The March 14 primary elections for Tarrant County criminal court judges are months away, but they’re creating a buzz in courtroom hallways as two assistant district attorneys have immersed themselves — some say too deeply — in several races.
Prosecutors Anna Summersett and Benson Varghese created a private business called Plan A&B Advisors that offers web and print media design for local political candidates. Critics say the situation is rife with potential ethical peril. Summersett and Varghese have also been managing the Tarrant County Politics website that serves as an aggregator or central gathering point for local election information. Few people seemed to have a problem with that.
But the new business has the county employees creating political campaign literature for candidates seeking to become judges — judges who might later be hearing their cases or considering their proposed plea bargains.
“The potential for ethical nightmares is huge,” said Fort Worth attorney Alex Kim, who is seeking to become judge in Tarrant County Criminal Court No. 3.
Another candidate in that race is Casey Cole, who hired Plan A&B to help with his campaign. That could create a plethora of ethical quandaries, Kim said. For instance, two assistant DAs providing assistance to a particular candidate could leave the impression that the candidate is endorsed by the DA’s office, Kim said.
Courtroom quandaries could also arise, Kim said. If he is representing a defendant in a case, and Summersett or Varghese is serving as prosecutor, what happens when a case is heard by a judge who once paid Summersett and Varghese for help with their political campaigns? Could it affect a plea bargain or a verdict? Kim didn’t accuse the prosecutors of actually doing anything unethical. He described Varghese as “one of the most ethical prosecutors I’ve ever met.”
He doesn’t feel as comfortable about Summersett, whom he characterized as an aggressive, win-at-all-costs prosecutor.
“What bothers me deep down inside is just the appearance of impropriety,” he said. “Judicial candidates and district attorneys and all people in elected offices need to be above reproach. When there is an appearance of impropriety, it casts a shadow on your office.”
Varghese said he can understand why some people might raise eyebrows about his new business. However, “There is nothing that we are doing that has not been run by our office,” he said.
When asked to clarify “run by our office,” Varghese asked Fort Worth Weekly to submit questions via e-mail and said he would answer in writing. A couple of days later he provided answers attributed to both himself and Summersett.
Plan A&B isn’t a political consulting firm, he said.
“While being criminal trial attorneys is our first love and priority, we created this company because we enjoy the creative process of designing web and print media and realized we could do so while filling a need for local professionals to build a modern online presence,” he said.
The company currently has 11 clients, including four judicial candidates in local races, he said.
While he understands the concerns of his critics, Varghese wrote, he doesn’t believe Plan A&B is in conflict with any laws or rules. He and Summersett consulted with experts and received permission from supervisors to create their business, he said.
“In addition to consulting with local attorneys concerning our strict adherence to these rules and regulations, we have also been in communication with the Ethics Commission in Austin, Texas, to ensure we operate above reproach as our business forms and extracurricular projects continue to grow,” he said.
They’ve agreed with their supervisors to avoid handling any contested cases “assigned to a client or an attorney in the same political race as a client,” he said.
District attorney’s office employees are permitted to work in outside jobs and to own their own businesses as long as they comply with laws and county rules.
“Our business concept is not in conflict with our current positions, and we are confident that we can address any ethical, legal, or practical issues raised,” Varghese said.
An elected county official who asked for anonymity said some county workers worry about the potential for conflict of interest, or even the appearance of such — even before anyone gets elected.
“These prosecutors are in county courts making plea bargain offers daily,” the official said. “Everybody running for these offices is going to them. If Candidate A is represented by them and Candidate B is not, and they both are attorneys representing defendants in drug cases, and one [defendant] gets jail time and one gets probation, it could look like there is an impropriety.”
District Attorney Joe Shannon said he agreed to allow the prosecutors to create the web design business for political candidates, but not before drawing up a memo for them that described what was permitted and what was not. For instance, they would not be allowed to use county equipment or work on county time, nor could they work on cases that involved their clients.
“We outlined to them the parameters and dos and don’ts,” he said.” It’s like having a side business. It’s certainly not illegal.” Should any potential for ethical conflicts arise, he will “deal with it depending on the facts of the case,” he said.
A local attorney who asked not to be named because “I have to work with these people” characterized the prosecutors’ side business as “completely unethical.”
She complained to the state ethics commission and the State Bar of Texas, but neither group was concerned. “They said they don’t have any rules for that,” she said. “It’s just ethics. The ethics commission couldn’t have cared less.”
Plan A&B is doing more than building websites — it has crossed over into political consulting, the attorney said.
“They’re taking money, and they are holding forums for their candidates,” she said. “I can’t see how they can’t see that what they’re doing is wrong.”