Kim Ogg, Sean Teare trade barbs in Democratic primary for Harris County DA

Kim Ogg is fighting to become the longest-serving Harris County District Attorney in nearly a quarter century. Former prosecutor Sean Teare accuses Ogg of breaking the office.

By Andrew Schneider, Houston Public MediaFebruary 20, 2024 10:15 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Harris County’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Kim Ogg, is running for a third term. First, she’ll need to beat back a Democratic primary challenge from former prosecutor Sean Teare. The winner of that contest will go on to face the sole Republican candidate, former prosecutor Dan Simons, in the fall. If Ogg defeats both challengers, she’ll become the longest-serving Harris County DA since Johnny Holmes left office at the end of 2000.

Potential voters recently had the opportunity to watch both the Democratic candidates face off against each other at an ACLU-sponsored forum at the DeLUXE Theatre in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Republican Dan Simons was invited to participate as well but declined. More than 100 people showed up, with the audience almost evenly split between Ogg and Teare supporters.

Texas Organizing Project member Cecilia Fontenot backed Teare. Her reason: “The crime, them letting people out too fast and they come back on the street and do the very same crime, while others stay in jail, and they are not guilty, yet they have not had a trial.”

Fellow TOP member Synnachia McQueen, Jr. wouldn’t say who he supported, but he knows exactly what he wants a DA to address.

“Criminal justice for number one, policing for number two, issues on immigration number three,” McQueen said. “Cite and release issues, where people are getting arrested for misdemeanors when they should just be getting tickets. What’s going to be done about people dying in the county jail?”

The district attorney is responsible for criminal justice, specifically in terms of deciding which cases to prosecute and how. To that extent, the office does have an impact on which cases result in people spending time in the Harris County Jail. However, the DA does not have control over policing, arrests, or immigration enforcement.

Kathy Davis, who was also in the audience, said she’s supported Kim Ogg since Ogg’s first run for DA in 2016.

“I think she is exactly what Houston and Harris County need right now. I’ve been most impressed with her ability not to play politics and to adhere to the letter of the law,” Davis said. “That’s very comforting to me as a voter.”

Keeping the DA’s office free of politics has come up a lot in this race, in no small part because Ogg has clashed repeatedly with her fellow Democrat, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, over Ogg’s calls to hire more prosecutors.

“Chicago has over 1,000 prosecutors,” Ogg told Houston Public Media. “Manhattan and the other boroughs of New York have a combined total greater than 1,000. We have 350. It’s simply not enough, and to have been starved in terms of our budget has been detrimental to public safety because it slows down the processing of cases.”

Ogg said the DA’s Office needs at least 100 more prosecutors than it has. She’s pressed the Harris County Commissioners Court to boost hiring multiple times, starting in 2019, only to be turned down almost every time by Hidalgo and the court’s Democratic majority. That was largely in response to concerns, echoed by Democrats on the court, that adding more prosecutors would directly translate to more people being incarcerated.

More than two years into these staffing fights, Ogg’s office investigated three now-former Hidalgo aides for their handling of a COVID-19 vaccine outreach program, including Hidalgo’s then-chief of staff, Alex Triantaphyllis. A grand jury ultimately indicted the three on felony charges. Judge Hidalgo, claiming Ogg was playing “dirty politics,” has since endorsed challenger Sean Teare. Further, the Harris County Democratic Party has passed a resolution admonishing Ogg.

“It certainly hurt my feelings. But is it going to have (an) impact (on) the campaign? I think that many people who heard that misinformation are hungry for the truth,” Ogg said. “I think we’ve done a great job of prosecuting the really violent. We just haven’t done enough of it. So, I hate for the public’s attention to be diverted by political infighting over whether I’m willing to prosecute Democrats. I’ll tell you right now, I’m willing to prosecute Democrats. I’ve also been willing to prosecute Republicans and Libertarians. So, we follow the law, not partisan lines, in the job of district attorney.”

James Cargas is an attorney, a former Democratic congressional candidate, and a Democratic precinct chairman. He voted against the resolution to admonish Ogg and has endorsed Ogg for reelection.

“I really don’t think it was fair to Kim Ogg, who’s doing an amazing job as our DA,” Cargas said. “She’s just doing her job. And to lash out at her because she’s doing her job, it’s just not right. That’s what we want from elected officials, Democrat or Republican.”

Cargas said that contrasted with Ogg’s opponent, Sean Teare. “I think that (the resolution) was motivated by certain defendants thinking that the way to their acquittal is to get a new DA, which kind of makes them look guilty, if that’s the only way they can be acquitted,” he said. “Kim Ogg’s primary opponent, Sean Teare, comes from the same law firm that is defending at least one of those defendants.”

For her part, Ogg has condemned Teare for not speaking out sooner about his law partnership with Dan Cogdill, one of the attorneys representing Alex Triantaphyllis.

“This is an enormous legal conflict of interest. And when you’re running for top law enforcement official, you cannot have been on the side of the defendant and then be the chief prosecutor,” Ogg said. “By failing to disclose that it gives the appearance of a quid pro quo deal, like the fix is in on those cases. And it took my opponent over a month after I began talking about this ethics conflict to say that he would recuse.”

Teare himself told Houston Public Media that he took steps the moment he went to work for his current firm to avert any conflict of interest.

