Legal interests dominate donations in DA’s race

As the contentious three-way Democratic primary for Travis County district attorney approaches the finish line, some of the biggest legal interests in Texas — including a former statewide elected judge, several of the state’s most famous trial lawyers and a founder of a national debt-collection firm that has been scrutinized for its political activity — are choosing sides and writing checks.

Prosecutor Gary Cobb appears to be running away with the money race, collecting $128,900 in a one-month period that ended Feb. 22, thanks largely to a surge in donations from trial lawyers in Houston and East Texas, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. He has also received a personal loan of at least $25,000 from Chuck Herring, a high-profile Austin lawyer and key campaign supporter, to help settle a debt to his ex-wife that became an issue in the race.

Margaret Moore, a former county attorney, took in $23,550 during that period, including $2,000 from a founder of the Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson law firm. Cobb has accused the firm, which collects on tax delinquents for local governments across the country, of running a shadow campaign against him.

Meanwhile, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird, who has endorsed defense attorney Rick Reed in the race, is waging a no-holds-barred war on Cobb that is very much not in the shadows. Reed collected $2,250 in the latest filing period.

Big-time money is nothing new for races for Travis County district attorney, which has traditionally had statewide jurisdiction over public corruption cases. In the wake of the criminal prosecution of former Gov. Rick Perry, which was dropped Wednesday, the GOP-controlled Legislature last year limited the office’s role in corruption cases, although it retained statewide jurisdiction in some types of cases.

This year, Cobb has been the main beneficiary of the outsized interest in the Travis County race.

His late surge in campaign cash was fueled by at least $60,000 from out-of-town legal interests. A $30,000 contribution from liberal megadonor Steve Mostyn, a Houston personal injury lawyer, was the biggest donation in Cobb’s latest report. He also received $10,000 each from lawyers Charles Patterson of Texarkana and John Eddie Williams Jr. of Houston. The Provost Umphrey law firm in Beaumont also gave $10,000.

Herring, who backed Cobb’s unsuccessful 2008 bid for district attorney and was an early supporter of his 2016 run, loaned Cobb at least $25,000 in 2015, according to Cobb’s personal financial disclosure form. Cobb said the money went toward settling his debt to his former wife, Gigi Edwards Bryant, who is now an Austin Community College trustee.

The debt, which was for attorney’s fees and court costs related to their divorce, was $22,000 but grew through interest to be worth about $136,000 by late last year. A judge in November appointed a debt collector who temporarily froze Cobb’s bank accounts and a family property in his name in Mississippi. After the American-Statesman revealed the debt in November, leading Moore and Reed to enter the race, Cobb settled the debt for $60,000 in December.

“I had to get a loan,” Cobb said. “Chuck was involved with helping me get that.”

It’s impossible to determine how much Herring’s firm loaned Cobb because the disclosure forms don’t require candidates to report the exact amount of loans, only what range they fall in. The “$25,000 — or more” range is the highest.

Neither Cobb nor Herring would disclose details of the loan, but both said that it carries interest and has a repayment schedule. Cobb declined to discuss the loan further, saying it was a personal matter.

Herring said he issued the loan because he practices civil law and likely won’t be involved with a case involving the district attorney’s office, which prosecutes felony crimes.

“We’re old friends. He requested a loan,” said Herring, who has publicly endorsed both Cobb and Moore.

Although Moore’s haul lagged Cobb’s substantially, it was notable for two $1,000 donations from Dale Linebarger, a founder of the Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson debt-collection firm. Cobb has accused the firm of trying to turn the election against him, saying its general counsel, former Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, dredged up the divorce debt and recruited candidates to run against him.

Moore said she did not consider the donation to be from the firm because Linebarger has retired. Regardless, she said, the donations would have no affect on her if she was elected.

Oden previously said that the Linebarger firm had no interest in the race and that he only got involved to ensure the Democratic Party puts forward a quality nominee.

Baird, the former judge backing Reed, is trying hard to convince voters that Cobb isn’t the best nominee. Now a defense attorney, Baird has formed a political action committee called Citizens for an Ethical Travis County that purchased a full-page ad in the Austin Chronicle slamming Cobb and launched a website that posts troves of personal documents from Cobb’s divorce.

“I’m getting involved because I think the Travis County district attorney should be a person of high integrity and unquestionable ethical behavior,” Baird said.

Baird, who ran unsuccessfully against departing District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in 2012, said he got a bad taste for Cobb when they faced off in the murder trial of Kaitlyn Ritcherson. Baird accused Cobb and another prosecutor in the case of withholding evidence that was supposed to be turned over to the defense. The judge dismissed Baird’s claim.

Although the incident occurred in 2013, Baird filed an ethics grievance with the State Bar of Texas in December, shortly after Reed and Moore joined the race.

Civil litigator Maura Phelan is running unopposed in the Republican primary for the district attorney nomination.

Election day is Tuesday, with early voting ending Friday.

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