In an effort to fill a gap in local reporting of the 81st District Attorney election, I sat down for conversations with both candidates. This race takes on a personal dimension: Audrey Gossett-Louis, the challenger, worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the incumbent René Peña. On the day she announced her candidacy, she was fired. I had the opportunity to speak to both candidates about that.
Both are established attorneys, so it was not my goal to debate, but to provoke enough discussion to color their approaches and platforms.
These interviews have been edited for length.
AUDREY GOSSETT-LOUIS (R) – CHALLENGER
What does a District Attorney do?
The District Attorney covers five counties: Frio, La Salle, Atascosa, Wilson, and Karnes. They are charged with all felony crimes that occur in those counties. They are also in charge of public corruption cases. All of the high level offenses, everything from a state jail felony up to a first degree or capital murder. All your serious crimes, child molesters, drug dealers, DWI third or more, high dollar theft amount. That’s what they’re in charge of handling.
At a presentation by René Peña, due to the number of years he has served, he is able to convey a sense of experience in the office. Why do you believe you’ll be able to step into the role?
Because René, the entire time I was there, never walked into the courtroom and tried a single case as the District Attorney.
But are there other aspects to the DA’s job?
Sure, you’re an administrator. You are responsible for everything that goes on in that office. Do I think I’m going to be trying every case in all five counties? There’s no way. But significant cases, such as the police officer that was murdered in Atascosa county, which I was assigned to try before I got fired, I would be trying that if I were the DA. Not every case is that important, but certain cases, you as the District Attorney should be in the courtroom fighting for it.
We’re not Bexar county where you have 300 assistant DAs and 12 district courtrooms. It’s a small enough jurisdiction where you should be responsible for some of the cases yourself.
Are there any other changes you want to institute if you were to take office?
I want to streamline the process. In Atascosa county, they rejected some drug cases because they didn’t have a drug lab. You have to have confirmation from the lab to say, “yes this in in fact methamphetamine. This is in fact cocaine.” You have to have assurance that you’re not trying someone for baby powder. And there’s a back log, which led to rejection of cases, which meant free rides for all of those people. What message does that send to our community? You have asset forfeiture money that especially during this election year, he’s given to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which I helped start and is a very worthy organization, but we’re not prosecuting people who should be prosecuted. You could use some of that money to send drugs to a private lab and people could be prosecuted for the crimes they’re committing.
There’s times where the case is sent to the DA’s office and they don’t have everything. So I can’t say we’re going to have every case indicted or rejected within 60 days because there are times when they need to do more investigative work. But there needs to be something where you’re not waiting a year and half to indict somebody.
Same thing with sexual assaults of children. It’s not unusual for me to try an aggravated sexual assault of a child and it’s been two to three years. My goal is to reduce that to within a year, we are trying those cases because those kids… it’s such turmoil in their lives. It’s just too long.
I’ve heard you mention public corruption. Do you think it’s a common problem?
You know, I didn’t know exactly how prevalent it was in our district because like I said, I was assigned to Wilson County primarily. I might go to other places and help a lawyer try a case, but I’m now hearing about all these other towns. Things that are happening that have been reported but nothing happens. It seems to be a very common problem.
Do you have any documents that show Peña announced his retirement before you started your bid?
I have a ton of people you could ask, including people in his own office. They would ask him, “you’re the one that told her she should run and you told me you were going to retire.” He’ll say, “I never said that.”
Looking at both of your campaign finance reports…
Our first reporting period is only through June 30th. So, it’s only donations or expenditures that we’ve gotten at that time, so the next one is not until 30 days before the election.
