In a state House district that has historically elected Democrats, Republicans see an opportunity this year with the incumbent facing felony charges.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, a personal injury attorney in Harris County, is set to stand trial for a host of criminal and civil charges for his alleged involvement in an elaborate kickback scheme. His opponent, David Hamilton, a Republican businessman who also lives in Missouri City, said he wanted to get involved in politics and upon learning of Reynolds’ legal troubles chose to run for the House District 27 seat.
“With that coming into play, then it turns a district that’s historically been unwinnable for a Republican, and we can at least make it competitive,” Hamilton said.
A grand jury indicted Reynolds last fall on 10 counts of barratry for illegally offering legal services to accident victims within 30 days of the incidents. Often referred to as “ambulance chasing,” barratry is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and disbarment.
Reynolds says he’s not concerned by the election challenge, or his upcoming trials. In a phone interview this week, the representative, who was first elected in 2010, was matter of fact about his case.
“Sure, it looks probably very attractive to say that a state representative is facing 10 barratry counts,” he said, but “I’m very confident that this too shall pass, and I will be stronger because my faith teaches me that this is a test to build a testimony.”
An affidavit filed in Montgomery County District Court says Reynolds was one of eight attorneys in the Houston area paying Robert Valdez Sr., 48, to scour accident reports for victims and get them to sign contracts to be represented by the different attorneys.
The arrangement came to light when one of Valdez’s workers anonymously tipped off the Montgomery County district attorney’s office. The informant described how they would download and print accident reports from the Houston Police Department’s website, then attempt to contact the not-at-fault driver using the address and phone number listed.
In that call, the informant said they read a script telling the person all he or she stood to gain from insurance – a rental car, medical bills paid for, even a personal injury check for up to $6,000. For those they didn’t reach by phone, they visited their homes and left a business card. They then set up appointments for Valdez to come to their homes, where he would show them their police report and have them sign one of the attorney’s contracts for representation.
Valdez is currently serving a five-year sentence for his role in the arrangement.
“The only thing we have is a statement of a three- or four-time convicted felon that was on parole that was looking at 25 to life in prison,” Reynolds said. Reynolds maintains his innocence and continues to run his law practice. “If you’re objective and take the title away and just look at the facts, it’s very, very, politically motivated.”
In response, Kelly Blackburn, the assistant Montgomery County district attorney trying the case, said he “has no concern about the local politics of Fort Bend County. The fact that he is a Democrat, Republican, independent or a member of the Green or Tea Parties is of no concern to us, and we look forward to the time when we can present all the facts in an open forum during the trial of this case.”
Reynolds’ criminal trial is set to begin Aug. 11.
A month later, on Sept. 15, he’ll be back in court for a civil case the State Bar of Texas filed in Harris County alleging professional misconduct in connection to the barratry scheme.
This is not the first time Reynolds has faced such accusations. He’s been publicly sanctioned twice by the bar association for professional misconduct. And Reynolds was arrested in 2012 after an undercover investigation by the Harris County district attorney’s office determined a chiropractic firm was persuading patients to sign contracts naming him as their legal counsel before the patients had physical exams or even met him.
The charges were dropped after two investigators involved in the case came under fire for, among other things, allegedly stealing evidence in different cases.
“I haven’t lost any support. There isn’t a push to get me out of office,” Reynolds said. “There could have been a number of people that could have filed against me if they felt I was not fit to serve. And I didn’t draw a primary opponent, and there’s a reason for that.”
Reynolds said that the people who are not supporting him are those who have never supported him. “There are some people who would never vote for me because I’m a pro-choice Democrat,” he said.
His stance on abortion is fundamentally different from that of Hamilton, his Republican opponent in November.
Hamilton is anti-abortion and has spent time outside clinics to talk to women about alternatives before they head inside.
During one such stint outside a clinic in Kentucky in 2009, Hamilton said he was arrested for disorderly conduct after he attempted to get around a counter-protester. The charges were later dropped. The following year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sued him for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act – a case that was settled in 2013.
Hamilton, who works for a company that makes maintenance equipment for the oil and gas industry, called it an “eye-opening experience” that spurred him to want to become involved in politics. He had considered running for precinct chairman but, upon learning of Reynolds’ legal troubles, chose to run instead for state representative.
“The district is designed to be unwinnable by a Republican,” he said. “And so most of the time, without the circumstances we have this time, people are just going to look at the voting history of the district and say I don’t have a chance.”
Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri said the party would consider allocating resources to Hamilton’s campaign. “There is a potential window of opportunity there, and we’re going to take a look at it.”