First Asst. DA speaks out on grand jury investigation into BAT vans

December 22, 2011 4:49:58 PM PST
The BAT van grand jury probe Thursday hit the top floor in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, taking hours of testimony from DA Pat Lykos' right-hand man. First Assistant District Attorney Jim Leitner admits the BAT vans are still a problem and the controversy has hurt the office, but told Eyewitness News that no laws were broken.

This grand jury really is the Energizer bunny. They keep going and going and it's unclear if they will stop before subpoenaing the District Attorney herself. Either way, grand jurors are taking a holiday break next week and the DA's Office admitted on Thursday they need to take steps to solve lingering public perception problems with those DWI testing vans.

Jim Leitner, Harris Co. DA Pat Lykos' top assistant, headed in to testify to a grand jury Thursday morning. Three and a half hours later he emerged, hoping he convinced grand jurors there was nothing wrong inside the DA's Office when it comes to the mobile DWI testing BAT vans.

Grand jurors have been digging into it for more than two months after a judge hinted there was possible criminal activity by the DA's team.

"That sounded horrible and, you know, a lot of people when they read that headline, that's all it takes. They think, well it's got to be true," said Leitner. "Months later, I hope soon this whole thing ends and everybody sees that's not true, that the DA's Office didn't do any criminal activity."

He admits the investigation has damaged the image of the DA's Office, but insists he acted as soon as he could to protect DWI suspects' rights. That's a point the grand jury is certainly examining as it continues its work into next year.

In the meantime, the DA's Office knows BAT vans may still be a dirty word in Houston.

"It's obvious to me though that BAT vans are a problem because what I thought would've answered the question, obviously for the public and the media and everybody else, it hasn't answered the question," said Leitner.

The DA and Houston Police Department have come up with a plan to reduce the use of the pricey but controversial BAT vans by this summer, replacing them with fixed units at HPD substations.

"In the meantime, if they need to use the BAT vans, because of problems within the city, they should use them. But they better make sure they are maintained by the book," Leitner said.

On investigation specifics, Leitner was less specific. The DA's Office won't discipline Asst. District Attorney Rachel Palmer for taking the Fifth earlier this week. She's still on the job.

"I would be hard pressed to punish anyone because they exercised their constitutional rights," Leitner said.

And he denies the DA's Office retaliated against whistle blower Amanda Culbertson who brought these problems to light in the first place. He will have to wait until some time next year to find out if the grand jury takes his word for it.

"We're going to continue to work for as long as the grand jury wants to, and as long as we think it is productive," said special prosecutor Jim Mount.

On Thursday, the attorneys helping the grand jury said they will be back meeting after the first of the year. Their term expires at the end of July.


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