Houston Chronicle

Criminal lawyers rally in support of Bunin

Public defender faces retaliatio­n for role in bail lawsuit, they say

- By Zach Despart

The Harris County defense bar is speaking out in support of Alex Bunin, the county’s chief public defender, saying an investigat­ion into his office is punishment for helping poor defendants in a landmark bail lawsuit against the county.

The claims that Bunin improperly leaked juvenile court documents — and the outpouring of support by defense lawyers in support of him — have thrown the public defender’s job in limbo and now compete with the approval of a $2.5 billion flood infrastruc­ture bond as the premier event of Tuesday’s Commission­ers Court meeting.

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Associatio­n, said statements made Friday by Precinct 3 Commission­er Steve Radack, who said a probe by the county attorney’s office has revealed Bunin acted unethicall­y, are punishment for the public defender’s support of poor defendants in the bail case.

“Radack is retaliatin­g against Bunin because he aided the litigants in the bail lawsuit, which is what his job is, and he does his job well,” Murphy said.

Harris County has spent about $6 million fighting a federal class-action lawsuit

brought in 2016 on behalf of poor defendants arrested on low-level offenses, who say the county’s cash bail system is unconstitu­tional because it keeps defendants in custody only because they are indigent. A federal judge agreed in a ruling that was largely upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Harris County and the plaintiffs’ lawyers will be back in court Thursday to work out the details of how a new bail system will work.

Bunin was one of several county officials, including District Attorney Kim Ogg and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who filed affidavits in the lawsuit in support of the plaintiffs.

David Gerger, a Houston lawyer and member of the National Associatio­n of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Bunin has acted appropriat­ely in the bail case and deserves to keep his job.

“If this is the complaint, that he was somehow disloyal to the county, that’s a false claim,” Gerger said. “To punish him for doing his job would undermine the legitimacy of the entire system.”

Bunin is accused of improperly leaking juvenile records to Jay Jenkins, a bail reform advocate. The county attorney also alleges Bunin allowed Jenkins to work out of the public defender’s office, though he is not a county employee, according to Radack.

The Commission­ers Court plans to hear on Tuesday morning a report on the probe by First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard, who said he began investigat­ing in May at the request of county officials whom he declined to identify.

Radack said last week that firing Bunin, the only chief public defender Harris County has had since the office was establishe­d in 2010, is on the table. Precinct 1 Commission­er Rodney Ellis said Bunin has done nothing wrong, but the public defender will need the support of two more members of the court to keep his job.

County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday he will hear Soard’s presentati­on with an open mind but said some emails he reviewed from the public defender’s office, which became part of Soard’s investigat­ion, are “very troubling to me.”

“I have some concerns about what the office was doing and whether or not that was what the public defender should be doing,” Emmett said. “Were juvenile rights violated?”

Emmett, who said he supports the role of the public defender’s office, said he is bothered Bunin is welcoming the support of the defense bar, which is criticizin­g Radack.

“I will say I’m a little bit offended he’s launched a whole political campaign,” Emmett said. “His real beef is with the county attorney.”

Bunin maintained he has done nothing improper and framed the dispute as one between a public defender’s office committed to doing its job and an overzealou­s commission­er and county attorney intent on diminishin­g its influence.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” Bunin said in a meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board. “I think that what we have is an issue of public defender independen­ce.”

He conceded there was “one attachment to one of the emails” reviewed by the county attorney that has names of juvenile defendants on it, but said the release of that informatio­n, thought inadverten­t, was lawful.

Several speakers, who intend to voice their support for Bunin, were added to the Commission­ers Court agenda on Monday. The court may choose to take action on Bunin’s job or may simply listen to Soard’s presentati­on, which will be delivered in a closed-door executive session.

 ?? Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle ?? Alex Bunin, chief public defender for Harris County, said he thinks the investigat­ion is “an issue of public defender independen­ce.”
Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle Alex Bunin, chief public defender for Harris County, said he thinks the investigat­ion is “an issue of public defender independen­ce.”

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