New controversy over county contract

October 4, 2011 4:17:46 PM PDT
On the same day a brand new commissioner takes the oath of office, a new controversy swirls over a county contract. A group of lawyers say a vote Tuesday was payback against a former Houston Police Department crime lab supervisor who spoke out.

The issue centers on who Harris County pays to test lab results in alcohol-related criminal cases. On Tuesday the county decided to go in a different direction and now some local lawyers claim it's retaliation from the district attorney's office.

While the lawyers may say it's retaliation, the district attorney's office tells me it's simply routine. They say they looked at their options and decided the state's Department of Public Safety would provide more resources and more stability in their efforts to prosecute cases. In the end, though, the controversy will not go away.

Amanda Culbertson and Jorge Wong's presence at the Harris County Commissioners Court couldn't be ignored, even though they were reluctant to say why they were there.

Culbertson said, "At this point, I'm still being kept on for a month until I find other employment."

"I just don't have anything to give you," Wong told Eyewitness News.

The two used to work for the Houston Police Department's crime lab. But earlier this year, Culbertson testified in court she quit because she was concerned about the accuracy of breathalyzer results administered inside HPD's so-called 'bat vans.' Her testimony put in question possibly hundreds of DWI cases. Now defense attorney Brent Mayr says the two are paying for it with their jobs.

"That's what this all boils down to," Mayr said. "They came out, they said that there were problems with it. The DA did not like that and now these people are out of a job because of it."

Culbertson and Wong went to work for Lone Star College, which until Tuesday had the contract to provide breath alcohol testing for Harris County Sheriff's Department. Defense attorneys say it was the DA who pressured county commissioners to yank the contract away from Lone Star College as retaliation against Culbertson and Wong. But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says he felt no pressure from the district attorney.

"My bottom line was if the district attorney's office and the sheriff's office were comfortable moving to DPS, then I'm comfortable with it," Emmett said.

The sheriff's department will now use the state's Department of Public Safety crime lab. Although Culbertson and Wong won't say they felt retaliated against, they admit they'll soon be jobless.

Culbertson said, "I've been told that my position is dependent on the contract with Harris County."

That contract is now with DPS. The district attorney's office insists they are simply going with what's best for their cases. The county judge says he has no dog in the fight. He is following the lead of the DA and the sheriff's department.

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