Deb4DA? Wigington Takes on Tharp
Why should you vote for Republican Deb Linnartz Wigington, who’s campaigning against incumbent Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp in the March 6 Texas Republican primary?
Ask any judge, police officer or others in county agencies that interface with law enforcement in Comal County.
Although they might fear retribution by speaking out, Wigington says they’re fed up with “injustices” in Tharp’s office.
“The inefficiency in the office, the lack of working relationships between our district attorney’s office and all of the other offices within the justice system in Comal County is grinding the wheels of justice down to a standstill,” she says.
Is Justice Being Served?
Tharp boasts of being tough on crime, but Wigington urges voters to look behind her numbers to ascertain whether justice is really being served.
“People like conviction numbers because it makes it look like the DA’s office is tough on crime and keeping the community safe,” Wigington says. “But only 50.8 percent of the felony cases are cleared and juvenile-clearance numbers are even lower. This doesn’t even include the cases not filed, that are sitting on someone’s desk or waiting in the police department for lab results, or those the office rejects. The district attorney’s office is only accepting the felony cases they are confident that they can win to maintain high conviction numbers, and that leaves a lot of victims unserved and denied justice.”
In 2017, Tharp’s office accepted approximately 2,000 cases but only resolved 447, Wigington says. Offers or plea bargains presented by the current district attorney were too high to be considered reasonable, forcing defense attorneys to try cases they would normally agree to settle. At the end of 2017, over 300 cases were still on the jury docket.
“This is not normal. In 2017 the district attorney’s office only tried 26 felony jury trials. And attorneys are adding more every single week to that docket. We will never get out of it.”
Mismanagement Costs $1.5 Million
Comal County is largely Republican, and voters tend to be fiscally conservative. Wigington says they shouldn’t be happy that Tharp’s mismanagement is costing taxpayers approximately, she claims, over $1 million per year in housing inmates out of county and up to $500,000 due to delays in presenting judgments.
Which is one of the many reasons Wigington — a successful family and criminal attorney with a big practice in New Braunfels — says she was approached by others in Comal County’s legal system to take on Tharp.
“She did not get the endorsement of the local sheriff’s (Mark Reynolds) office. That says a lot.”
The district attorney’s job is to seek justice, not just convictions, according to Wigington.
Wigington also is squaring off against Republican contenders Joseph Soane and Steven de Lemos, whom she describes as great guys.
However, she says they haven’t run a successful business before. Most of the actual prosecuting in the district attorney’s office is handled by assistant district attorneys. The district attorney’s office also must coordinate closely with judges, probation officers, law enforcement, Child Protective Services, victim’s services and Comal County’s Crisis Center.
“Actually running the office is a big deal. And that’s what I’m pretty good at.”
Husband Steve helped run her office for years before moving on to work as a private process server and private investigator. The Wigington’s have two children, who are currently enrolled in Comal ISD because her parents worked in that district for a total of over 60 years.
More About Wigington:
Q: What are your qualifications/experience to be our criminal district attorney?
A: I have been practicing law, criminal and civil, for over 15 years. I have tried felony cases, misdemeanor cases, juvenile cases, CPS cases, protective order cases, and have handled numerous appeals, including oral arguments twice before the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. Most people think of the DA’s Office as only handling criminal prosecutions, but they also represent CPS and victims of abuse in protective orders. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Texas State and a Juris Doctorate from Baylor Law School with a concentration in Criminal Law.
I have served on Judge Gray’s DWI Court and Judge Stephens’s Veteran’s Court. I have completed training through the DWI College with the Texas Center for the Judiciary, and attended training with the Trial Lawyer’s College.
I am a past President of the Comal County Bar Association and currently a member of the Comal County Bar Association. I have been a member of the College of the State Bar, recognizing professionalism through education.
Most importantly, I have been a local business owner. The Comal County District Attorney’s Office is the County’s largest law firm. I have been trained in law office management. I have grown a thriving practice from the ground up without taking a business loan because I can manage resources and stick to a budget. I know how to manage and train employees. I know how to build working relationships with the people and agencies I work with and how to treat them with respect.
