Cross: T. Greg Doucette, From No House To The Senate
July 13, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross T. Greg Doucette, Durham criminal defense lawyer, twit-stormer extraordinaire and Republican candidate for the North Carolina Senate.
Q. To understand how you became you, we have to take a deep dive into your past. In 1998, at the tender age of 17, you went to North Carolina to escape your military family’s dysfunction in Virginia, enrolling at NC State and majoring in computer science. What baggage did you carry with you to North Carolina? Why did going it alone seem a better choice than staying with your family? Was there some lure in North Carolina to make you say, “that’s where I want to be”? What made you decide on computer science? When you left Virginia, where did you expect to end up?
A. Objection, compound question!
Q. That’s the first time anyone raised that objection. Overruled as background. Move on, counselor.
A. My family was a mess growing up. It didn’t really “click” that the mess was such a mess – that things like domestic violence actually were called “domestic violence” – until after I was gone from living in it every day. That’s the main reason I chose to come to Raleigh, because it was close enough to home that I could still go back to visit my grandparents but still far enough away that no one could visit me without giving me at least a few days’ notice to mentally prepare.
I chose a computer field because I grew up alongside the tech boom and loved playing around with them (as a kid I was de facto Tech Support when my family got our first computer in 1994). I actually started out in computer engineering, because back when I started college in 1998, the “sexy” technology stuff was still in the hardware arena with ever-faster processors and ever-more-capacious memory. But by the time I returned to school after dropping out, hardware was passé and all the cool stuff was happening in software, so I switched.
My thinking at the time I started college was that I would finish my degree at 21, and land a job somewhere in Silicon Valley paying me six figures a year to do cool stuff.
Q. You had a curious plan to pay for college, using savings and scholarship money to cover the first year, then establishing in-state residency to qualify for financial aid to cover the rest. Like so many really good plans, it didn’t work, and by the end of your sophomore year, you needed $15,000 to continue and NC State refused to let you stay on. While you worked a full-time job, you still ended up homeless. How did this happen? Where did you sleep? What was the real-life impact of being homeless, and how did that influence a young man on his own? Did you think you would overcome it, or did you worry that you blew it bigtime? How did it end? Do you still carry the scars?
A. Being homeless was a terrible experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Even though I’ve “recovered,” I developed a habit of overstocking as a contingency in case life went south again: duplicates of many purchases; weeks’ worth of things like toilet paper and ramen noodles; I even kept my 14-year-old car when I finally bought a new one last January, just in case it got repossessed (even though the old one would sit unused for weeks on end; I eventually donated it to a law student).
But let’s back up. NC State in-state tuition was cheap enough back then that you could get by with financial aid, and getting that tuition rate just required proving domicile. The catch was that I had come to college as a minor – my parents had me skip the 4th grade, so I didn’t turn 18 until Spring semester of my freshman year – so my tuition application required an affidavit from my parents that I didn’t live with them, and my FAFSA required my parents’ tax info. They refused to sign the affidavit (since I was a tax deduction back then) and wouldn’t provide the tax details (since they were lazy and didn’t file until October despite the March 1 FAFSA deadline). So I was stuck, and relied on an employee in the Cashier’s Office working a miracle for me to stay enrolled my sophomore year.
Well, as a sophomore the cycle repeated, so by the end of that year I had a balance circa $15K that couldn’t be covered. I even had a form letter from the Financial Aid folks, with a handwritten note on the side that they’d be able to process everything if I could just get the stuff from my parents. I spoke with one of the Vice Chancellors at the time for advice, and was told, “You should consider dropping out, it builds character.” By mid-June my summer school classes were cancelled, housing, meal plan, all of it – and I got a nice email from the Public Safety folks telling me I had 24 hours to vacate the campus, and I’d be arrested for trespassing if not.
I relied heavily on a young lady I was dating at the time to keep things together for those 3 months. She would sneak me into her dorm to sleep or bathe (which eventually got her in trouble); when that wasn’t an option, I would sleep in my pickup truck during the day, have friends sneak me into the gym to shower, and then spend overnight hours in the 24-hour campus library.
(These of course triggered hand-wringing emails of concern from my parents – that I still have on my computer, 17 years later – urging me to move up to Connecticut where I could work in a casino.)
The biggest challenge to it all was not really being able to plan for the future. Applying for jobs is difficult without an address. Thinking of plans at all is difficult when you don’t really know where you’re going to get your next meal, how you’re going to wash your clothes, or at what point you’ll get found out that I was still using campus resources despite not being a student.
Things didn’t change until mid-September, 2000, when that young lady I mentioned used half of her financial aid refund to get us an apartment, and I found a job working at UPS loading trucks from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., Monday through Thursday.