Two or three weeks ago, Jaime Cavazos is his name. If you look on René’s Facebook page, you’ll see a posting from him. The Express News did an extensive number of articles on the Mexican cartel trial that was going on in San Antonio and Jaime Cavazos is his lawyer for one of the kingpin guys that was responsible for hundreds of murders. He’s represented several drug dealers here in Dilley, known bad guys, and he represents other cartel members throughout. That allegation was put out there by another defense lawyer who said, you might want to question someone who says that they are the human trafficking DA and the border prosecution DA, however, the lawyer for the Mexican cartel is throwing him fundraisers. So that got him up in arms. They said, “well Audrey used a truck from Ancira for a parade.” Ok… yes, I did. You’re going to compare that to taking money from a drug cartel lawyer?
If I may… anyone that is charged has a constitutional right to counsel and a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
And that’s what Jaime says. “I’m upholding the constitution…” However, you as the DA are charged with deciding what someone makes, what deal they get. He has the ultimate discretion of that.
Is there a pattern of these people getting better deals?
Why are they supporting him? My finance report is much less entertaining.
Can you talk about the media and how they cover the District Attorney in a smaller market such as the 81st District?
You can answer that question as well as I could. How much coverage is it really getting? Is it enough or not enough?
I’ll tell you this. He would always say, “you have got to make human trafficking your platform. Because the media loves it.” I would say, “we don’t have any human trafficking cases here at the DA’s office. So why would I make that my platform?” We have drugs that are tearing apart our communities. Unsolved murders. All these other things going on.
Not that it doesn’t exist. It’s existed for centuries. But it doesn’t exist to the degree and extent that he makes it seem like. All you have to do is go to the District Clerk’s office and say, “could you tell me the number of human trafficking indictments?” You can count them all on one hand for all five counties. And you’ve been doing it for two years with taxpayer money.
It’s not as attractive to the media to talk about a nine-year-old girl that goes home after school everyday and her mom goes to work and her biological father rapes her. Most people look at those cases and think that would never happen to them. Even though one in four girls and one in six boys are molested by the time they’re eighteen is what the statistics are. They can’t connect that to themselves. But when they say, “well this could be your child that could be trafficked, become a child prostitute,” then it’s like “oh my God.”
There’s trafficking victims that are not from here. They’re not from within our five counties. I think there maybe one or two. The DA’s office is not supposed to be an investigative office. You’re supposed to be a prosecutor office.
You’ve also made budget a focus of your campaign.
Every single year René Peña has been in office, there has been a significant in the budget. Every year. So I got the budget from 2005 forward and it shows the increase and you can equally see a decrease in the number of cases prosecuted. It went from around 900 cases in total prosecuted with a budget of $440,000. Now the actual budget is 1.46 million, plus his salary which is paid by the state and it doesn’t include these grant salaries which pays for other things. Now you’re looking at about 1.9 million? It’s incredible.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY RENÉ PEÑA (D)
What does a District Attorney do?
A District Attorney is the person who has jurisdiction over felony cases and some misdemeanor cases in terms of enforcement of the laws of the state of Texas. We obviously try cases. The process is an interesting process. We have to receive the case once it’s investigated by the proper law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over that case. Once we receive the case, we vet the case to see if there is enough to make a determination: is there probably cause? Do we identify the defendant? Is there a victim?
We look at that assess it, and determine if there’s enough evidence to take it before a grand jury. The grand jury determines whether there is enough probably cause to believe that that person committed that crime in that particular county on or about that certain date. If it’s indicted, we get it, we move forward. That person comes to court initially, they plead not guilty, and the process starts. So the District Attorney has a great role to play in terms of the law enforcement part of it, in terms of the security and safety of their particular jurisdiction.
If you determine the case is not right, it’s not correct, or that’s not the defendant or suspect, then we have an obligation to seek justice first. That’s our first duty. Not to necessarily get a conviction. That’s primary to us, the first thing you have to understand. You have to understand that awesome power because you can affect someone’s life very adversely when they’re innocent.
I wonder if this race is more important to our local jurisdiction than the Presidential race, who will end up deadlocked by Congress.
