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Tom Berg

Lineup shuffling at the DA’s office

This was a surprise.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s top lieutenant is out the door after the latest staffing shake-up at an office already plagued by high turnover and ongoing retention problems.

Tom Berg, a former defense attorney who came on board at the start of Ogg’s administration, confirmed his departure early Tuesday – and though initially he described it to the Chronicle as a firing, officials later said that he resigned when offered a different job title.

“I realize that as the office has evolved its needs have necessarily changed,” Berg wrote in a letter to Ogg dated Tuesday. “I could not anticipate or adjust to each aspect of the transformation and acknowledge your need to have a First Assistant who is philosophically more aligned with your course for the future.”

It’s not clear if a specific incident prompted the move. Two other employees – Human Resources Director Dean Barshis and Outreach Coordinator Shekira Dennis – are shifting roles in similarly unclear circumstances.

[…]

As of April, more than 140 prosecutors had left under her tenure, generating a sharp uptick in turnover.

Ogg has attributed the turnover to fallout from Hurricane Harvey, which has left courtrooms scattered across a number of buildings and prosecutors working in makeshift offices.

Some local attorneys chalked up the departures to leadership issues.

“There’s a lot of different things going around — they’re overworked because of the hurricane or they’re not going to trial — but really it’s that there’s no leadership,” said Josh Phanco, a longtime felony prosecutor who left the office earlier this year. “There’s no one you look at and say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ They all got fired.”

As the story notes, a lot of assistant DAs and other employees left – some voluntarily, others not – after Ogg was inaugurated, and it has continued since then. The same thing happened following Pat Lykos’ victory in 2008 (and would have happened if C.O. Bradford had won instead), as both of these elections represented a change of direction for the office. It’s been bumpy, and that has had a negative effect on how the office has performed, but that is what happens when a large organization undergoes a significant shift in philosophy and operation. I’ve no doubt that plenty of things could have gone better, and of course plenty of experience has been lost. That’s by definition, and it’s part of the point. Kim Ogg will have to defend her record when she runs for re-election next year, but in the meantime and with all due respect, I’m going to take the criticism of people who worked for the previous DAs with a certain level of skepticism.

I’ve met Tom Berg and I’m friends with him on Facebook. I’m sorry to see him go, I don’t know what might have happened, but I wish him all the best. His successor is now in place.

A day after Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg forced out a top lieutenant in the latest office shake-up, officials confirmed Trial Bureau Chief David Mitcham will step in to assume the role as First Assistant District Attorney.

“David has a long and distinguished career as a criminal trial lawyer and prosecutor; he’s handled thousands of cases and understands the needs of our staff because he has walked in your shoes,” Ogg wrote Wednesday in an office-wide email announcing the change. “While you all have known him over the past two and one half years as the Trial Bureau Chief, I have known David for more than three decades as a colleague, friend and outstanding lawyer.”

Best of luck to David Mitcham.

Endorsement watch: Criminal district courts

The Chron did its endorsements for the criminal district courts in two parts. In part one, three of the eight recommended candidates are Democrats:

182nd Criminal District Court: The best choice for this court is Brandon Dudley, the Democratic challenger, a graduate of UH Law and a legislative aide to state Sen. Rodney Ellis.

185th Criminal District Court: Vivian King, the Democratic challenger, is a board-certified criminal defense attorney who has campaigned on the issue of increasing the number of pre-trial bonds granted to defendants charged with nonviolent offenses.

208th Criminal District Court: Loretta Johnson Muldrow, a Democratic defense attorney, is the best choice for this criminal bench.

In part 2, three of the five recommendations go to Democrats:

248th Criminal District Court: The Chronicle believes Democrat Jim Sullivan will bring years of trial experience as a defense attorney and a reformer’s zeal to the 248th.

262nd Criminal District Court: Democratic candidate Tom Berg brings an impressive mix of educational, legal and military credentials to his campaign for this criminal bench.

263rd Criminal District Court: Democratic challenger Alvin Nunnery brings extensive experience both as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney that makes him the Chronicle’s choice for this criminal court bench.

Here are the Q&As that I have for the endorsed candidates:

Brandon Dudley

Vivian King

Jim Sullivan

Tom Berg

I have not received responses from Muldrow or Nunnery. I do have responses from one Democratic candidate the Chron did not endorse:

Darrel Jordan, 180th Criminal Court (note: from the primary)

For Q&As from Republican candidates, see Big Jolly Politics.

Judicial Q&A: Tom Berg

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. These Q&As are primarily intended for candidates who were not in contested primaries. You can see those earlier Q&As, as well as all the ones in this series and all my recorded interviews for this cycle, on my 2010 Elections page.)

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

I’m Tom Berg and I am the Democratic candidate for the 262nd Criminal District Court of Harris County, Texas. I am a graduate of Rice University and the University of Houston Law Center. I was licensed to practice law in Texas in 1978. I was a State Department brat and grew up in Mexico where I graduated high school; I still speak fluent Spanish.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court is a trial court and hears felony cases, i.e., the most serious criminal charges.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

This is an open bench – the incumbent chose not to run again shortly after I announced my campaign. I originally selected this court because the incumbent had developed a poor reputation for courtesy and demeanor toward lawyers and defendants (sometimes called “Black Robe” disease).

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law here for 32 years. I have been board certified in criminal law since 1984. I served 27 years in our Federal Public Defender’s Office including 19 years as its First Assistant. I’ve tried in excess of 150 jury trials and have extensive appellate experience. I am also a colonel in Army Reserve, Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I have sat for the last five years as a part-time military judge in the Army Trial Judiciary, presiding over courts-martial about one week a month around the country. I spent a year in Iraq as a liaison to the Iraqi judiciary in 2008-2009. I also did a combat tour as the staff judge advocate with a civil affairs task force in Afghanistan in 2003-2004 and served as the legal advisor for detention operations at Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, enforcing the Geneva Conventions while I was there. During Desert Shield/Storm and in Bosnia during Operation Noble Eagle I was an Army prosecutor. Overall, my practice has been in the court-room and I’ve enjoyed all the different perspectives. As noted I have worked in judicial policy and the administration of detention/corrections operations.

5. Why is this race important?

The Harris County judicial system has been broken for decades (can’t just blame the Republicans for this). Too many non-violent pretrial defendants are held in jail for extended periods; they can’t make bail and can’t get their cases heard. It makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence. Not only are they taken out of the work force and unable to support their dependents, but they cost us, the Harris County taxpayers, a fortune to keep locked up without a corresponding benefit to society. The Pretrial Release Agency does not execute its mission. I worked there before I went to law school in the mid-1970’s when it actually was used successfully to alleviate both overcrowding and hardship. The Bail Bond schedule is arbitrary – tied to the alleged offense rather than the individual’s actual risk of flight or danger to the community. State law mandates a fair defense for the accused. I interpret that as a directive to establish a viable, efficient and comprehensive public defender system and I support it.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have spent most of my adult life in public service. I am committed to the reform of our judicial system for the benefit of our County. I am committed to the just and timely punishment of those who are convicted when they are convicted. Pretrial punishment just rubs me wrong. I realize that we are resource-constrained but there is much we can do if we do it in the public spirit. I’m prepared to work double days in court and with the judicial policy makers to raise our system to meet the promises and obligations of the Constitution and the law.