Q. In early 2001, you went in two different directions. You worked the law side, including paralegal for law firms in Raleigh and Durham and clerical jobs with the NC State Bar and Superior Court. At the same time, you honed your computer skillz, even starting your own business, PhoenixWeb Internet Creations. Was there method to the madness? Was this survival? Is this where you gained an interest in law, or was it already inside you? Did your work as clerk make you want to become a lawyer, or hate law more than life itself?
A. It was survival: I was applying to every job in the classified section of the newspaper (they still had newspapers back then), and the file clerk gig was the first one I got. It was beyond mundane – but it also wasn’t rocket science, and I was good at it. So most of my day was spent playing Minesweeper because I could get things filed faster than the attorneys could generate paperwork.
One day, a named partner came in, saw me playing video games, cussed me out until his face was red and fired me on the spot; when I started packing up my things, I pointed out there were no papers for me to file because I’d already filed them all. Before I left the building I’d gotten unfired and promoted to a paralegal.
That’s what started my interest in law, when I realized statutes and computer programs had similar logic to them (this was before I learned to read case law and realized how naïve I was thinking there was logic to the law).
The web development work was a “side hustle” of sorts – I’d gotten involved in politics in the Wake County GOP, and realized no one had the slightest damn clue how to use basic technology. So several politicians agreed to pay small amounts for me to help them out, which was a welcome boost to the paralegal salary.
Q. In 2005, you went back to NC State and finished your computer science degree. You then went to North Carolina Central University for law school. Why this “idiosyncratic” choice, given that NCCU is a T4 school and historically black to boot. What made a white Republican with the grades for a top law school choose NCCU? Why law school at all, given that law held little promise for a gloriously lucrative career when you entered? Had you already decided to hang out your own shingle? Did you know what practice area was right for you going in? Were you that unicorn who actually wanted to be a lawyer? Or was this just self-reliance, the certainty that you would somehow manage?
A. When I came back to NC State in 2005, I first started writing an opinion column for the student newspaper. By the end of the 2005-2006 academic year, I had gotten involved with Student Government again, being appointed to a vacancy in the Student Senate and using my legal background (and years of watching the University from the outside) to help the younger students get things done, lobby for changes, and so on.
Well, by a sheer quirk of fate – a student I was supporting was removed from the ballot, I filed in his place in protest, and it was discovered our mutual opponent was a huge UNC Chapel Hill fan (NC State’s rival) – the campus elected me as the oldest President of the Student Senate in Spring, 2007. That made me an automatic delegate to the statewide UNC Association of Student Governments that chose the student leader on the UNC system’s Board of Governors, in a year where the UNCASG President eventually resigned after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon (seriously).
By Spring, 2008, through another quirk of fate, I had been reelected as Senate President at NC State – and also elected President of UNCASG, by a 1-vote margin in the longest election in the organization’s then-37-year history. The 2008-2009 academic year saw a ton of change spurred by a group often regarded as useless.
So when graduation loomed in 2009, I knew I wanted to run for reelection as UNCASG President. To do that I had to be a student at UNC-system campus, so my options were staying at NC State for a PhD in economics, or going to law school at UNC Chapel Hill or NCCU. My LSAT score was pretty good (165, 92nd percentile), so I wasn’t terribly concerned about admission – but I wanted a place that “felt” right, and us NCSU students didn’t have fond opinions of UNCCH.
After visiting both campuses, I got the impression UNCCH was “typical” of law schools; snooty, stuffy, “my daddy was a lawyer, my granddaddy was a lawyer, and my granddaddy’s granddaddy was a judge,” trust fund babies, you know the type. NC Central had none of that: it was very much a “this is a Tier 4 school and you’re all going to have to stick together if you want to succeed.” I loved the environment and the people and the persona of it all.
I came in wanting to do intellectual property law, since I had the bachelor’s in Computer Science. Two things shifted me out of that: (1) I hated my Contracts class, and (2) I tried out on a whim for our 1L Trial Advocacy Team and fell in love with litigation. I didn’t know for sure what area of law I was going to get into by the time I graduated, but I knew it wouldn’t be IP and would have to be something where I was in the courtroom.
The shingle-hanging came about from my extracurricular activities: I had spent 2 years as President of NC State’s Student Senate, 2 years as President of the statewide UNC Association of Student Governments, and my 3L year was elected as President of the Student Bar Association (one of only 6 white folks in the school’s 77-year history). The thought of having a boss made me want to go drink bleach. I knew I had to go do something on my own.