Let me tell you why it’s important. I’ve taken leadership roles in the state of Texas. People think that I should concentrate solely on the jurisdiction. What people need to understand is there’s a direct correlation between what happens on the border, with what happens in the state of Texas, and what happens particularly in our jurisdiction. So you’ve got the drug trade decimating our young people. You’ve got the human smuggling part of it. Now the human sex trafficking of our children. So I’ve taken on leadership positions to actually change the way we detect, investigate, and prosecute crime by partnering up with DPS, our local partners, our federal partners, and we’ve become so effective at it that it’s made a huge difference not only in our jurisdiction, but outside the state of Texas.
I initiated the creation of the Border Prosecution Unit. 17 prosecutors in the unit. I was the initial chairman of that board. I was the one who talked to Governor Perry’s office and to the legislature and said, “we need to engage because we’re going to have tremendous spillover violence if we don’t.” That was in 2009. They agreed and we started the BPU. Fast forward to 2015. Governor Abbott has made the Border Prosecution Unit initiative one of his six measures to secure our border and make the citizens safe. That’s an idea that I came up with that has had far reaching consequences in a positive way for our citizens and not so good for people involved in the cartel business, the prison gang business, the drug dealing business, or the criminal enterprise business.
Essentially what was happening before then, the cartels had become the private sector employers for Mexico. I recognized what was fixing to happen in Texas and our jurisdiction because we sit on 35, 37, 181, 281, 140, 85, 16, and 59. All the major throughways into the United States, central Texas, and into Harris County. I saw what was happening, that they were setting folks up in these rural areas. We didn’t have the resources or skill-sets to deal with those complex criminal activities. The BPU was a very important idea that I came up with that has changed the way we do business in Texas for the positive. Governor Perry in 2011 recognized that and appointed me to the Texas Violent Gang Task Force. Today I’m the chairman of the Texas Violent Gang Task Force.
Now here is what my opponent doesn’t understand: she doesn’t think much of the Border Prosecution Unit, much of the human trafficking, much of the smuggling issue. What she doesn’t get is, because of the way I changed the approach, we are now identifying who the local threats and individuals in each community are, and identifying them, investigating them correctly under the law, indicting them, and dealing with them in the prosecution aspect of it. Why is that important? Because if you take the leadership of the gangs out, then you minimize the number of victims you have out in that community. So violent crime goes down. And they don’t want to be here because they know that they’re going to be accountable for what they do. That is what the BPU does. It’s changed the way we do business on the border and in Texas and it’s very effective. People are going to say, crime has not really gone up. Well look at the numbers. They’ll tell you what’s going on because of the initiative, we’ve been able to make a huge impact in the communities in our district.
So that’s important to understand. The culture we’re up against. I’m talking about criminal enterprises the cartels, the prison gangs, street gangs and what impact it has on us locally. So I think that’s important for people to get.
Since you’ve been DA for so long, most of the focus of this race has been on your record. Why do you believe you’re a better candidate than Audrey Gossett-Louis?
I just said it.
You think it’s the border issue.
No, it’s not the border issue. I was trying to explain to you the impact of the border on our communities and why it’s important for me to continue to do what we’re doing.
The interview is interrupted as District Attorney René Peña addresses the crowd at the political rally.
Ok, so you were saying I missed…
The whole point.
Which I understood to be that crimes coming from across the border are affecting our communities. She doesn’t think that’s important and that’s where you have taken initiatives.
Well I think when you understand there’s a direct correlation between all crime and the drug trade, the smuggling trade and the human sex trafficking trade, I think it’s pretty clear that if you address the root of the problem, you are going to minimize the amount of victims potentially out there by targeting those individuals who are the key problems in those communities.
You think drugs come to Cotulla? I’m asking you a question.
You think Pearsall?
Where do you think they come from?
Across the border.
And the people that take the drugs here, they get hooked on them. They’re model is to hook as many people as they can to create greater market share. What do you think those kids are going to do to get the money to pay for those drugs.
Whatever they have to.
Tell me what they’re going to do.