Q: What are your top priorities for the office?
A: 1) Rebuild relationships – Our county is currently underperforming due to a strained relationship between the DA’s Office and other agencies and parties. We need to work with our law enforcement agencies, clerk’s offices, judges, probation offices, CPS, as well as advocacy groups such as the Comal County Crisis Center. When the District Attorney’s Office chooses to act as the wheel of justice, rather than as another cog working with all the cogs, the wheel stops moving.
One example of this is Operation Crystal Lake. When Mark Reynolds took over as Sheriff of Comal County, he immediately saw a need for a large operation to help clean up our county. He contacted the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and organized a multi-jurisdictional operation. When asked why something like this had never happened before, the DEA replied that they didn’t have a working relationship with our DA’s Office.
I will work with other jurisdictions, specifically, our neighboring county and district attorney’s offices. I will treat law enforcement officers with the respect they deserve and come up with solutions to get the cases moving. I will recognize the value of effective representation by defense attorneys to the justice system. I will work with our judges, rebuild trust, and allow them to use their discretion.
Another important relationship that needs to be rebuilt is with the victims of our county. When cases are not efficiently cleared, victims are left waiting for justice. In 2017, , filed felony cases were still awaiting resolution, many with victims. While conviction rates are important, picking and choosing the cases to accept and prosecute leaves many citizens unserved.
As a family law attorney, I have handled many cases with victims. I have taken over protective order cases that our district attorney’s office has refused to accept or refused to continue to try and won them to protect the victims. I have fought to terminate the parental rights of abusers when the DA’s office has refused to prosecute the perpetrator.
Since I have started this race, I have been contacted by several victims who have felt re-victimized by their experiences. Further, our officers work hard to convince victims of abuse that they will be protected if they press charges against their abusers. This protection is often accomplished through protective orders filed by our district attorney’s office. When only half those presented are accepted by the district attorney’s office, the victims are left feeling unprotected and are less likely to trust our officers. Our county deserves better and I can do better.
2) Efficiently and fairly close cases to relieve the burden on tax payers and ensure timely justice – In 2015, the budget for out of county housing of inmates was $75,700. By 2017, the cost is estimated to be 1.7 million. When only 50.8 percent of felony cases are being cleared in 2017, and 24 percent of the cases cleared have been pending over a year, we know there is a problem. When only 48.2 percent of juvenile cases are cleared in 2017, we should be seriously concerned. When only 35.4 percent of misdemeanor cases are cleared in 2017, we should demand accountability. It costs our county over $80-per-day per inmate-in-custody. The current inefficiency is literally costing our county over a million dollars.
Additionally, speedy trials and resolution to cases is necessary for fairness. In the United States, we are innocent until proven guilty, and justice delayed is justice denied. For all participants in the justice system, handling cases in a timely manner is necessary.
Q: What needs to change? What needs to stay the same?
Respect: I will ensure that all cogs in the wheel of justice, from judges, probation, and the clerks, to defense counsel, law enforcement, and probation, will be treated with respect. There will be no more name calling and disparaging comments against the others involved in the justice system. The district attorney’s office will conduct itself as a cog and let the wheel turn by working together.
Preindictment pleas: I will work with defense counsel and law enforcement to allow preindictment pleas. In some cases, probation is a mandatory sentence, such as with first time state jail level possession of control substance cases. If a defendant is willing to accept responsibility for their crime and start probation quickly, they should be allowed to do so without waiting for lab reports. This will allow law enforcement to get their cases over to the Office quickly and get defendants into treatment and supervision before they reoffend or relapse.
If a defendant is waiting in jail for indictment, our tax payers are paying for that housing. If a defendant is out on bond and has a substance abuse addiction, the chances are good that the defendant will continue using illegal substances and commit a new crime. Delaying prosecution does not protect our county or make it safer.
