The scandal out of Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's office began over a series of romantic emails between the DA and one of his employees. Later, more sexually explicit and some racially charged emails were released. But University of Houston Law Center Associate Dean Richard Alderman says most of those emails, while inappropriate, probably aren't illegal. The more serious allegation is whether Rosenthal abused his office by using his county computer and email account for his political campaign.
"You can't use state time, state equipment, state resources while you are campaigning and for the purposes of your campaign. You cannot use the people that work for you while they are working for you on the state payroll to be doing this. So I think that's one of the most serious allegations that I have heard."
And that's what the Texas Attorney General's office will be investigating. Attorney Chris Feldman agrees that the DA's personal emails are drawing more attention in the public arena than at the legal level. Feldman is an attorney with Rusty Hardin and Associates and helped prosecute civil claims against former Congressman Tom DeLay. He says the AG's office will also be looking for evidence of official misconduct.
"If the district attorney had an affirmative obligation to perform a certain act and failed to do so as required by law, he could be removed from office for that. Whether or not there's any evidence of that or any of the above is an open question. But those are the areas that the attorney general would be looking at."
Official misconduct is a civil offense. It could result in removal from the position. Abuse of office is a criminal offense that could involve a trial and, if convicted, a prison sentence. It's too soon to have any concrete evidence, but Feldman says if the AG's office does find probable cause to advance the claims, there remains a question of who will prosecute.
"Normally it's the district attorney that prosecutes claims, or it's the county attorney, when it comes to official misconduct, that'll prosecute the claim. In this case, the county attorney obviously has referred this matter out because he's been representing the district attorney. And the attorney general cannot present a matter to a jury unless invited in by the district attorney."
Of course, these scenarios are dependent on the results of the investigation and both experts say it could be months before there is any sort of conclusion. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.