So I took the bar exam in July, 2012, found out I passed at the end of August, was sworn in the first Friday in September, and was defending a bar owner and retired Marine in a foreclosure hearing the following Monday.
Q. In law school, you became an “organization man,” a popular and electable leader of campus and statewide student organizations. In addition to helping to get the lege to repeal a tuition increase, you helped your fellow law students to make contacts in the professional world. Did this instill in you a belief that politics could work? Did you find this exhilarating or exhausting? Was the pain worth the gain? What did it teach you about persuasion, negotiation, conflict resolution, navigating large organizations, and playing politics?
A. I loved student organizations. Loved. To the point where I’d sacrifice grades without a second thought. The lack of partisan stupidity made it a great laboratory for testing out how to collaborate, build consensus, and get things done on behalf of a group.
It certainly had its exhausting moments – I had taken a mini-vacation to see NC State play in the NCAA tournament my 3L year (when I was SBA President), got home around 1 a.m. on my birthday, ended up on the phone until 4 a.m. dealing with a classmate’s emergency, and had to be on campus by 9 a.m. because I was asked to speak at a vigil for Trayvon Martin, followed by a full day of classes and then two more events that night. But most of the time, on most of the days, it was a terrific experience.
One of the key points I learned was to treat people like people. There were many times where folks supported my initiatives or would back me up on something they didn’t personally agree with, solely because I called them on their birthday or remembered a parent was sick or ate lunch with them when they needed someone to vent to. It helped make a terrific network of people I can call on and who call on me – for example, when S873 was being considered in our state legislature here, that would have potential repercussions for 3 of the state’s 5 publicly-funded HBCUs, I got unsolicited phone calls from three of the folks I’d worked with through UNCASG asking for my thoughts and what could be done to influence the outcome. Likewise, when I travel for an ABA conference or something else, it’s rare I am ever in city where I don’t have at least one friend from college or law school to grab dinner with while I’m in town.
I joke that you couldn’t repay me to redo law school. But if I could relive everything except the exams, I’d strongly consider it.
Q. After graduation, you founded your own firm in Raleigh, focusing on small business and higher ed litigation. Did you think hanging out a shingle would be easy? Was it? Did the clients, and their fees, start rolling in, or did you have to struggle to establish yourself? Was the practice of law what you thought it would be? Was being a solo the right choice? Did you have any options?
A. Slight correction: we started in downtown Durham, in the same city as my law school. I wanted to stay close in case I needed to contact my professors for advice!
I didn’t think hanging a shingle would be “easy,” but I thought my experience running three different organizations – and amassing a pretty wide range of contacts – would make it easier than it was for other folks who had tried it (plus I didn’t have a wife or kids living with me, or a car payment, or a mortgage). And in some ways it was easy-ish; it was a non-stop grind, often putting in 10-12 hour days at the start, but it wasn’t intellectually difficult, if that makes sense.
My biggest impediment to rolling in the dough was terrible business skill. In hindsight, I absurdly undercharged for my services because I was a sucker for people being wronged, and would often let clients pay me “later” rather than getting paid up front (no one ever accused me of being a genius). By the end of my first year, I had only brought in $38,000, in large part because a bunch of people still owed me a bunch of money.
Truthfully I don’t know if I would have had options other than going solo. I knew by the first semester of my 3L year it’s what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply for a single job at all after my 2L summer internship.
Q. On top of your other areas of practice, you are also deep into criminal defense, ranging from traffic tickets to drug offenses. Why? Is it a pragmatic thing, because college students occasionally make legally dubious choices? You’re philosophically opposed to the War on Drugs; are you putting your money where your mind is? You’ve also said you wouldn’t represent someone guilty of rape. Why not? Are they not entitled to a zealous defense? As a small-government conservative, you know someone’s got to do it, so why not you? Do your politics limit your willingness to fight for the constitutional rights of clients?
A. When I started my firm, I knew from the beginning I wanted to help entrepreneurs and students – I figured if I could help folks stay in college, and start their own business when they got out, they would never end up homeless or degreeless like I was.
So my advertising was as a practitioner in small business law and “higher education law,” figuring on the education side I would be helping with campus due process, FERPA violations, and that sort of thing.
But then my first student client was a 20-year-old on her 4th underage drinking ticket. My next one had gotten into a fight with his roommate. My third had a joint found on him during a traffic stop after what I considered an unlawful search of the car. Out of my first 100 student clients, only 2 were non-criminal issues (a campus due process violation, and a healthcare POA). So I said to hell with the titles and decided I was “officially” a criminal defense attorney.
There are definitely certain types of cases I don’t touch, mostly in the homicide and sexual assault realms. I still think those folks are entitled to a zealous defense, but with the personal experience on the domestic violence front, it’s just not something I’m willing to take on myself; I know some top-flight criminal defense attorneys I happily refer them to.