Reasonable offers: As a mother and a citizen of this county, I promise I will treat violent offenses, sexual abuse offenses, and crimes against children as though they are crimes against my own children or family. Not all crimes are worthy of the harshest punishment.
When I interned at the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, I was taught “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” We have to recognize the need for rehabilitation. Sending addicts capable of rehabilitation to prison will not keep our county safe. Sending those who are mentally ill who are receptive to treatment to prison will not keep our county safe. Sending veterans who have served our country and need help reintegrating into society to prison will not keep our county safe. When they are released from prison without treatment, they will come back to Comal County and the cycle begins again.
Specialty courts: Our judges have created three specialty courts to address the needs of defendants capable of rehabilitation. Judge Waldrip has created the Challenge Court to address felony DWI and drug offenders. Judge Stephens has created the Veteran’s Court to address crimes committed by those who have served our country. Judge Gray has created the DWI Court to address offenders with a second DWI.
Having sat on both the Veteran’s Court and the DWI Court, I have observed the programs effect change not only within the defendant, but also within the defendant’s families. The Challenge Court has had only a six-percent recidivism rate, making it 94 percent successful in preventing the felony defendants in the program from reoffending. Having a program with those rates of success here in Comal County is a huge asset.
Unfortunately, the district attorney has the final say in accepting applications into the program. In 2017, the district attorney only approved five applications to allow defendants to participate. I will take advantage of these programs to cut back on reoffending in our community and help defendants be more successful in their rehabilitation.
Open Pleas: We have elected judges who we trust to make fair and just sentences on cases. Texas allows defendants who do not agree with a punishment recommendation made by a district attorney to enter a plea of guilty and allow the judge to sentence them within the range of punishment. The district attorney must agree to allow the Defendant to plea open to the judge.
Currently, it is extremely rare for the DA’s Office to agree to allow the judge to assess the punishment through an open plea because they do not want to allow the judges the discretion to assess punishment within the full range, including deferred adjudication.
I will trust the judges elected by our citizens to fairly assess punishment as they see fit and by doing so, relieve the strain of a heavy jury docket. At the end of 2017, there were over 300 felony cases actively set for jury trial and only 26 cases had been tried to a jury during the year. At a rate of 26-per-year being tried and adding more and more each year, our county will be buried so deeply in cases that many cases with victims will be ordered dismissed for lack of speedy trial.
Run the DA’s Office Like a Business: Our district attorney’s office is a business. With the current statics, it is clear that it is a failing business. When a career prosecutor with no business experience takes over the business, it will struggle. With the current statistics, it is clear that the business is failing. I will effectively manage the employees and the resources.
Since the current District Attorney took office, 42 employees have left the district attorney’s office, which is very concerning then there are only 45 employees currently.
High turnover is an excellent indicator of a lack of management. Comal County has a budget of $663,577 more than Guadalupe County. Comal County has 12 more employees than Guadalupe County. Comal County has 20,477 less people than Guadalupe County. Comal County clears 31.8 percent less cases than Guadalupe County. The primary difference between the counties is that Comal County has been run by a career prosecutor.
Over the past several years, Guadalupe County has been under the leadership of two different attorneys who have been defense attorneys and who have both run businesses. They have run the office like a business and it shows. I will apply what I learned with my degree in business administration and my experience as a business owner to get us back on track and thriving.
Q: Why should someone vote for you?
A: One of the most frequent questions I have received is “Why are you running for DA?” (Actually more like “why on Earth would you volunteer for this” and “did you lose a bet?”) The short answer is that this is a calling to service. This is not a promotion. This is not a pay raise for me. This is not for power, prestige, attention. I have a thriving law practice, have never had the desire to be a politician, and, frankly, I would rather spend my extra time quietly with my family. I have built my life around serving my family, my church, and my community.
There are times that we step up and serve our community when we see the need. Many have seen the need for a long time. I have had many role models, mentors, leaders and they all have been servants.
It is my time to serve.