“Well before I came to work here, Mr. Triantaphyllis hired Dan to defend him,” Teare said. “When I came to work here, we had an agreement that I would not be in any way associated with that case, because everyone knew that I was going to run against Kim. And so, we signed paperwork. We effectively walled me off of that case, I’ve never seen the file. I’ve never met Mr. Triantaphyllis. I’ve never done anything on the case. Nor will I.”

Teare said, if elected, he would send Triantaphyllis’s case to a neutral third party. “I am never going to give this community reason to doubt a single decision I do as the elected DA, which is why I’ve already said that I will recuse myself and our office January 1 of 2025 of that entire case.”

Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and former prosecutor Sean Teare at a tense moment in the DA candidate forum.

On policy, the candidates’ main difference appears to be how they would handle the Intake Bureau at the DA’s Office, which has the responsibility of reviewing and accepting criminal charges from police officers and presenting charges to sitting grand juries for indictment. Before Ogg came into office, roughly 350 line prosecutors worked in the bureau on a temporary, rotational basis, earning overtime. Ogg restructured Intake, staffing it with attorneys who worked there exclusively, full-time.

“I worked (Intake) as a young person for extra money,” Ogg said, describing her earlier service in the DA’s office before winning the top post. “And then I would go to court the next morning exhausted. Our lawyers weren’t able to provide their best performance in working double shifts. And by professionalizing Intake and making it full-time positions, we got a more consistent response for police officers.”

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation concluded that Ogg’s Intake reform had led her office to file an explosion of cases that lacked probable cause. The article found many of those cases were ultimately dismissed, but not before those people were sent to the overcrowded Harris County Jail.

Teare said the current Intake system was broken, and that if elected, he would return it to the organizational structure it had before Ogg took office.

“You’re losing almost 50% of the cases you take to trial,” he said. “The dismissal rates are over 50% of the cases we file, total. Those numbers are not what this county wants. And it’s a direct reason that we are so overcrowded at the Jail, that we’re killing people at an unprecedented rate. That’s the very first thing I change, and the entire community will benefit from that.”

Ogg blasted her opponent’s response as unfair to his former coworkers who now staff the Intake Bureau. “The Chronicle’s piece is exactly half the story,” Ogg said. “All 86 (Houston-area law enforcement) agencies file their cases through our DA Intake system. And what’s really wrong with it is that it takes officers too long to get through Intake because we’re understaffed, just like we are in the Trial Bureau, the Special Crimes Bureau, the Domestic Violence Bureau. And I’ll never apologize for trying to add staff because that’s how we make our community safer. We push these cases through on a more rapid basis and deal with the offenders more justly by getting to their cases faster.”

Teare said Ogg’s response reflected a pattern of behavior on the DA’s part. “She blamed Commissioners Court for understaffing and the backlog,” he said. “She blamed the labs for the backlog as well. This is what she does. She blames everyone but herself. She cannot admit that that office has a role to play in any of the issues facing the criminal justice system right now. And it’s patently false. And as regards to the increase in no probable cause findings, that is 100% Intake’s fault.”

But Teare said it’s not just Intake that’s broken. He argued Ogg’s behavior in running the DA’s Office was directly responsible for the organization’s staffing shortages.

“She operates at somewhere between 70 and 40 funded, unfilled positions at any one time because people leave so fast you can’t fill the positions in time,” Teare said. “And they’re not going to get rich doing criminal defense or civil work. Most of them are going to other jurisdictions, they’re going to work for (DA) Brian Middleton in Fort Bend. They’re going down to Galveston County or Montgomery County or other jurisdictions because they still believe in the oath. They still believe in the mission to see that justice is done in every case. They just don’t want to do it for her.”

Former prosecutor Lauren Byrne worked alongside Teare for years, before leaving the Harris County DA’s Office in 2020. Like Teare, Byrne said Ogg has driven good prosecutors away, herself included.

“If Kim perceives that she has been made to look bad in the media or that something won’t translate well in the media, she takes it personally, and she thinks that you are being disloyal to her or that you’re trying to sabotage her,” Byrne said. “It’s very paranoid. And it has the ability to almost be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will, because then she’s going to treat you so poorly that you don’t want to work for her anymore.”

Byrne has made no secret that she plans to vote for Teare. “First and foremost, that’s because I believe in him and I know he will be a great DA, and I know he will be a great leader. Because without great leadership, you don’t have employees who are motivated to do the job,” Byrne said. “But even if Sean was not the candidate, I could never support Kim Ogg after seeing how she treats her employees, but even more so since I’ve been a defense attorney, I’ve seen the way that she has treated even my own clients for political purposes, and she needs to go.”

Ogg contended that voters should decide the contest between Teare and herself as a matter of who had done more to earn the public’s trust. She returned to the question of the relationship between Teare’s law firm and Judge Hidalgo’s former chief of staff.

“We’re at a time of very low trust in government,” Ogg said. “People think the court system is rigged. By electing somebody who appears to be in a quid pro quo deal on public corruption cases, I think that diminishes the public’s trust, and I want them to look to our character in this race as to who has been truthful, who has been the public servant the longest, who’s the most qualified and who’s telling you the truth about what’s really at stake. Your public safety is what’s at stake.”

Lucio Vasquez contributed to this story.

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