I took on one rape case, because in going through the discovery and the forensics it was obvious to me that my client was not guilty. After the State’s case, I was fairly certain the jury was convinced he was not guilty too. But he insisted on testifying despite me telling him it was an incredibly stupid idea; he wanted his daughters to grow up knowing he “fought the charges.”
I prepped him for hours in the jail, doing mock “red team” crosses, coaching him on his responses and his movements and his eye contact like I’d coached my trial team students. He seemed ready in the rehearsals, we put him on the stand… and he promptly went off the reservation on direct, then couldn’t give a direct answer to anything on cross. I spent my closing desperately trying to get the jury to focus back on the forensics but it didn’t work. He’s currently serving 10 years, and will be a registered sex offender when he’s released, just before he gets deported. He will likely never see those daughters.
The drug defense ended up being a by-product of being a criminal defense lawyer rather than an intentional practice area. The deeper I got into defense work, the more the scales fell from my eyes about how corrupt our criminal justice system can be, basically a glorified money vacuum taking cash from the lower- and middle-class targets of over-policing, laundering it through the courts, and giving it back to the politicians to spend on vote-buying elsewhere. In the meantime entire families are destroyed by the collateral consequences of arrest – often something as trivial as weed possession, which can make you a successful businessman in Colorado but persona non grata in North Carolina.
Q. Your semi-weekly Twitter rants have quickly become legend. You’ve managed to make them interesting, moving, informative and wildly popular. How did you come up with the idea? You manage to accomplish more in a dozen twits than others in a thousand words. Are they totally legit? Did everything you say happened actually happen? What has been the reaction to your tweetstorms? While a great many people love them, you no doubt get your share of haters as well. Has it been as much fun as you thought it would be? Has this had any impact on your practice, how you deal with the insanity of the trenches?
A. The “legend” part didn’t happen until 3.5 years in!
It’s strange. I had been tweeting about cases for years, mostly as a catharsis to deal with the abject stupidity that every criminal defense lawyer deals with. All the facts are legit, but the names are changed, the counties are occasionally changed, and sometimes key details have to get held back until I get a privacy waiver from the client.
Then in February of this year, I had a case involving a 17-year-old black male charged with reckless driving to endanger, a Class 2 misdemeanor in North Carolina. A neighbor had called police to say he was doing donuts in the street. The officer wrote in his narrative – a narrative that I hadn’t yet seen at the time of the intake – that he had investigated the scene and “clear skid marks in the road showed a 360º spin.” My client’s mother had taken geotagged and timestamped pictures on her phone after the officer left that didn’t show a single spin, much less “donuts,” pluralized.
Now one of the things I had gotten involved with in law school was a group called QVerity, which is a team of ex-CIA and other professionals who train law enforcement on detecting deceptive behavior for use in interrogation. I rely on that training when I do interviews and cross examinations to figure out when clients are lying to me, and as I was interviewing the young man after his mom left the room, nothing he did came off as deceptive. He was driving the family car toward his home, a cat darted into the road, he turned to avoid the cat and the car spun out.
Later on I went to the site of offense, took a tape measure, and actually measured the roadway. The street wasn’t physically wide enough to do a donut in the car my client was driving. He could have done 1 “donut” in the midst of spinning out, with both front and back wheels out of control, but there was no physical way he could have done multiple deliberate donuts on purpose.
When I went to court, my client had two unrelated charges pending from when he passed a dump truck on a 2-lane road headed to school: one for unsafe passing, and a companion charge for not having an adult in the car while he had a learner’s permit. My goal was to plead to those charges in exchange for having the reckless dismissed, or vice versa. Instead, I showed the non-donut pictures to the ADA, who dismissed the reckless driving outright, dismissed the no adult charge, and didn’t oppose a PJC on the unsafe passing (a PJC stands for “Prayer for Judgment Continued,” basically a designation that says the person has been found responsible but it carries no additional punishment, points on the license or insurance, and so on).
Obviously to me that was a big win, and I posted on Facebook how excited I was that I had gotten a dismissal I hadn’t even asked for. But then, as I was driving to lunch, it hit me that the officer had cosigned the “donuts” accusation when he wrote about the “360º spin” – and I realized that my client would have been screwed if his mom had not taken the pictures and I hadn’t grabbed the tape measure to do geometry.
