DA Barry Johnson hires Democratic nominee Aubrey Robertson
In an unusual juxtaposition mixing politics with the criminal justice system, Republican Barry Johnson, the lame duck McLennan County district attorney, announced Friday he has hired the Democratic nominee vying to replace him in January.
Johnson, a one-term incumbent who lost to challenger Josh Tetens in the March Republican primary, said he is excited to bring someone with Aubrey Robertson’s prosecutorial experience to work with him during his last six months in office.
Despite appearances that Johnson is endorsing Robertson as his successor, Johnson joked that neither Robertson nor Tetens has asked for his blessing, adding that they might not want it since Tetens beat Johnson 70 percent to 30 percent.
Robertson, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, was a prosecutor in Harris County for four years before coming to work for former McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna. He rose to chief prosecutor in one of the county’s two primary felony courts before Reyna fired him in March 2018, two weeks after Johnson defeated Reyna 60 percent to 40 percent in the Republican primary.
Johnson made the surprise hiring announcement during a news conference in the grand jury chambers on the fourth floor of the courthouse annex.
“Let me begin by thanking Barry for giving me the opportunity to serve the citizens of McLennan County as first assistant district attorney,” Robertson said. “As a former chief prosecutor in the 19th District Court, coming back to the DA’s office as first assistant feels a lot like coming home. I am eager to get to work and bring my years of prosecutorial experience to bear on what I see as the issues in our local criminal justice system.”
Robertson said he was told that Reyna fired him for being insubordinate. He has said he wears that as a badge of honor.
“Abel and I didn’t always agree on things,” Robertson said Friday. “I had a habit of asking why things were always done the same way, and I think that ruffled people’s feathers. My attitude is if something is not working, we are not going to keep doing it the same old way. We are going to try to find better ways. We are going to work to get the wheels of justice unstuck in McLennan County.”
Tetens, a criminal defense attorney who has no prosecutorial experience, said that Robertson’s decision to accept Johnson’s offer will have no bearing on his candidacy.
“This does not affect my campaign to improve our district attorney’s office,” Tetens said Friday in a statement. “We continue to work hard to communicate with our dedicated law enforcement officers and voters across McLennan County. Our community believes in law and order and knows that it is time for Tetens to be the next district attorney... I am ready to get to work restoring integrity and a sense of justice to this important office.”
Johnson said his current first assistant, Sharon Pruitt, is not being demoted. She and Robertson both will serve as first assistants and will oversee different areas of the office.
“We are basically going into the last half of the year of the most important part of my four-year term in that we have a huge backlog from the COVID days, we have a lot of very important cases that are going to be tried, and we have got to work that backlog down so whoever takes my place in January that we have that as completely under control as we can get it,” Johnson said. “I was just delighted when I visited with Aubrey and that he would even consider coming down here.”
Robertson has worked at the law office of former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell since Reyna fired him. He will start his new job immediately. He said a top priority will be to work with law enforcement to try to curb the recent spike in violent crime in Waco and McLennan County.
“I think that is one of the things that this office has to focus on intently,” Robertson said. “I think if we really want to get violent crime under control in this county, we have to work on this backlog of cases. People who commit crimes have to know that justice will not only be severe, but justice will be swift. The consequences for breaking the law in this county will be swift.”
Johnson said Robertson will hit the ground running and will be prohibited from campaigning during office hours. The penalty for that is termination, he said.
It was difficult at times to determine if Robertson fielded questions at the news conference as the new first assistant, as a candidate to succeed Johnson or a bit of both.
He said he is unsure if Tetens will keep him as an employee if Tetens prevails in the Nov. 8 general election.
“If he recognizes in the same way that the rest of the county realizes the experience that I have, he might keep me on,” Robertson said. “But I fully intend to win in November, and all the policies and procedures that we are going to put in place between now and the election, I intend to continue those into January and the first four years of my first term.”
McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Brad Holland acknowledged the unusual situation Robertson’s new job places on the upcoming campaign for DA.
“I do know that there is a backlog in the district attorney’s office, and if the district attorney thinks that hiring Mr. Robertson is the way to handle that, that is certainly his choice,” Holland said. “It is a sizeable burden and it remains to be seen if that is going to take Mr. Robertson off the campaign trail or not. We feel very strongly about our candidate, Josh Tetens. He is a strong candidate and an experienced candidate, and we believe he is going to win big in November.”
Holland said that looking at the March primary totals, “the one race that drove Republicans to vote in McLennan County was the race for DA.”
“There were very few under votes in that race,” Holland said. “That was the race that energized the voters to go to the polls, more than the governor’s race, and Josh Tetens overwhelmingly won. So it is safe to say that Republicans are energized by Josh Tetens’ candidacy.”
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