New special prosecutor named in case of city officials

July 6, 2010 at 2:06 a.m.

District Judge Stephen Williams has named yet another special prosecutor in the cases of Victoria Police Lt. Ralph Buentello and former city attorney David Atmar Smith.

Williams issued an order on Tuesday appointing San Antonio attorney Terrence W. McDonald as the new prosecutor, replacing Port Lavaca attorney Jerry Clark, who held the position since June 21.

Buentello and Smith, whose cases recently came out of abatement, are fighting perjury charges stemming from the 2008 sexual abuse investigation of former Victoria County Sheriff Michael Ratcliff.

As it turns out, Clark represented Ratcliff's accuser in an unrelated drug case as his court-appointed attorney in 2009.

In a letter filed with the district clerk, Williams said he removed Clark because he represented this client.

"Although there is no conflict, I think it best to remove Mr. Clark and appoint someone else," said the letter.

It wasn't until June 28, seven days after being appointed, that Clark said he came across his former client's name within an indictment from the cases.

"I didn't make the connection early on," he said.

Clark said he immediately informed Williams about his distant relationship to the Buentello and Smith cases via his former client.

"I don't think there was a conflict of interest, but appearances are everything. I told the judge to do what he thinks is right," said Clark. "I just did what I was duty-bound to do."

He added, "I trust the judge's decision."

Clark replaced Victoria District Attorney Steve Tyler as prosecutor in the officials' cases after Williams ruled Tyler could not be both the victim and the prosecutor in the cases.

Also charged were Police Chief Bruce Ure and Mayor Will Armstrong.

Tyler, in part, contends the officials interfered with the case, leaked confidential information, conspired against him and lied under oath.

Many of the original indictment counts were later dismissed, leaving only the perjury charges.

The city officials contend Tyler prosecuted them in retaliation for questioning how he handled the Ratcliff investigation.

Charges against Ure and Armstrong have been dropped.

McDonald, a 1973 graduate of St. Mary's University law school, is no stranger to the tangled webs of these cases either.

McDonald was appointed in March 2008 to try the case against Ratcliff after Tyler recused himself.

He accepted a plea deal from Ratcliff.

"Quite honestly, Mr. McDonald might have a bit of a head start," said Scot Courtney, who represents Buentello. "He has at least some background on the cases."

Courtney also commented on Clark's removal.

"I did not have the opinion that there was a conflict of interest," said Courtney. "I'm sure the decision was made out of an abundance of caution."

Although Courtney and McDonald have yet to meet in person, Courtney seemed optimistic about the latest special prosecutor.

"I look forward to meeting with him," said Courtney. "I just hope the prosecutor can look at it and evaluate it in short order so we can determine where we are going."

He continued, "Our position is we're not guilty of perjury. If the state believes we are, that's fine. We just need to go to trial and let the citizens decide. I'm sure the citizens will agree with us."

Both McDonald and Randy Schaffer, who represents Smith, could not be reached by telephone for comment as of Tuesday evening.



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