Rob, borrow, beg, steal…
Burglaries of businesses, theft, robbery. They’ll do anything. They’ll sell themselves. So there’s a direct correlation is my argument between what happens on the border and our communities.
Now you’ve got drive-by shootings, you’ve got the murders. Right? You’ve got the gangs that take over the community. If you’re not willing to acknowledge that the root of the problem is the drug trade and that has direct correlation to the border, then you’re missing the whole darn point.
Does it mean I’m ignoring the other crimes that are going on? Absolutely not. Because I understand there’s a correlation between them.
To be clear, I’m not debating that. I’m asking for separation between you and Ms. Louis. You find this to be the primary issue and “she doesn’t give it the importance it deserves.” Is that what you’re saying?
I think that’s fair. She’s gone on the record saying that BPU doesn’t do much. I think in one paper, Karnes County, she talked about getting rid of some of the programs. The BPU and the child advocate for little girls that have been sold for sex. We’ve got three positions that are funded by the state of Texas because they realize the importance of what those positions do.
Speaking of the newspaper, this was a very different question when I asked Ms. Louis a while ago, what’s the relationship with the media like when you’re running a race in an area that doesn’t have that kind of coverage? However, in the meantime, there’s been a number of articles out. Is there anything you want to speak to that?
The media has been… I don’t think they understand the process. I don’t think that, respectfully speaking, you understand what it is exactly the police do, what exactly our function is. Right? People think that you got him, you got that person, they’re guilty. Why haven’t you done anything with them? Well, we are a land of laws and constitutions that we follow. And because of those very important protections, there is a process that people don’t understand.
On October 26th, Karnes Countywide published an article that quoted people accusing René Peña of intimidation, announcing his retirement before Audrey Gossett-Louis decided to run, and not trying a case in 12 years, as Ms. Louis had said in her interview.
Most recently, I was in a newspaper article out of Karnes County, trying to insinuate through innuendo and little comments from people that they talk to. But the reporter failed to mention to me when he talked to me that those particular comments were being made by those six people.
Now how is it fair for you to ask me for my response when you haven’t told me the whole story? That’s an issue of principle, trustworthiness on the part of the media. The Frio-Nueces Current for instance when Mary Moore went on a rampage against me. You know I didn’t respond to that. But the reality is that Mary Moore misrepresented people. She was not a victim as defined by the code of criminal procedure, section 56. She knows she’s not. The real victim in that case if anybody, was the woman who the CCH was taken from. And she knew that. So my problem isn’t that the media doesn’t play an important role in a free society. My problem with the media is they don’t go out and get a totality of the facts. They don’t present it fairly, impartially with public accountability. They failed many of those important standards that have been laid out for many generations. I don’t have a problem with media. I have a problem when they don’t do their job according to those very important principles.
I did notice that you didn’t respond to a number of things, but you finally responded to the Karnes County. I wanted to ask you, why weren’t you responding? Even in the Karnes County response, you addressed the language they used, but still didn’t refute anything that was said.
I think we did refute it. We laid it out. The problem is my hands are bound, ethically. We cannot speak about certain things. I can’t speak about half those people. It’s either an ongoing investigation, there’s a case pending against them. I can’t go out and say what I wish I could say. But I said enough for people to understand that he didn’t do a fair job and he didn’t.
On November 4th, after this interview, District Attorney Peña published a letter from Carrie Moy on Facebook that detailed more specific refutations.
As the District Attorney, we always must comport ourselves to the highest level of ethical standards. And for us to join in a paper war does a disservice to our position, a disservice to our people and it may impact our jury panels and people who want to serve in that respect. For me to get into an argument with a newspaper is unbecoming of this position. It just is. In this particular case, that was so far unethical in my mind, that I needed to address that.
The only things she has are those paper pieces. What has she really pushed in terms of doing things better than I’ve done?
Her argument was the budget and she did create separation on the Border Prosecution Unit. She said there’s more child sexual abuse crimes that are being missed.
