Drug War

The Zoom Cat Lawyer Used Federal Agents To Torment a Former Lover With Drug Raids and Bogus Charges

In 2014, Reason reported on the misbehavior of Rod Ponton, who has suddenly risen to internet stardom after being unable to turn off an adorable filter during an online legal case.


On Tuesday, the bulk of the Twittersphere came together, with partisan divisions falling to the wayside, if only for a few brief moments in time. The source: a Zoom video recording of trial proceedings in Texas's 394th Judicial District Court, in which Presidio County attorney Rod Ponton appeared on-screen in the form of a wide-eyed kitten. Someone, it seemed, had gotten ahold of the filter settings.

"I'm here live," he said. "I'm not a cat."

"I can…I can see that," replied Judge Roy Ferguson.

So far, the clip has racked up more than 3.6 million views on YouTube and over 26.9 million on Twitter. "If I can make the country chuckle for a moment in these difficult times they're going through," he told The New York Times in an interview, "I'm happy to let them do that at my expense."

Such a light moment is a nice reprieve in a bleak era. It can also make us forget the enormous power people like Ponton wield, and the capacity they have to use that power for very bad things.

For example, a Reason investigation in 2014 and subsequent documentary reported that, as a prosecutor, Ponton leveraged the gears of the federal government in a yearslong effort to level bogus drug charges against a woman in Alpine, Texas, ultimately succeeding at destroying her business.

The target, Ilana Lipsen, was his alleged former lover; she says she had one sexual encounter with him after arriving in town as an 18-year-old college student in 2003. (Ponton, who is now 69, would have been in his early 50s.) Lipsen told Reason that she was "disgusted with herself," and although she noticed odd behavior from Ponton afterward—she recounted him driving by her house, for example—she cut ties.

Until 2012, that is, when she would have no choice but to reconnect with Ponton. Nearly a decade later, Lipsen had opened her own store, The Purple Zone, which sold smoking supplies. Anthony Fisher, who reported this story in 2014, described what happened next:

In March 2012, "10-12 men came in, SWAT team style" to the Purple Zone, Lipsen recalls. They told her she was not under arrest, but cuffed her and threw her in the back of a police van while they searched her store, seized personal property including computers, a cell phone, and hard drives. They also took numerous packets of what Lipsen sells as potpourri in the incense section of the store, adorned with the colorful brand names such as "Dr. Feelgood," "Scooby Snax" and "Bomb! Marley."

According to Ponton, then the district attorney in Brewster County, Texas, Lipsen's potpourri qualified as "spice"—synthetic cannabinoids. The only problem: Her products were legal, as state-sponsored lab tests would confirm over and over.

Eight months later, Ponton had her arrested anyway. He also arrested her mother, who did not work at the store, charging both with "possession and distribution of a controlled substance"—a felony. Ponton cited a little-known rule on "analogues," which, as Fisher wrote, "are chemicals that are not prohibited but are similar enough to controlled substances that they become illegal depending on who interprets the data." Lipsen had the products tested in private labs and likewise had proof that the substances weren't illegal.

That didn't matter to Ponton. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would go on to make several undercover purchases over the next few years, and Ponton would continue to beg the state for testing money, apparently hoping that a lab result would finally yield the proof he needed to substantiate the criminal charges he wanted to bring against her.

He was denied the funding. So he got creative, setting his sights on Project Synergy Phase II, a national day of DEA raids on May 7, 2014, organized by the Obama administration to track down synthetic drug pushers who were allegedly using their earnings to fund terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Lipsen and her smoke shop would again be one of the targets. "Led by the DEA and armed with a Brewster County search warrant (which Ponton had requested)," wrote Fisher, "officers from the Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security, the Brewster County Sheriff's Office, and the Alpine PD broke down the front door of The Purple Zone with their weapons drawn, turned all the security cameras against the wall, and tore the place to pieces."

Again, agents found no illegal substances. But they did find ammunition that Lipsen had received as a gift; Ponton excavated another obscure law and charged her with "receiving ammunition while under indictment." Lipsen's sister Arielle was also arrested after arguing with an agent onsite, who threw her to the ground as he took her into custody. She sustained an injury on her neck, which was documented via photograph by Tom Cochran, a man who owned a nearby business and came to the scene as the raid was underway.

Lipsen sat in jail on the ammunition charge, unable to post bond. But not long after, she received a potential way out. At the behest of the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, the federal magistrate noted that the state would uncage her if she took care of a few things:

"Will request Tom Cochran retract his blog on Facebook. Will provide a letter of apology to both local newspapers in Alpine, TX, advising DEA had a legitimate reason to execute a warrant at her business. Will advise newspaper A warrant was not executed at her business because she was Jewish, owned Arabian horses, is of Turkish decent or because she visited Chinese websites. Will advise media (KWest 9 news) that her sister, Arrielle Lipsen, was not beaten by agents carrying/using a M16 rifle, and her sister instigated/assaulted agents."

Reason's Brian Doherty covered the development in-depth. "While Lipsen's lawyer was not available for comment this morning, other criminal defense lawyers told me this is a strangely abusive bail demand," he wrote in May 2014. "Mark Kuby, who is also a talk show host in New York, considers it a 'Texas-sized' violation of rights, 'as unprecedented as it is unconstitutional' since bail demands properly should be restricted to furthering two government interests: protecting the community from possible criminal action by defendant, and to make sure the defendant appears for trial."

