More pressure on Rosenthal to resign

January 10, 2008 6:21:44 AM PST
Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal was facing intense pressure Wednesday to resign following the release of sexually and racially charged messages he sent and received using his county e-mail account. The e-mails also show Rosenthal used the account to strategize about his now-aborted re-election campaign. It is illegal in Texas to use government property for political activity.

But Rosenthal told top county officials Wednesday he would not resign despite admitted poor judgment.

"Thankfully stupidity is not a ground (for removal)," Rosenthal said in a Wednesday morning e-mail to Ed Emmett, the county's chief executive, who released the note to reporters.

Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill said the integrity of the Republican-led district attorney's office has been "completely compromised."

"Chuck Rosenthal needs to go," Woodfill said, noting that Rosenthal had denied sending or receiving any racist e-mails.

Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford asked the Texas Attorney General's office to investigate Rosenthal's actions and pursue his removal if warranted.

Under Texas law, district judges may remove district attorneys from office for incompetency, official misconduct or intoxication on or off the job. Official misconduct is defined as "intentional, unlawful behavior" relating to official duties.

Emmett, like Rosenthal a Republican, said the e-mails were disgusting and Rosenthal should step down to spare the county and his own staff the embarrassment of a lengthy investigation.

"If I had the ability to fire him ... yes, I would have," Emmett said.

Rosenthal, 61, was running unopposed in the Republican primary for re-election and was favored to win in the conservative county that surrounds Houston. But that was before the release during the holidays of affectionate e-mails between him and his secretary, with whom he acknowledged having an affair in the 1980s.

"The very next time I see you, I want to kiss you behind your right ear," he e-mailed assistant Kerry Stevens.

Stevens, taking a call for Rosenthal from The Associated Press, declined to comment herself Wednesday on the e-mails. Rosenthal did not immediately return the call.

Although he has insisted that the affair has been over for years, Rosenthal wrote Stevens in July, "Hopefully, sometime this week you will let me hold you."

Party officials urged Rosenthal last week not to seek re-election. He withdrew from the GOP ballot but considered running as an independent. Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler, known for her courtroom theatrics, filed for the Republican nomination.

But this week, more e-mails surfaced from public information requests by local media. Rosenthal forwarded on a racist e-mail comparing former President Clinton to stereotypes of black men and received other racist e-mails; another, sent by Siegler's physician husband Sam, included a video of men forcibly pulling down women's blouses in public. Other e-mails strategized about campaigning.

Rosenthal, a Republican elected in 2000, ran as a religious conservative. He has said the death penalty is God's law as well as the state's and that he follows both. He presides over an office that sends more convicts to death row than any other prosecutors' office in the nation.

The scandal has riled the county GOP, which has held every countywide office for more than 10 years.

Woodfill said he has told Rosenthal's consultants that he wants him to resign. But Rosenthal has refused to speak directly to Woodfill since he asked him to remove his name from the ballot. Emmett said he had not yet asked Rosenthal to step down but would if they spoke again.

The 860 e-mails emerged as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Department. Stafford is defending Harris County in that lawsuit, so he believed it would be a conflict of interest for his office to investigate Rosenthal, Emmett said.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt mistakenly released the first batch of e-mails last month following a request by Houston television station KHOU-TV. He later resealed those messages, saying he'd only meant to make public Rosenthal's request that those e-mails be withheld.

The second batch of e-mails were released after Hoyt said Monday they were not subject to a protective order.

Hoyt is also looking into accusations that Rosenthal deleted more than 2,500 e-mails requested by the plaintiffs' attorney in the civil rights lawsuit.

Rosenthal said in court documents last month that he deleted the e-mails to reduce their large volume visible on his computer. He said he believed a list of the e-mails had been printed and that even if deleted, they could still be retrieved by his technical staff. He said that staff has been working to try and retrieve the e-mails.