within days of the election in which voters returned him to office with 67 percent of the vote. That conviction was overturned later. He was re-indicted on similar charges and convicted again after a trial last week.

If you’re selling donuts, you can look around for hungry people and feed them for money. If you’re a lawyer, you have to play things cooler, waiting for them to shop around and find the counsel that suits them. It keeps most of the sleazebag lawyers out of the emergency rooms and is intended, generally, to keep them from starting legal fights that might not be started but for their profit motives.

Don’t worry: You can still incite people to eat donuts without worrying about the long arm of the law.

And Reynolds might escape the barratry charges when his appeal is heard. Between now and then, however, he is asking voters for a fourth term in office. He has already filed for re-election, and he admits that his current situation might attract a political competitor. But on Saturday, after he was convicted and before he was sentenced, he was serene about that.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “But I have a good, strong relationship with my constituents. They know me.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/25/analysis-final-punishment-voters/.