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Former West Texas Prosecutor Claims He Was Fired for Reporting Improper, Possibly Illegal Acts

Jerry Phillips, a former prosecutor for the district covering multiple Far West Texas counties, is accusing local prosecutors across the region of improper behavior in a lawsuit filed in Travis County.

By Travis Bubenik

A Sonora-based attorney who previously worked for the 83rd District Attorney’s Office in Far West Texas is suing his onetime boss and counties across the region, claiming he was fired as retaliation for raising concerns about cronyism and other “unethical and possibly illegal” acts by county-level prosecutors.

In a sweeping lawsuit filed late last month in Travis County district court, former assistant district attorney Jerry Phillips claims his attempts to report the allegedly improper behavior of local prosecutors were “consistently rebuffed” and ignored by current District Attorney Ori White. Philips maintains his efforts eventually culminated with his firing.

White’s office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

The 83rd District covers a large swath of rural West Texas that includes Brewster, Jeff Davis, Pecos and Presidio counties.

White, a Republican, was elected to the position last November after ousting former DA Sandy Wilson in the GOP primary. In the general election, White had no Democratic challengers. He was sworn into the position alongside Phillips in January, as the Big Bend Sentinel reported.

Phillips’ lawsuit seeks his reinstatement in the 83rd District and up to $1 million in damages. It also asks the judge overseeing the case to issue orders blocking county attorneys across the region from taking part in the allegedly improper behavior outlined in the suit.

“Our form of government requires our elected officials to act in accordance with the law and their clear duties of office,” Phillips wrote in an emailed statement. “It is absolutely wrong to fire an employee who objects to problematic official conduct, and/or states an intent to expose such problematic official conduct.”

The claims in the lawsuit — which targets White as an individual, his office, and all four county governments within the 83rd district — are sweeping and at times complex. The suit includes a few notable allegations:

Phillips claims Brewster County Attorney Steve Houston pressured White to help arrange a favorable plea deal for Houston’s grandson, who was facing criminal charges at the time.

He also claims Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton and White engaged in “political cronyism” in negotiating a deal over how to split tens of thousands of dollars in seized currency between their offices and the Presidio Police Department.

The lawsuit accuses White of firing a female employee in a discriminatory manner.

Phillips claims that county attorneys across the district have “habitually” engaged in a process of offering plea deals to misdemeanor criminal defendants who did not have lawyers before their first court appearances — a practice Phillips claims is “unethical and possibly illegal.”

Ponton strongly disputed the lawsuit’s claim, calling the filing a “wrongful firing lawsuit by a disgruntled employee.”

“The factual allegations in the suit are either wrong or baseless,” he said in an email. “It is my understanding that Mr. Phillips was fired for refusing to follow a court order. The rest of the allegations are bullsh*t [sic], and most of the facts are wrong.”

Ponton said the Texas Association of Counties would defend the four counties targeted in the lawsuit. A TAC spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the case.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.