Houston DA Controversy

In his 30-plus-year legal career in Harris County, Texas, Chuck Rosenthal has been no stranger to controversy. As a prosecutor he lit firecrackers in the stairwell of the district attorney's offices soon after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. (It was a prank, he said.) After he was elected DA in 2000 he called the death penalty a "biblical proposition" and lobbied unsuccessfully to maintain Texas's sodomy law. He defied a gag order to appear on "60 Minutes" in 2001 to defend his decision to seek the death penalty for Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children.

Rosenthal is back in the headlines again. Last December, as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit into how justice is meted out in the county, he turned over the (partial) contents of his government e-mail account. And what a batch of e-mails it was. Black ministers called for the Republican to resign because of racist material, including a cartoon depicting an African-American suffering from a "fatal overdose" of watermelon and fried chicken. There were adult video clips and love notes from Rosenthal to his secretary, his mistress during a previous marriage. "I love you so much," Rosenthal says in one. "I want to kiss you behind your right ear," he says in another. "Go spend time with your family," she admonishes him back.

Now it appears that Rosenthal's on-the-job antics have done him in. In the wake of the e-mail revelations, local GOP leaders forced him to abort his re-election bid. Then, on Feb. 15, after Lloyd Kelley, the attorney in the civil rights case, brought a lawsuit accusing him of drinking on the job and "incompetence, or official misconduct," Rosenthal resigned. But his problems may not be over. As eye-opening as his e-mails were, it's the ones that disappeared that might cause him more trouble yet. Rosenthal deleted thousands of e-mails (even going so far as to delete them from the trash folder) that investigators in the civil rights case wanted; his actions could lead to obstruction of justice charges (the messages were destroyed after he had received a subpoena for them, he admitted in court). And during a contempt of court hearing earlier this month, Rosenthal appeared to contradict his sworn statements about the e-mails, leaving him open to perjury charges. The hearing was abruptly adjourned at the request of his lawyer and is scheduled to resume March 14. If found in contempt, the former top prosecutor could wind up in jail.

Neither Rosenthal nor his lawyers returned NEWSWEEK's calls for comment. In an earlier statement to the press about the content of the e-mails, Rosenthal said, "I deeply regret having said those things … This event has served as a wake-up call to me to get my house in order both literally and figuratively." On Feb. 15, in response to the new lawsuit, he blamed a combination of prescription drugs for causing "some impairment" of his judgment.

Rosenthal's most recent troubles started in 2002, when brothers Sean and Erik Ibarra sued Harris County, saying they were falsely arrested and abused after they photographed sheriff's deputies searching a neighbor's home. Kelley, a former Houston comptroller who had campaigned for the DA job but lost to Rosenthal, took the case. He subpoenaed the e-mail traffic of his former political opponent, looking for evidence that Rosenthal had colluded with the county sheriff to "put the kibosh" on the civil rights case, he says. It took years of legal wrangling to get Rosenthal to turn over any e-mails.

Kelley says he bears no grudge against his former political nemesis. "Nobody should be allowed to destroy evidence," Kelley says. What was unearthed was bad enough, he says, "but this is less than a half, maybe a third of the total." In the lawsuits against the sheriff, Tommy Thomas, and Rosenthal, Kelley paints a picture of a county justice system off the rails. "You've got a good ol' boy system, so the last resort is a civil lawsuit," he says. "You've got a crooked system where they all feed on each other. There's no independent oversight. This is Tammany Hall, only a 100 years later."

There have long been complaints that the Harris County DA's office discriminates. Former prosecutors have said that other lawyers in the office referred to Hurricane Katrina evacuees as "NFLs," or "N------ From Louisiana." In 2003 prosecutor Mike Trent sent an officewide message congratulating his colleagues on winning a case despite the presence of several "Canadians" on the jury. (He later said he was unaware that "Canadian" is sometimes used as a racial slur for a black person.) Jolanda Jones, a defense attorney and Houston city council member, has complained for years that minorities are unfairly stricken from juries and that punishment is administered more harshly for blacks. "There is absolutely an undercurrent of racism," she says. "The story is bigger than the district attorney's office. It's systemic. They're racist and classist. If you're poor or a minority, there is no justice."

But Joe Owmby, chief of the DA's integrity division and the highest-ranking black prosecutor in Harris County, says he's never felt as if he works in a racist atmosphere-and he defends Rosenthal for encouraging minority hiring. Other black former prosecutors say they never heard racist comments either.

The jury of public opinion is divided on whether Rosenthal's e-mails amount to a handful of embarrassing private messages or evidence of racism and sexism tainting the justice system in the nation's fourth-largest city. Hundreds rallied before Rosenthal's contempt of court hearing earlier this month to call for his resignation. Deric Muhammad of the Millions More Movement told the crowd on the courthouse steps, "We have a systemic problem. It is not just Rosenthal that has to go-the whole toilet must be flushed."

Will the next Harris County DA bring about wholesale change? Rosenthal's doctor, Sam Siegler, sent Rosenthal racy messages, including a video clip of women having their clothes ripped off in public. Siegler's wife Kelly was one of Rosenthal's star prosecutors. Despite her husband's role in the controversy, Kelly Siegler wasted no time distancing herself from her boss's activities, and now she's campaigning like a "bulldog in a Chihuahua's body" for Rosenthal's job. But Siegler herself is hardly immune to controversy. She made an anti-Semitic comment to a jury 20 years ago (she later apologized) and, in court a few years ago, she straddled a fellow prosecutor strapped to a bed with neckties. She was trying to show that a wife couldn't have acted in self defense when she stabbed her husband, played by the prosecutor, to death.