Harris County DA’s indictments of fellow county officials raise questions

Charges made by Kim Ogg against a county court-at-law judge and aides to Lina Hidalgo have the DA’s fellow Democrats crying foul.

By Shelly BrisbinSeptember 20, 2023 3:12 pm,

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has launched criminal investigations against four other county officials with whom she was having public disagreements. They range from aides to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, to a county court-at-law judge.

Neena Satija, who reported the story for the Houston Chronicle along with Jen Rice, says Ogg and the officials she investigated are all Democrats, and most of the charges so far have not resulted in prosecution. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What first got your attention about Kim Ogg’s actions with regard to these other county officials?

Neena Satija: Well, we’ve actually been hearing for a while about some investigations that the DA had launched that had never been reported on because they didn’t go anywhere. They didn’t lead to any charges.

Because Harris County has a policy of reimbursing employees who got caught up in those investigations but were never convicted or found of any wrongdoing, we were able to get the records to show that those investigations happened, and that’s really what allowed us to do the story.

Tell us more about these indictments of former aides to Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Those are pretty interesting cases. We’ve been covering those for the last couple of years. The indictments come out of a, you know, issue with a contract. It was an $11 million contract to do [COVID] vaccine outreach in Harris County.

And so in June of, I believe it was 2021, the Harris County Commissioners Court that includes the county judge, Lina Hidalgo – not actually judge, is the elected leader of the county – but a majority of the court approved a contract to a company called Elevate Strategies, a political consulting firm.

And after that, there were allegations of cronyism, saying Elevate Strategies only has one employee. How are they supposed to do outreach, you know, for a vaccine, for a payment of $11 million? I think somewhat surprisingly to a lot of legal and political observers, that led to an investigation and indictments.

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So a county court at law judge, Darrell Jordan, was indicted in 2022. How did that dispute get started?

Back in 2020, a political consultant, media consultant named Wayne Dolcefino, who actually had been Kim Ogg’s campaign spokesperson back in 2016, was in Darrell Jordan’s court. I think it’s actually probably fair to say, because he had a hidden camera on him at the time in the courtroom, that he was interrupting the proceedings.

And Judge Jordan said, “you can sit here, but you can’t interrupt. If you if you keep interrupting, I’m going to hold you in contempt.” And I think the words from Dolcefino, which are captured on video, were something like, “do what you have to do.” By Jordan’s account, he said, “all right, I’m going to hold you in contempt, and you’re going to jail.”

And that was an incident that happened in 2020, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t until 2022 that around that time it was presented to a grand jury and Darrell Jordan was indicted for official suppression, for allegedly wrongfully jailing Wayne Dolcefino. And that case was dismissed just a few days after the indictments.

So tell us about the cost of these investigations of county officials. I gather there’s a lot of attention being paid to how much this is actually costing Harris County taxpayers?

That’s right. We only have one small aspect of the cost, which is how much county employees got reimbursed for their legal bills. And these are employees who were never charged with any crime, so perhaps never had a presentation made to the grand jury arguing that they should be charged with crimes. So those legal bills that taxpayers reimbursed county employees for come up to almost $1 million – about $900,000.

What we don’t know is how much money the DA spent on these investigations, some of which are still ongoing. Of course, the indictments against the Hidalgo aides are still pending, and those may go to trial at some point. We don’t know when.

People you talk to say these indictments and investigations are politically motivated. Why do they believe Kim Ogg is going after fellow Democrats?

As we write in our story, the people who were investigated by her, what they tell us is they feel like she is going after them for their disputes on things like bail reform, on changes to Harris County’s bail system, on what the jail population should be and how the DA should be doing her job.

And there’s been a lot of really, really interesting public disputes between the DA and other Democratic county officials about how to change the criminal justice system in Harris County. So that’s their allegation.

Of course, the DA denies that and says, “look, I am investigating county officials just as I would investigate anyone else. Any time I see a possibility of public corruption, I’m going to look into that.” So that’s been her contention. But certainly the people she’s investigated, some of whom have already had their cases dismissed, say that something else is going on.

Has District Attorney Ogg responded to your questions?

No. We tried very hard to get an interview with the DA. We spoke at length and sent a lot of correspondence to her communications staff. Ultimately, they declined to respond to most of our questions.

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