That’s not true. The issue is law enforcement investigates those crimes and they bring us the crimes that they investigate. In terms of the budget. Trying to make light of the budget I find very disingenuous. We have five County Attorneys in this district. For the budget year 2016, combining their combined budgets- they’re combined budgets were over 2.4 million dollars. My budget was a little under 1.5 million dollars. On top of that, I was taking funds from the forfeiture budget and subsidizing the budget when I am under no legal obligation to do that. I did it again because I wanted to help the taxpayer lessen the burden. And help law enforcement- police in terms of equipment and training. Very important.
Did you fire her when she announced her bid?
I don’t want to get into that… She knows what she was doing…
You don’t have to say anything more if you don’t want to.
One of the issues for me, personally as a resident of Dilley, is public information. Someone has requested public information from the city, they don’t turn it over, they spend time on the phone with the state Attorney General, and eventually they say “there’s nothing we can do, it has to go to the DA.” On your campaign finance report, there’s a donation from Dilley’s city attorney, who is also city attorney for four other cities in your district. You’ve addressed donations from defense attorneys, but this is another dimension. Why should I feel that I can get a fair shake when you have a closer relationship to the city attorney for the city council I’m trying to hold accountable…
First of all, you’re making an assumption.
You made a huge assumption and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Folks in the media do that. I have no close relationship with him. He’s an individual who came to a fundraiser who was invited and who donated. It’s not unethical. It’s not illegal. He has no special ties to me. Zero. I’m sure he donates to other candidates, DA’s, district judges. In terms of you suggesting that he has some special favoritism from my office is absolutely incorrect.
You say that you’re not getting stuff. This is the first I’ve heard of it.
Ms. Louis also says that the number of indictments that come out of the BPU is around five in a couple years.
That’s not correct. What she doesn’t know and doesn’t understand is that part of what we do with our law enforcement partners is we take those cases and we work them. We get with our law enforcement counterparts and say we got this case are you willing to take them because they’re very complex in many respects. And they will take the case. Why is that important? Because we’re not clogging the docket with those huge cases in our court system.
I thank you for talking to me because I agree that the media has not done a good job covering this race.
The paper who is supposed to be the guardian of our civil liberties by making sure the free press is going out there and exposing what they need to expose is now participating in the political process for whatever reasons that they’re doing it.
Here’s one thing that I have not talked about. She’s been a prosecutor for 15 years. She spent seven and a half years in my office. She spent more time in my office than anywhere else. And all of a sudden I have an issue with integrity? All of a sudden I’m not fiscally responsible? Not doing a good job? The problem with her argument is, why the heck did you stay there seven and a half years? Why did you want to stay there while you ran?
If there were other things that you fired her over, why was it the same day she announced her bid?
Insubordination is very important. When you’re running an office, your authority can’t be questioned. It would have been a fiasco for everyone involved. A hostile work environment. The people we were representing would have been hurt by it. The people we’re supposed to be taken care of would have been hurt by it. So, I think it’s disingenuous to say “but I got fired.” You can’t be a victim of your own conduct.
The other issue that gets hammered in Frio County, was the reduction of the County Commissioners’ charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Is there anything you can say about that?
I think when you’re seeking justice, you have to weigh it. Those folks served as public officials for a long time. They have no criminal history. And that’s where important to understand that as a DA or a CA, you are not going to punish people because a majority of the people in the community think you need to. You need to send them to prison because they say so. That’s not justice. Justice is looking at their record, their history, public service, making a determination of what is fair and equitable under the circumstances.
Now, they got put on probation. They’re paying fines and court costs. Some of them have to do community service like anybody else. I’m going to leave you with this last thought. The people that I indicted are all Democratic leadership. County Judge. County Attorney. City Manager. The Assistant Chief Deputy. All Democrats. Do you think that’s integrity? Do you think that’s smart of me politically?
I don’t want to answer that. But I can tell you that someone would say that it’s about the reduction of the charge.
They can argue what they want to argue. They’re after vengeance. I’m after justice. There’s a big distinction.