While Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg sought to put her weekend drunken driving arrest behind her, debate over her political future reached the State Capitol on Monday, where lawmakers weighed in on whether she should resign and how a replacement might be chosen.
Some officials pointed to an obscure provision in state law that allows a district attorney to be removed from office for being drunk. The provision also says that a single county resident could start such a removal.
If Lehmberg, a Democrat, were to resign or be removed from office, Republican Gov. Rick Perry would appoint a replacement who would be subject to confirmation by the GOP-controlled state Senate.
Chapter 87 of the state’s Local Government Code lists among the “general grounds for removal” of a district attorney and other county officials “intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.”
Under that law, a removal petition could be filed by anyone who has lived in Travis County for six months and is “not currently under indictment” for a crime here. The petition would be filed with a district judge, and a trial would be held on the charge — with a jury to determine the official’s fate, according to the law.
While there was no indication Monday that such a petition was being contemplated, an unofficial online petition to Gov. Rick Perry seeking Lehmberg’s removal was gathering signatures at Change.org. The petition by “Beth S” in Cedar Park said Lehmberg, as a result of her arrest, “is not a person to lead this county in delivering justice.”
Lehmberg and Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who will prosecute her case, could not be reached for comment. Lehmberg, who The Associated Press said was freed on $3,000 bond, reportedly returned to work Monday afternoon. She has said she would not resign.
The Travis County district attorney’s office is considered one of the most powerful in the state, since it prosecutes public corruption cases involving state officials. And Lehmberg has repeatedly called for public officials to be held to a higher standard of conduct, after the successful prosecutions of former U.S. Majority Leader Tom Delay and state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, on ethics violations.
Travis County deputies late Friday arrested Lehmberg, who has been district attorney since 2009, after a motorist alerted police about a car driving recklessly, traveling in the bike lane and swerving into oncoming traffic on RM 620 in the Steiner Ranch area.
Lehmberg, who deputies reported was combative, told arresting officers she had consumed two vodka drinks. They found a bottle of vodka in the car’s passenger side, according to an arrest affidavit.
In a letter to prosecutors Sunday, Lehmberg said she would plead guilty and accept whatever sentence is levied, including jail time. But because her blood-alcohol test results are still not known, the exact charge has not been finalized.
A Class B charge for having a blood-alcohol level below 0.15 is punishable by a maximum $2,000 fine and six months in jail. A Class A charge is punishable by a maximum year in jail and $4,000 fine.
The case continued to make headlines Monday as Lehmberg’s booking photo was made public, and a political backstory developed at the Capitol, where Democrats generally expressed regret and sympathy over the arrest, while Republicans said she should step down.
“It’s very difficult to prosecute objectively regarding a DWI if you yourself are currently facing a charge on the same violation,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican who represents parts of South Austin and southern Travis County. “It’s incumbent upon public officials to hold themselves up as role models.”
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the decision on Lehmberg’s future should be left to her.
“Rosemary made a very bad mistake. This wrong requires that she act responsibly, and she’s taking full responsibility for that mistake,” Watson said. “It would be wrong for this single mistake to wipe away all of the good she’s done.”