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February 12th, 2018:

Interview with Adam Milasincic

Adam Milasincic

We are officially in the home stretch of primary season. Early voting starts eight days – eight days! – from today. Between now and then I will be bringing you interviews from the contested State Rep primaries in Harris County. I limited myself to the races in Republican-held districts, because there’s only one of me and there were only so many weeks before the election. These are some of the districts in which any gains that are available to be made this year are likely to be made. We start in HD138, where two Democrats vie to face Rep. Dwayne Bohac in November. Adam Milasincic is one of those candidates, and was one of the first to file for a legislative office this cycle in Harris County. Milasincic is an attorney and litigator who touts his pro bono advocacy on behalf of inmates and immigrants, among others. He was also one of two primary candidates to be singled out by labor for his firm’s role in a recent lawsuit against the SEIU. I asked him about that, and about other things, in the interview:

You can see all of my legislative interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2018 Legislative Election page.

Judicial Q&A: Jason Luong

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. You can see other Q&As and further information about judicial candidates on my 2018 Judicial page.

Jason Luong

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Jason Luong, and I am running to be the Democratic candidate for Judge of the 185th District Court in Harris County, a felony district court. I have over 17 years of legal experience as a former prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and civil attorney. My wife is a former Marine. Our daughter attends St. Michael Catholic School and trains with the Houston Ballet. I come from a family of public servants. My father worked for the City of Houston for over 20 years. My mother worked for the Houston Police Department for over 20 years.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court handles felony criminal charges, where the range of punishment can range from 6 months in the state jail all the way to life in prison or the death penalty. Drug charges, assaults involving a deadly weapon or serious bodily injuries, third time DWI’s, homicide, sex assault cases and crimes against children are just a few examples of the felony offenses that this court hears.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running to bring my experience as a former prosecutor and defense attorney to serve and represent the citizens of Harris county. In fact, I was a prosecutor assigned to the 185 th District Court. Our courts need to be more responsive to the people they are intended to serve. This means making our courts accessible to people and running them efficiently.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have over 17 years of legal experience as a former Harris County prosecutor, civil attorney, and criminal defense attorney. My family and I have strong Texas roots. I am a graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, with honors. I started my legal career as a law clerk to a U.S. District Court Judge, where we handled one of the largest criminal dockets in the country. As a Harris County prosecutor, I prosecuted thousands of cases on behalf of Harris County residents, including one of the only prosecutions of members of Aryan Brotherhood under Texas’s Hate Crime Statute. Currently I have my own criminal defense practice where I handle both court-appointed and retained cases. I have tried over 50 cases to a jury verdict. I am passionate about bringing my experience to serve the people of Harris County.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because our criminal courts are important. Harris County is one of the most important criminal jurisdictions in the country. The 185th District Court handles the most serious criminal offenses, including crimes against children, serious drug cases, and murder.

This race is a chance for the citizens of Harris County to elect a judge who has the experience necessary for this high office. Furthermore, it is a chance to ensure that our criminal courts reflect the diversity of Harris County. If elected, I would be the only Asian-American judge on any county-wide criminal bench, and I would be the first Vietnamese-American judge elected in Harris County. I believe that our courts, like our juries, should reflect the diversity of our population.

6. Why should people vote for you in the March primary?

The people of Harris County should vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate in this race. I have over 17 years of legal experience. I am the only candidate in this race who has experience as a Harris County prosecutor. I have also been endorsed in this race by The Houston Chronicle and the Harris County Tejano Democrats. I am proud to have earned their endorsement. I will bring a balanced perspective and broad experience to this Court. I would ensure that all persons in my court whether a defendant or a victim, would be treated fairly and impartially under the law.

Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.

Endorsement watch: County criminal courts

One last round of judicial endorsements.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 2: Harold J. Landreneau

Harold Landreneau earns our endorsement for this primary slot with a significant caveat. Landreneau, 49, needs to shed the communication style of a chief clerk of a justice of the peace court, a job he held for over a decade, and assume the more deliberate and focused demeanor of a member of the judiciary. It’s not enough to be courteous to litigants: To be an effective manager, a judge needs to be concise.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 5: David M. Fleischer

In this toss-up race to replace Judge Margaret Stewart Harris, our endorsement goes to David M. Fleischer, a graduate of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School over Armen “Hammer” Merjanian.

