Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Nico LaHood showed photos of his son, Michael, to a visitor in his office last week. His finger swiping across the screen of his smartphone, LaHood pointed out five or six images of a wide-eyed, smiling baby looking at the camera or into the faces of the loved ones holding him.
“That’s a child that when you said ‘Michael,’ he looked at you,” LaHood said, sitting at his desk in the Bexar County District Attorney’s office. As a baby, Michael was hitting all of his developmental milestones, LaHood said, but after his 18-month vaccinations, “we lost all that.”
Michael eventually was diagnosed with autism. Today, he doesn’t make eye contact, speak, or smile, LaHood said. Now 6 years old, he only stopped using diapers last year. The experience of having an autistic child compelled LaHood to speak out in Vaxxed Stories, part of the anti-vaccination documentary called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. His declaration that “vaccines can and do cause autism” drew swift criticism, with many reacting with concern that LaHood had used his position as an elected official to push the anti-vaccination agenda.
“I’ve never told anybody not to vaccinate their kids,” said LaHood, a father of four. “I’ve said, ‘If after doing your research and after you’ve looked at all objective facts and stayed away from sound bites, if you still decide to vaccinate, then vaccinate your kids. That’s it, they’re your kids.'”
LaHood makes no apologies for his comments about vaccines. Nor, for that matter, for any of the other controversies that have swirled around him since he ran against – and defeated – 16-year incumbent Susan Reed with the help of $1.2 million in campaign donations from personal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry. LaHood, 44, describes himself as “humble in spirit, fearless in attitude,” saying he strives to seek truth and justice, even if controversy results.
“I’m not going to be quiet or run away from people who start throwing false accusations out here,” he told the Rivard Report last week.
In the latest controversy to surround LaHood, accusations from three local defense attorneys landed him on the witness stand. Mark Stevens, Joe D. Gonzales, and Christian Henricksen alleged that LaHood threatened to destroy their law practices and careers during a conference in judge’s chambers in a homicide case LaHood was prosecuting last month. A hearing on the matter resulted, with LaHood denying in testimony that he made threats. However, State District Judge Lori Valenzuela testified that LaHood did make the alleged statements.
The allegations surfaced during the murder trial of Miguel Martinez, 29, who was accused in the 2015 shooting death of Laura Carter, 33. Defense attorneys said that LaHood disclosed at the last minute that one of his office’s staff members previously had a sexual relationship with one of the case’s key witnesses a few years prior to the murder, and the defense called for a mistrial. It was when both sides were discussing the issue in Valenzuela’s chambers that the defense attorneys said LaHood made the threats.
“He threatened [Gonzales], saying he would shut down his practice and he said that both of us would not get hired on a case in Bexar County again if we made allegations of prosecutorial misconduct,” Henricksen told the Rivard Report. “There was a lot more said than that, but that was the direct threat and the rest of what he said was how he would go about carrying out the threat.”
LaHood said that, while all of the involved parties were “working professionally to get this resolved” in Valenzuela’s chambers, he ultimately responded to what he said was a threat made by Gonzales to call a press conference and allege prosecutorial misconduct against LaHood and Assistant District Attorney Jason Goss. LaHood continues to deny making a threat to destroy the attorney’s practices, calling the matter a “distraction.” He is not facing any sanctions for his alleged comments.
“I said, ‘I will defend this office, and in the process of defending this office I’ll expose you for the unethical lawyer that you are, and let’s see what happens to your law practice,'” LaHood said, adding that during and immediately after the exchange no one mentioned anything about him threatening anyone, which makes their claims “disingenuous.”
The case ended in mistrial in February, and the defense attorneys’ request to have the charges against their client dismissed was denied by Senior District Judge W.C. Kirkendall. In his ruling, Kirkendall labeled LaHood’s behavior “uncalled for,” but wrote that he didn’t “intentionally provoke or goad the defense requesting a mistrial.”
LaHood plans to retry the case, because he believes Martinez is guilty. He sees his role as a lawyer as being a “legal bodyguard for people,” a philosophy instilled in him by his father, attorney and former judge Michael Thomas LaHood Sr.
“I’ve always been a protective personality,” said LaHood, adding that he’s emulated his father since he was a child.
Born and raised in San Antonio, LaHood has deep ties to the local community. He attended Mount Sacred Heart Catholic School and went on to Central Catholic High School, from which he graduated. He later got a degree in finance from St. Mary’s University, where he also earned his law degree.
In 1994, he was attending San Antonio College as a 21-year-old when he was arrested for attempting to sell Ecstasy pills, with a firearm, to an undercover police officer. He entered a plea bargain and was given deferred adjudication, along with a fine and community service hours requirements. The offense was later expunged from his record, and LaHood often points to his arrest and how he learned from it as a way to inspire young people and the clients he represented as a defense attorney.
