The problems that have dogged Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk over the last 16 months or so — prescription drug abuse, paranoid delusions and a bout of severe depression that sidelined her from work for months — are yesterday's news. She's feeling better, and her employees say her office is ticking along just fine. The past won't determine whether she's fit to hold office.
Not right now, anyway.
Judge David Peeples last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee that sought to remove Hawk from her job. His ruling can't be appealed, so professionally Hawk can bury the drug rehab, her disappearing act from the job and the tales of bizarre behavior — until sometime around primary season three years from now. Then you can expect them to come lurching out of the ground like a hammy cast extra on The Walking Dead.
The removal suit, filed by fired Dallas County prosecutor Cindy Stormer in October, claimed she was incapable of properly performing her duties because of delusional and erratic behavior.
The suit led to salvos of affidavits from Hawk's ex- and current employees. The former described a boss who was, in a word, weird. She thought someone was bugging her phone and monitoring her computer. (She fired a long-serving investigator, only to offer him his job this fall after a lengthy stay in a Houston mental health facility.)
Others weren't so lucky. Among them were two of her former top assistants, Bill Wirskye and Jennifer Balido, who filed affidavits in the removal case that described delusional and erratic behavior by their former boss.
Wirskye, as he described it, was at the center of many of the weirder incidents during Hawk's descent. He was named her top assistant prior to Hawk taking office on January 1, 2015.
"Soon after taking office in January, Ms. Hawk began to exhibit signs of paranoia focused on her computer and on her phone. She told me that someone had 'hacked' her email and that someone was 'in her phone.' She was never able to rationally explain who was doing this to her, or why. Both DA employees and Dallas County’s IT personnel were summoned numerous times by her to fix these issues. Several new computers and phones were provided to her. I was told by these IT experts that there was nothing wrong with Ms. Hawk’s computers and phones," Wirskye writes.
Hawk also, Wirskye says, accused him of breaking into her home:
"On Saturday morning, March 14th, was at the office working when Ms. Hawk appeared, looking disheveled. Instead of coming into my office as would have been customary, she passed by my door and went into her office. After a few minutes, Ms. Hawk came into my office, telling me in a loud, agitated voice that she 'would never hurt my family' and that our 'families should be off-limits.' Her tone was both bizarre and aggressive. When I asked what she was talking about, she accused me of calling her mother and harassing her, breaking into her parents' garage, and breaking into her house and stealing a photo of her. (These accusations were all untrue.) It was apparent to me that Ms. Hawk was completely delusional and detached from reality. Not knowing what to do, and trying to jolt her back to reality, I encouraged her to call 911 right now if she was delusional enough to think I committed these crimes. Instead she demanded that I call our chief investigators and get them to the office. By the time they arrived, Ms. Hawk had calmed down some. The four of us talked and while she maintained that these things had happened to her and her family, she now admitted that she now no longer thought I was responsible. We tried to further calm her down and encouraged her to cancel an appearance scheduled for later that afternoon. After a few hours, she apologized to me profusely and begged my forgiveness. We were uncomfortable letting her leave the office that day but felt we had no choice. Ms. Hawk and I traded texts later that day. I wanted to check on her well-being and state of mind. She seemed somewhat stable," he says.
Balido's statement dovetailed with Wirskye's. She backed up his claims about the district attorney's tech-related paranoia and Wirskye's suggestion that Hawk's pupils did not respond typically to light, implying that she might've had a continuing substance abuse issue. (In the midst of her 2014 campaign, Hawk went to rehab to fight painkiller addiction.)
Hawk eventually fired them both and rumors swirled through the courthouse as to why Hawk would've gotten rid of two respected, handpicked helpers so early in her tenure.
But that was then. This is now. Hawk and her attorneys have argued that her behavior before a lengthy, unannounced absence this summer, and the absence itself, have no bearing on her ability to do her job now or in the future.
"The evidence, which is undisputed, is that she is better and that she is fine," attorney Doug Alexander said of Hawk during the hearing Friday in Peeples' court, before he tossed out the case.
Alexander compared Hawk and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott, who is a paraplegic, might not have been able to function as governor in 1879, when the removal statute that was being used against Hawk was written, but he can function fine in the office today. Same goes for Hawk, Alexander argued. A hundred years ago, her mental illness might have been a bar to her serving. Today, she just needs treatment.
However erratic Hawk might have been, her opponents always had a high bar to clear with their suit. The law governing the removal of an elected official has a narrow scope when it comes to what sort of behavior disqualifies an officeholder, and Texas judges are likely to be hesitant to overturn the will of voters without a convincing reason. Take the case of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. She was arrested for drunken driving. A video of her drunk, belligerent and threatening to rain wrath down on the cops who dared to arrest her went viral on the Internet, and she was sentenced to 45 days in jail. Even then she got to keep her job after a removal trial suit was shot down by Judge Peeples, who expressed a reluctance to overturn an election. That same reluctance seemed to have played a role in his decision in Hawk's case, something Lehmberg's defense attorney, Dan Richards, anticipated might happen last fall.
"Presuming that her performance has been good following her treatment, if that's the case and she's following her doctor's orders, that's how the judge ought to look at it," Richards said in October. "If she is qualified to perform her job in her current condition and she was elected, what the plaintiffs are going to be asking is for the court to basically overturn the will of the voters. I have a feeling that, if you're a judge, you want to tread very lightly there. If [you] think someone is incompetent and hasn't done anything about [it], that's a different thing, but that's not the way the stories [about Hawk] read."
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None of this changes the fact that voters will get another shot at evaluating Hawk if she runs again in 2018, which the district attorney has said she'll do. In Travis County, Lehmberg kept her job, but she announced back in 2013 that she won't seek re-election. Hawk might not face anything as damning as Lehmberg's video, which showed her kicking her cell door and restrained in a chair. But Hawk is a Republican in a Democratic county who has, in her first year in office, given her future opposition all the fodder they might possibly need to sow doubt in the minds of voters. But, for now at least, that's not what's on Hawk's mind.
Whatever dark clouds are on the political horizon, she was happy in the moment after Peeples' decision came down.
"Of course I’m emotional. Just having this behind me, behind all of us. It was like a black cloud that’s over our office. It needs to go away because we are doing fantastic things,” she said.
Fantastic might not be enough to survive what's sure to be a brutal campaign if she decides to seek re-election down the road. That might take a miracle.