Both candidates believe in more emphasis on rehabilitation in the county criminal court system. Even though Merjanian’s noble goal of ending mass incarceration needs more refinement, both candidates showed passion for changing a system that’s set in its ways and that needs much improvement. Fleischer, 43, has eight more years of experience as criminal lawyer than Merjanian. The idealistic Merjanian – whose five years of experience barely exceeds the statutory minimum for this bench – has the potential to be a good judge. While we’d strongly urge Merjanian to run again, voters should cast their ballots in this primary contest for Fleischer.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 7: Andrew W. Wright

The first thing you’ll notice about Andrew W. Wright is his long rockstar-style hair and beard – not what voters are used to seeing on a judge. The reasons for his copious coiffure? He’s growing out his hair to donate it, and the beard covers up a double chin.

Wright’s experience as a lawyer is significantly more traditional. The South Texas College of Law Houston graduate has been practicing law for over a decade, and has been exclusively practicing criminal defense for eight years. Wright, 35, has endorsed personal recognizance bonds as the norm for misdemeanor court – we agree – and assured us that, hairstyle aside, he plans on staying to the straight and narrow of his judicial responsibilities. That includes helping first offenders, supporting the expansion of diversion courts and sentencing the worst criminals to the highest punishment possible for county criminal courts – one year in jail.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 11: Gus Saper

A Jewish lawyer appointed to represent a general in the Aryan Brotherhood? That sounds like it could have been a movie, but it’s only one case in candidate Gus Saper’s 43-year career as a criminal defense attorney. With the Harris County Criminal Justice Center out of action for another two years due to Hurricane Harvey, this bench needs a resourceful judge like Saper.

A graduate of the South Texas School of Law Houston, Saper, 69, has the depth of knowledge and the historical perspective to know how to upgrade the procedures in this court to make them more courteous and efficient even with limited resources.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 12: Juan J. Aguirre

Juan J. Aguirre started his career in law by working alongside his father – a courthouse janitor in Del Rio.

“I got my baptism into the law field by cleaning up the courtroom,” Aguirre told us at his screening.

Since then he has graduated from South Texas School of Law Houston and worked for the past 16 years as a criminal law attorney, first as an assistant district attorney for Harris County and then as a criminal defense attorney. Aguirre, 51, takes pride in his mentorship of young lawyers, advising them to delve deep into their profession by visiting the crime scene and the crime lab and riding with the police to see what law enforcement sees. Before becoming a lawyer, Aguirre worked as a city planner and manager after obtaining a Masters of Urban Planning from Texas A&M University.

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 13: Raul Rodriquez

Raul Rodriquez, 58, is our choice for the Democratic primary. With 28 years of experience practicing criminal law, Rodriquez is well-qualified. This naturalized citizen is a clear communicator who also happens to be bilingual. He has judicial experience, having served as city of Houston municipal court judge for 12 years. Finally, he displays the right temperament for the judiciary.

The South Texas Law Center Houston graduate told us, “I believe it’s important for a judge to be involved in a community and to know what goes on there.”

Judge, County Criminal Court No. 15: Kris Ougrah

In this race between two young, passionate lawyers, we encourage Democratic voters to back Kris Ougrah, who told the editorial board he is running to improve the future of Houston’s youth. A graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Ougrah, 40, promises to take personal interest in setting young offenders on the right path in life. He also wants to run a mentorship program. However, we would recommend that Ougrah, who had a habit of being overly loquacious during his editorial board interview, focus on the judicious practice of a succinct comment.

Ougrah has been practicing law about twice as long as his opponent, Tonya Jones, who was admitted to the bar in 2011.

Relevant Q&As: Harold Landreneau, Armen Merjanian, Gus Saper, Kris Ougrah. One from Davis Fleischer is in the queue.

As noted before, that finishes off the judicial category for the Chron. They still have a lot of other ground to cover. In the meantime, it’s apparent that in some of these races, there are very clear choices, one candidate who got recommended by every group they screened with. In others the decision is tougher, but that’s because both of the options are good. I can’t complain about that.