Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Bexar County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a professional services agreement with the law firm of Shelton and Valdez, which is representing District Attorney Nico LaHood before the State Bar's Commission on Lawyer Discipline.
Attorney Wade Shelton will defend LaHood in a complaint filed in 2017 by local defense attorney Mark Stevens, who claims LaHood conducted himself unprofessionally by allegedly threatening to close the law practices of Joe Gonzales and Christian Henricksen. The incident cited in the complaint occurred during a murder trial.
In March, Gonzales beat LaHood in the Democratic primary for the district attorney’s office, advancing to the November general election, where he will face Republican Tylden Shaeffer.
LaHood was not present at the Commissioners Court meeting. Ed Schweninger, chief of the civil division in the district attorney’s office, recommended in late March that the County consider paying for LaHood's outside legal counsel, which could cost $10,000 to $15,000.
However, Schweninger told Commissioners on Tuesday that Shelton is willing to "work free of charge if necessary." Schweninger also told Commissioners that, under state law, they "have the discretion but are not obligated" to pay for the district attorney's defense.
"If the offer that we're willing to accept [is] a local attorney's pledge to defend our existing DA pro bono, that is something I could agree with," Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) said before the vote.
The San Antonio Express-News reported in late March that LaHood waived his right to a district court trial in favor of a closed hearing with the state commission.
Researching legal precedents on the matter of paying a public official's legal bills, Schweninger said he found a case that somewhat resembles LaHood's situation. That case outlined how the State Attorney General gave an opinion on a county judge who asked that his county fund his legal defense against a complaint filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
"What the AG addressed in that particular opinion is a statute that requires representation for county officials and employees when they're sued," Schweninger said.
Schweninger said this precedent did not fully apply to LaHood's request that the County foot his legal bills, but that Commissioners could at least consider the request, given LaHood's role as prosecutor.
The grievance filed against LaHood is based on his alleged actions during his prosecution of a murder case against Miguel Martinez in early 2017.
Gonzales and Henricksen, as Martinez's defense attorneys, had sought a dismissal of the murder charge because LaHood's team failed to disclose a previous intimate relationship between a member of LaHood's office staff and a key witness.
When Gonzales, Henricksen, and LaHood went to 437th District Judge Lori Valenzuela's chambers, LaHood was upset about the defense's motion. LaHood then allegedly threatened Gonzales' and Henricksen's legal careers. The defense's motion was rejected and the murder case went forward. Stevens was part of the defense team, but was not in the judge's chambers during the conference.
LaHood has denied making the threats, but Valenzuela later testified and confirmed Gonzales and Henricksen's claims.
Schweninger said that LaHood, as public servant, was entitled to seek assistance from the County with his legal expenses.
"From where I stand, this is the point where we say there's an obligation and the Court's discretion," Schweninger said. "If you have discretion in mind, you have discretion to approve [the request] subject to conditions."
One such condition, Schweninger said, could be where the County lets LaHood pay for his own defense and, if LaHood were to prevail, he would be reimbursed by the County.
Wolff said he was not totally comfortable with the idea of taxpayers footing the bill to fund the legal defense of a County official in a civil grievance.
County Judge Nelson Wolff acknowledged that this was a sensitive issue, but also voiced trust in Shelton's abilities and experience.
"That [Shelton] is willing to [work pro bono] shows respect, and I thank him for that," Wolff said. "I think Nico is in really good hands, and [Shelton] will give him an excellent defense."
Schweninger did not say when the state bar's commission could hear the complaint against LaHood. It would have up to 30 days after the hearing to determine whether LaHood is guilty of professional misconduct. Punishment for a guilty judgment is a public or private reprimand, suspension of law practice, or disbarment.
In addition to this case, LaHood faces a separate complaint from Gonzales, who filed a grievance last month with the Texas Ethics Commission, claiming criminal violations of the Texas Election Code.
Gonzales alleged that LaHood's re-election campaign or a supporter had something to do with a flurry of robocalls that voters received before dawn on the day of the primary. The calls were purported to be from Gonzales' campaign.