McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and his Republican primary opponent, Barry Johnson, squared off Thursday for the first time this campaign season, with each landing a few jabs during a forum at the McLennan County Republican Club.

Johnson, 61, opened the luncheon by challenging Reyna’s integrity, accusing him of violating his oath of office and putting the county in financial jeopardy by what Johnson called Reyna’s “complete mishandling” of the May 2015 Twin Peaks incident.

Reyna, 45, countered that Johnson has little criminal law experience, that he recently moved back to McLennan County after a career as a personal injury trial attorney in Dallas and that newly created programs instituted by Reyna have made McLennan County a safer place to live.

Reyna, the son of former district attorney and appellate court justice Felipe Reyna, is seeking his third, four-year term. Johnson, the son of the late longtime Judge Joe N. Johnson, told the crowd Reyna needs to be replaced and referred to affidavits filed in Twin Peaks cases that claim Reyna dismissed cases for friends and donors, was delivered cocaine by a drug dealer, was or remains under federal investigation and made the decision to arrest 177 bikers en masse on identical warrants because of his political ambition.

“The most important qualification for this job, and I was told this many times by my father, who was a judge in our courthouse for 40 years, is integrity,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have integrity, you are done.”

Reyna’s former first assistant, Greg Davis, filed an affidavit last year in which he accuses Reyna of dismissing criminal cases for friends and wealthy donors and operating a two-tier system of justice. Reyna called Davis a liar Thursday and referred to the allegations as “fake news.”

“The truth is that those allegations came out in the 2014 election,” Reyna said. “Biker lawyers decided to file, unethically, different motions and put all this information in there and then they could protect themselves from being sued. That is what you have. All of it is ridiculous, untrue, including the allegations that I have ever had, or done, or delivered to me or done cocaine. It is ridiculous, and the fact that someone wants to embrace that, then that says more about my opponent than I can ever say.”

Reyna touted the work of his office, saying he created a pretrial diversion program to steer non-violent offenders, veterans or those with mental health issues away from the justice system. He said he has also created family violence and crimes against children units, collected more than $1 million in hot checks for merchants and small business owners and established a “hard plea process” that reduced crime in the county.

“Violent crime is down,” Reyna said. “The criminals, the thugs that prey on our families, are getting it. They got the message, and they got the message about the work our people have done, led by me, and I wouldn’t expect a personal trial lawyer to understand that.”

100 civil lawsuits

Reyna alone is responsible for 100 civil lawsuits being filed by bikers against McLennan County, Johnson charged, because he went to the crime scene, took over the case from experienced Waco police investigators and made the call to arrest 177 bikers.

“My position is that our district attorney here, that his actions in the Twin Peaks matter, have placed justice in jeopardy in McLennan County,” Johnson said. “It can expose the taxpayers in McLennan County to millions of dollars in liability.”

He also charged that Reyna’s office failed to win a conviction in the first Twin Peaks case that they “cherry-picked” to try first and sought a postponement of the second Twin Peaks trial so Reyna would not lose the case before the March 6 primary. Johnson said he believes Reyna intends to dismiss the case against Twin Peaks defendant George Bergman, who rejected Reyna’s plea offer of deferred probation on a charge reduced from a first-degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

Johnson challenged Reyna to say whether he intended to dismiss Bergman’s case. Reyna never answered the question.

“You would think, how can it be worse than that? To be on the hook for potentially millions and millions of dollars in tax liability for no reason other than our district attorney’s ambition,” Johnson said. “Well, it can be worse than that. I want to talk to you about justice for sale in McLennan County. When an elected official betrays his oath of office and betrays the public trust by giving special favor to friends and political contributors, there is only one word to describe that, and that is corrupt.

“That is the reason the FBI and the feds have been investigating our district attorney and are continuing to investigate our district attorney. It’s an embarrassment.”

Reyna disputed Johnson’s claims, saying prosecutors in the state’s largest counties go to crime scenes and advise police officers before making arrests. Reyna also said claims in Davis’ affidavit about him showing favoritism to his friends are not true, adding that his office has given life sentences and other lengthy sentences to some of those named by Davis.

“I expect (Johnson) to say that,” Reyna said. “Why? That is the gang member bikers’ rhetoric. That is what they say. So what do you have? You have their guy right here, talking for them. The thing is, I had a desire to run for district attorney and I told you then that I would have a presence in the community, a presence in the office and a presence in the courtroom, and that is exactly what I have done. But I don’t expect a personal injury trial lawyer who made his living suing doctors and suing other individuals for financial gain to understand.”

In a portion of the forum in which Reyna and Johnson got to ask each other a question, Reyna asked Johnson how many criminal trials he has been involved in. Johnson said two.

Johnson asked Reyna why he is not more transparent with the Tribune-Herald, why he has not spoken to reporters there for more than five years and why he has ignored the newspaper’s invitation to Reyna to meet with its editorial board.

There have been a few exceptions over the years when Reyna has spoken with Tribune-Herald reporters for stories.

“Are you really, seriously questioning whether or not, with this audience that I have seen month after month for several years since I was what, Dad, 18, when you took me to the Republican Club at Underwood’s Cafeteria when it was still there. I seriously wonder if I have to dignify the question of why I won’t talk to the Tribune and Herald.

“Are you serious? They don’t get it right. It’s a fake news outlet. I’m not going to be a party to it. People have told me that when you talk to them and all they do is change your words, it legitimizes that ridiculous rag of a paper we have in this county. So if that is your candidate, so be it,” Reyna told the crowd.

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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