Candidates sound off on District Attorney race - DA: Vast experience should be key

Published on Saturday, 22 February 2014 22:31 - Written by Emily Guevara eguevara@tylerpaper.com

With almost 10 years as Smith County District Attorney under his belt, Matt Bingham is seeking one more term in office and says his experience, sound financial management and strong case record make him the best candidate for the job.

Bingham spoke to the Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial board recently about his campaign, and what has been accomplished during his time in office.

 

EXPERIENCE

For 18 years, Bingham has worked in the Smith County District Attorney’s office. Even before he assumed the top job in 2004, he started at the bottom prosecuting misdemeanor cases.

After holding several positions in various courts, he was appointed first assistant district attorney in 2001, where he worked alongside then-DA, now Judge Jack Skeen.

When Skeen was appointed judge in November 2003, Bingham became the acting DA until he ran for the position and won.

During his time as a Smith County felony prosecutor, he has tried at least 150 felony jury trial cases, he said. These include 27 murder and capital murder cases, including having six people on death row.

In 1999, he also was one of six prosecutors selected statewide to work with the Texas Attorney General’s Office Project Exile program, which aimed to get longer federal sentences for convicted felons who possess firearms.

He said his opponent lacks the experience for the DA position, having never prosecuted a murder or capital murder case.

“I’m not throwing stones at him, but … this is not an office when you’re sitting behind the DA’s desk where it should be a training ground or an office in which you cut your teeth,” he said. “We have 10 capital murders and six murders set for trial right now. When I came into the office, I had tried murders and capital murders with Jack Skeen and helped in the running of that office before I ever got there. And it’s hard to get across to the public that and even to some lawyers that, you know, this is a place you want to have your experience before you get there as a prosecutor.”

 

BUDGET

The DA’s office budget has increased by more than $1 million, or almost 38.5 percent, from 2005 to 2013, according to figures Bingham provided.

In 2005, the budget was almost $2.8 million and, in 2013, it was about $3.8 million. The budget has increased each year in that nine-year period except for 2011.

However, in none of those years has the office spent all of its budgeted funds. It returned about $1.4 million in unspent funds to the county during that time period.

Bingham attributed some of the budget growth to a change in the county’s compensation program. It went to a step compensation program.

He said his office helped reduce expenditures in 2010 by absorbing three positions when people left or retired.

“Once you get rid of not just the salaries each month, but not having to pay retirement benefits, health insurance, that sort of thing, the savings were pretty large and the commissioners court recognized us for that,” he said.

Since 2004, the office has seized more than $2 million through state and federal forfeiture programs.

These monies — which come from people who have engaged in criminal activity — pay for law enforcement training, vehicles, equipment and more.

“You know the taxpayer’s money is a big deal,” Bingham said. “It does save the taxpayers, or the city council, the county government. They don’t have to go back to them and get that as a part of the budget. But the more important thing is that these are things that aid in their enforcement of the law, keeps them safe … helps on our cases as well, (and) protects the public.”

 

CASE RECORD

Regarding his office’s handling of specific cases, Bingham addressed questions.

The Mineola swingers cases involved a young group of siblings who allegedly danced and performed sex acts before a paying adult audience inside a vacant day care center, then dubbed the “Mineola Swinger’s Club.”

Although a Texas appeals court overturned two of the initial convictions, ultimately, seven adults were convicted of various offenses related to the case.

One of the defendants, Dennis Boyd Pittman, who was tried by Bingham, was convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity and received a life sentence in July 2010. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2013 affirmed the conviction, which already had been affirmed by the 12th Court of Appeals.

In May 2011, six defendants involved in the 2005 incidents pleaded guilty to charges of injury to a child, a third-degree felony, in the 241st District Court. The crime’s punishment range is two to 10 years in prison. All were sentenced, credited for time served and released shortly after the plea hearing, according to newspaper archives.

Bingham said that during the trial of one of the cases, the prosecutor made certain arguments that should not have been made and failed to disclose to the defense statements made by the owner of the swinger’s club to two Texas Rangers even though the prosecution was unaware the statements had been made.

Bingham said his involvement in two other cases at that time prevented him from being involved in the early trials of the Mineola swingers cases.

However, he said, because they were handled by his office “whatever happened to them ultimately is my responsibility, and I’m not trying to shun that at all, but as far as the trial of the case I was not … one of the prosecutors on it.”

Another case involved Smith County Precinct 1 constable Henry Jackson, who was arrested in May 2008 on seven tampering with governmental records charges and three official oppression/sexual harassment charges.

The tampering charges stemmed from alleged false filings Jackson made regarding his private security company.

Bingham said he did not handle the case because of a conflict of interest — one of his employees was a potential witness. At Bingham’s request, independent prosecutor Tonda Curry handled it.

“We didn’t have any say-so in what he was indicted for or what the resolution was,” he said.

Jackson pleaded guilty to one Misdemeanor A count of tampering with a governmental record and pleaded no contest to one Class C assault charge.

He received six months deferred adjudication, a six-month probated suspension of his peace officer license, and had to participate in an ethics course.

Bingham said he will not run for DA again and plans to make this his last term, if elected. After that, he plans to go into private practice in Tyler. He said he loves what he does but doesn’t enjoy politics.

“It is a wonderful job,” he said. “I think it’s the best job in the world. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s an absolute honor and privilege for the people to put their faith in you and to have the support that I’ve had and still have in the community. But that’s as far as it goes for me. I’m asking them to let me finish my career with this term in the DA’s office, and I’m going to turn it over to somebody else.”