I was livid that an officer had lied in his report, started tap-tap-tapping away on the keypad to get it off my chest (like I had done dozens of times over 3.5 years)… and this one got picked up. A lot. I’m fairly certain it was Ken White at Popehat [Ed. Note: and, ahem, Fault Lines contributor] who did the RT that triggered everything, but within 48 hours it was going global, and I went from 900ish followers on Twitter to over 4,000+. The crush of attention and phone calls and emails and Facebook messages and Twitter messages got so bad I almost had to shut down the firm until it died down because I couldn’t use my phone or email.
(We later released the rest of the pictures once I had a privacy waiver from the clients, showing for sure that there were no circles – but also including legible numbers on the mailbox and a phone number on the van of the neighbor who filed the false report, which was why we hadn’t released it initially.)
Since then I’ve kept at it, to try and share some insight and crazy stories to the folks who follow me. The most pushback I’ve gotten has ironically been from another lawyer, who had just finished paying a local pay-to-play publication a tidy sum of money for a cover story on the lawyer’s firm – and here I was, this upstart, representing misdemeanants getting all this publicity for free. I still send their firm clients because they do good work though. lol.
Q. Last January, you announced you were running for the North Carolina State Senate. Bold move, since you’re a Republican in a Democratic district. Of course, you’re pretty moderate by today’s standards and District 22 has a lot of swing voters. What made you decide to throw your hat in the ring? How do you rate your chances? You don’t have a Trump- or Clinton-esque support network to fall back on, so how do you plan to get your message out? District 22 hasn’t seen a credible Republican challenger in, well, forever. How will T. Greg Doucette make the system work better?
A. We need more adults in the North Carolina General Assembly.
I had spent quite a bit of time working to get the Republican majority we got in the 2010 elections, but then was astonished by the general asshole-ishness after they took power, and the large number of ethically dubious laws that were passed when they were supposed to be working on things like fixing the economy.
At the same time, my own Senator, who I like as a person and who I’d worked with in the Chamber of Commerce, was basically useless as a legislator. Part of that was from being in the minority party, but even his Democrat colleagues at least offered up legislation to try and get things done.
My frustration with everyone in the General Assembly bubbled over in November, when the Legislature-appointed UNC Board of Governors – the Board I had served on as UNCASG President – hired a new President for the University system at $775,000.00 plus bonuses. An eye-popping salary that was more than double what it had been just 10 years prior, during an era where the median income for a family of four in North Carolina had actually fallen during the recession.
So I filed for office on December 1st, not really having a firm campaign plan. And I ended up getting sick with pneumonia on December 2nd (proof that I’m allergic to political bullsh*t), basically bed-ridden for two weeks on azithromycin, albuterol, and prednisone, as candidates were busy having their campaign kickoffs.
But then people started offering their support. And then I accidentally went viral with that donuts case. By the time we actually had my campaign kickoff in March, 74 people attended (the same number as the GOP Convention for the entire county) – and out of those 74, 55 of them were people of color, unheard of for a Republican anywhere in the state.
My campaign is still very much an uphill battle, especially with Donald Trump leading the GOP ticket, the state legislature convening a special session to pass a nationally mocked bathroom bill, and the NCGOP impeaching and removing our first black party chairman even as a Republican state senator just got indicted for mishandling his campaign account.
Unlike in December, though, it’s now winnable… if I can raise the money to reach the voters who don’t know how amazing I am on Twitter.
Q. You’ve been a vocal critic of state and federal Republican initiatives, from North Carolina’s controversial HB2 bill to the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee. Then there are the state GOP scandals, including the June 28 indictment of Senator Fletcher Hartsell for mishandling campaign funds and the April impeachment of Chairman Hasan Harnett. Your pragmatic point of view is that the GOP’s insistence on legislating morality is bad for business and the party’s image. So what makes you a Republican in North Carolina? If you could recreate the party platform on criminal justice, what it be and why? Is there real support for reform? Will there ever be real support for reform? If you win, will the new kid on the block be able to persuade those old timers to change their evil ways? Are you the guy who can do it?
A. In politics, the ability to influence others in the party caucus comes down to three main things: raising money, winning elections, and good ol’-fashioned jawboning. Raising money is difficult for a first-time candidate challenging a career politician, but winning the election alone would change the narrative dramatically. And if Twitter has shown anything, it’s that I don’t mind talking at length.
The support for criminal justice reform is growing, especially after the national trauma we’ve had this past week with the executions of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Dylan Boyd. The videos of Sterling and Castile in particular provoked a recognition that something is gravely wrong with our criminal justice system, in a way I suspect will be reminiscent of the 16th Street Church Bombing becoming a turning point in the civil rights movement.
The challenge is putting together an actual agenda and getting it out into the public eye for debate. Our criminal justice platform will be up at VoteTGreg.com soon, and I hope it can become a catalyst for that discussion.