In August 1996, LaHood’s older brother, Michael LaHood Jr., was shot and killed in the driveway of their parents’ home. LaHood said it was the first time he had ever seen his father cry. Both the drug arrest and his brother’s death had lasting effects on him, he said.
“I went through that season of being what I self-diagnosed as a functioning ‘anger-holic’ for many years,” he said. It wasn’t until he reconnected with his faith that he found peace and, he said, freedom from his “deception.” He sees his strong bases in his family and his faith as “anchors that helped me from going too, too far.”
“Anger motivated me to accomplish things, and I believe God used my anger,” said LaHood, who is a parishioner at a non-denominational church and describes himself as a “man who is passionately in love with the Lord.” He cites two scripture passages from the Bible – Micah 6:8 and Proverbs 17:15 – as ones “that perfectly merge with the oath of a prosecutor in Texas” and that are the foundation for why he practices law.
LaHood said he didn’t initially set out to become district attorney. At the time, his criminal defense law practice was doing well, and he had established himself as a prominent local attorney with strong ties in the community.
But as he grew in his profession, he began to “see flaws in the [justice] system,” he said. He wanted to address them, and thought he could bring more of the “legal bodyguard” aspect to a job that he believed was engulfed in politics.
In his first run for office in 2010, he narrowly lost to Republican incumbent Reed. But on his second attempt, he came out on top by a margin of 9,300 votes.
“I think the community had a chance to get to know me,” he said about his second run for office. “… I think people are tired of fake politicians that tell them what they want to hear.”
For Richard Gambitta, retired director of the UTSA Institute for Law and Public Affairs and professor of political science, LaHood had proven himself in the community enough to win the majority of the vote.
He also had built a “solid Democratic base coupled with [support from] Christian pastors,” said Gambitta, who informally advised LaHood when he was running for office the first time.
“He has incredible focus and determination, even at that early point [when he was running for office]. He seemed dogged in his crime-fighting approach and was extremely assertive in making his points,” Gambitta said. “People were willing to give a new face a chance, and I think he has sustained his base and, in fact, added to it, despite some unfortunate controversies.”
This month, LaHood courted controversy again, issuing a statement written on his office letterhead accusing the San Antonio Express-News of having a personal vendetta against him. “There is clearly an agenda to attack me and the District Attorney’s office. They continuously ignore the truth and fail to report the facts,” the statement read.
When asked specifically what Express-News stories he was referring to, LaHood named several. He claimed some of the publication’s stories about the threat allegations in the Martinez case are incomplete and do not include “all of the facts” regarding the incident. He also cited an Express-News column about his stance on legislation designed to prevent crime victims from being jailed to ensure their appearance in court without legal representation. The column headlined “LaHood opposes ‘Jenny’s Law'” is inaccurate, LaHood said, because he is “not opposed to Jenny’s Law, [but] it’s not practical as written.
“The headlines don’t match the story, the stories don’t match the truth,” he said.
The column states that Michael Hoyle, chief of LaHood’s criminal trial division, testified before the Legislature in opposition to the bill “on behalf of District Attorney LaHood,” but LaHood said his colleague’s testimony was not reflective of his own beliefs. He said the columnist should have contacted him before publication to verify this fact.
The Express-News wrote about his participation as a speaker in an autism conference last year, where he spoke alongside anti-immunization activist Jenny McCarthy, but for LaHood, the “highlight [of the article] was vaccines, not the fact that autism was an epidemic.”
He issued the statement about the newspaper to “[call] out behavior that is unacceptable,” he said.
The Express-News responded to LaHood’s statement in print, saying there was no “vendetta against him by this newspaper.” It went on to say, “We are quite familiar, particularly these days, with elected officials who are uncomfortable with media scrutiny. We are quite familiar also with those who, when they are held to account, then try to vilify the messenger. The Board is pleased that DA LaHood pledges to continue to look out for what he views as the public’s interest. This editorial board will as well.”
LaHood views such issues as unwanted distractions from his continuing efforts to fight for the protection of children. Last year, his office handled 82 felony child abuse trials with a 73% conviction rate and 19 trial sentences were for 20 years or greater, up from the 47 felony child abuse trials with a 57% conviction rate from the previous administration, according to one of his staffers.
Since assuming office, he also has created a Child Abuse Unit, Domestic Violence Task Force, and a Conviction Integrity Unit, among numerous other initiatives. His office has seen a significant increase in in-house training for trial advocacy, and has pushed legislation to increase the criminal penalty for chronic serial abusers of the community’s children, elderly, and disabled people.
LaHood may describe himself as “humble in spirit, fearless in attitude,” but the latter seems to be most evident to the public. When asked if he thinks he’s misunderstood in the community, he said he believes the exact opposite – that Bexar County residents understand what he’s trying to do.
“I think I’ve been very consistent in this community, so people can make their decisions after they look at my behavior,” he said. “The community is smart. They can see people’s intentions.”