By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Charges of corruption have long haunted the Denton County District Attorney's Office, so when former prosecutor Paul Johnson decided to run against his old boss last year, he made the most of the allegations. During the campaign, Johnson painted himself as a crusader for social reform who, if elected, would clean up a district attorney's office that some claimed had taken bribes from drug dealers and wife beaters.
The campaign tactic worked: Johnson won the Republican primary against incumbent Bruce Isaacks, who had held the post for 16 years, and once he took office, Johnson promptly made good on his word, firing 25 of the 50 or so prosecutors who worked in the office.
Problem is, Johnson's only been in office a short while, and already he's facing the same sorts of charges he leveled against Isaacks, namely dishonesty and cronyism.
It all goes back to a political flier Johnson sent to Denton voters during the campaign last year. Titled "Justice for Sale in Denton County," it included excerpts of several newspaper clippings that highlighted some of Isaack's missteps. Isaacks had struck deals with drug dealers in exchange for cash, cars, motorcycles and jewelry, the flier claimed, referencing a 2003 Dallas Morning News article, and he had dropped a DWI and spousal abuse case in exchange for a $1,000 campaign contribution.
The second incident involved a man named William Lee Mitchell, a bail bondsman and real estate developer. When Mitchell got the flier in the mail, he called his attorney. He was not only being accused of bribing the district attorney, he told his lawyer, his mug shot was also on the front of the flier. They had to put a stop to this.
On February 22, Mitchell's attorney, David Moraine, filed an injunction in a Denton state court to stop the distribution of the flier. Moraine's argument was that the flier amounted to slander, because the accusations against his client were not true. Yes, Mitchell had been arrested for DWI and spousal abuse, but the charges had never been dropped. To the contrary, Mitchell had served four days in jail, been fined $1,250 and lost his driver's license for a year on the DWI charge. Plus, a copy of the newspaper article the flier referenced was on Johnson's campaign Web site, and the article didn't even say the charges had been dropped. It said Johnson had pleaded no contest to DWI and was sentenced to jail time and given a fine. So Johnson knew he was lying when he put the flier together, Moraine argued, a clear violation of libel law.
Johnson's attorney, William Trantham, argued that the charges against Mitchell had indeed been dropped because they had been reduced. Dropped had 18 definitions in the dictionary, Trantham would argue, and reduced was one of them. So they hadn't slandered Mitchell because everything in the flier was true.
The judge, Jake Collier of the 158th Judicial District, seemed to disagree. "It clearly states in Mr. Johnson's advertisement, 'The Associated Press reports that Isaacks dropped a DWI and spousal abuse case.' There is nothing in here about a spousal abuse case, but the DWI certainly was not dropped. You can twist 18 different words any way you can say it, but dropped means dropped. It is not, you know, a word that you can put 25 different meanings to. I think you might have a problem with that."
But Moraine also had a problem, Trantham says, because what he was asking the judge to do—stop the dissemination of the flier—amounted to prior censorship, and that was a federal issue that could not be heard by a state court. So the matter was sent to federal court.
(Moraine says Trantham asked for the case to be sent to federal court as a delay tactic so Johnson could keep sending out the flier. It has since been sent back to state court.)
Nearly a year has passed since that day, and the defamation lawsuit is still pending. "Obviously I'm not an idiot. If I wanted to bribe somebody I wouldn't do it on something that's reported to the state by check, you know what I mean. That's just crazy," Mitchell says. "Now, everywhere I go people ask me about this. When I go to the bank for a loan I've got the president of the bank sitting there thinking I beat my wife and got my DWI dismissed for a thousand bucks. I mean, it's horrible."
The larger issue, Denton County political observers say, is what this whole incident says about the new district attorney. "Here you've got this guy who held himself up as being so honest and beyond reproach," said one Denton attorney who asked not to be named. "And he lies to get himself elected."
And that's not all. Johnson's attorney in the defamation lawsuit, Trantham, is a criminal defense attorney who has more than 25 cases pending in Denton criminal courts, meaning he will regularly argue cases against prosecutors who work under Johnson, his client.
Trantham says there is no ethical rule against this. "You could make a case that there's big conflict of interest if I'm over here saying, 'You know, hey, I represent you, Paul. Hey, you got to give me this deal.' Now that's not just a conflict of interest, that's a criminal case. But that's not happening. I don't even discuss cases with Paul. I deal with all his assistants."
But Charles Silver, a law professor at the University of Texas, says there could be a conflict of interest in this arrangement. If nothing else, it might make Trantham's clients in criminal cases wonder how zealously he will defend them, given that he is representing the district attorney in a civil lawsuit. "It doesn't turn on duties...but on the appearance of impropriety," Silver writes in an e-mail. "The relationship between the lawyers seems too cozy."
Besides, some Denton lawyers wonder, of the 450 or so lawyers in Denton, why did Johnson hire a criminal defense attorney, especially one who regularly locked horns with the former district attorney, to represent him in a First Amendment civil lawsuit?
"Here you have this guy who's saying he's doing everything he can to avoid the appearance of impropriety," one Denton lawyer says. "And he chooses the one guy it might be improper to hire."
Johnson declined comment for this story, but Trantham says the accusations leveled against him and his client are baseless.
"Paul Johnson's as honest as can be, and there are a lot of people who don't like that," Trantham says. "When this new administration came along, all the sudden all these disgruntled former prosecutors start talking about this stuff, but there's nothing to it. It's really a lot of sour grapes on their part."