Lipsen signed it. Meanwhile, Ponton was busy across town intimidating the local press: They reported on the issue in a way that was too partial to the accused, he felt, in that it included her account of events alongside the government's. The paper, the Alpine Avalanche, caved and published a subsequent piece that was much more deferential to the state. Ponton also zeroed in on Cochran, who, alternatively, did not buckle. He refused to remove his photos, and the local Border Patrol Union proceeded to boycott his printing business.

Four months later, Lipsen pleaded guilty to first-degree felony manufacture, delivery, and possession of a controlled substance—though no substance the government found was illegal in Texas at the time of the raid. As a part of the deal, the state dropped the charges against her family members, along with the ammunition charge Lipsen faced from the second raid. She was given a deferred adjudication, meaning she has to keep a clean record for 10 years or face 5 years to life in prison. She sold her shop and left town.

As for Ponton, he's still at it. His 15 minutes of fame came as he prepared to argue a civil forfeiture case—a helpful reminder that his career is no laughing matter.

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  1. And exactly when is his disbarment hearing?

    1. Third Tuesday after the 5th of Never.

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  2. A man has been indicted by the DOJ and faces ten (10) years in prison for posting memes.

    Any thoughts Reason? Any thoughts at all?

    Volokh is sort of covering it.


    Why not Reason proper?

    1. >>conspired to distribute a meme aimed at deceiving pro-Hillary voters

      how the fuck is any of that a criminal act?

      1. Political wrongthink, that’s how.

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  3. …she says she had one sexual encounter with him when she was an 18-year-old college student in the early 2000s. (Ponton, who is now 69, would have been in his early 50s.)


    Looks like this guy…

    [dons sunglasses]

    …was catting around.

    1. Hey! you found your sunglasses.

      1. Had them in my back pocket, just waiting for another opportunity like this.


  4. It’s like they say – 95% of lawyers give all the rest of them a bad name.


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  5. Nope, I refuse to engage in this ritualistic witch hunt against anyone with the misfortune to be part of a widely shared funny moment. You should feel ashamed of yourself. You saw someone getting ribbed for something silly and immediately decided to dig into his past for dirt. Your actions in this situation were unjustified, and you should spend a long time considering why you get that dopamine hit for finding a reason to tear someone down, when the news worthy thing they did was innocent.

    Whatever else this guy has done wrong or will do wrong is completely irrelevant to the news story.

    1. This is Reason.com, a PRO-individual-freedom establishment, AGAINST excessively large Government Almighty (and its individual agents, keeping in mind that we are all fallible humanoids) throwing its power around in arbitrary and capricious ways! If Ponton is a dick and an asshole, WITHOUT pissing away my tax money, and WITHOUT using Government Almighty power to abuse people, that is one thing! This is a DIFFERENT story here, and the abuse of Government Almighty power ***IS*** the story! Abuse of Government Almighty power DOES happen from time to time, you know! Do you rejoice in it? Excuse it? Want to hide it? Wish that Reason.com would hide it?

    2. This isn’t a pizza guy who once sent a mean tweet; it’s a federal prosecutor who railroaded a fellow citizen. And they didn’t have to dig up the dirt, they had already covered the story in 2014. Should they just forget that? Now if the bar association or the DOJ had stepped in and sanctioned him for his official misconduct and he was now just some random attorney filing wills then I’d agree but they didn’t. Fuck this guy, he destroyed this woman’s business and got away with it scot free.

      1. “a federal prosecutor”

        The article says he was “district attorney in Brewster County, Texas” and that he seems to have worked with the feds on this case.

    3. Almost exactly what I was thinking once I started reading – we can’t even have a shared laugh anymore without having to make us feel guilty because it was done by the wrong person. It’s not like he was being given a humanitarian award or anything.

  6. Fuck all the faux libertarians who defend the government, this is what they do, they use force to fuck over their enemies. They’re not your friend, they don’t care about you. The only person who can improve your life is you. Stop giving these retarded faggots power, this shit is so infuriating and it’s exactly what power breeds, incompetent, abusive fucktards.

      1. Lol, he’s talking about you sarcasmic, you stupid fucking prick. You know how you worship state authority and have spent almost 5 years clinging to wild conspiracy theories and using the surveillance state to illegally target political opponents?

        1. Your brain is so stoned on hate that you can’t even START to think straight! ***IF*** you have the modicum of humility that is required to see that you are NOT perfect, and in need of SOME reform, may I humbly suggest that you start here: M. Scott Peck, The People of the Lie, https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684848597/reasonmagazinea-20/

          M. Scott Peck brilliantly probes into the essence of human evil. People who are evil attack others instead of facing their own failures.

          1. How much are you getting paid to push this book, eh Sarc?

            1. Zero, zilch, nada. Note that YOU, too, could benefit reading from it! However, one must first regard oneself as NOT quite PERFECT, in ALL ways, before one can start fixing oneself!

              1. ::runs to Amazon to buy book::

                1. Looks good on you! Bravo! I read it cover to cover… GREAT book!

  7. a Reason investigation in 2014 and subsequent documentary reported that, as a prosecutor, Ponton leveraged the gears of the federal government in a yearslong effort to level bogus drug charges against a woman in Alpine, Texas, ultimately succeeding at destroying her business.

    Aw, look on the bright side. Maybe she was a Trump supporter. You’ve been cheerleading for rogue federal prosecutors railroading innocent people using fabricated evidence for just over 4 years now.

  8. Look at that cat’s hangdog expression…he knows he’s been naughty.

  9. >>the bulk of the Twittersphere came together

    lol the bulk of the Twittersphere

  10. Lol. So rich. 2014 huh?

  11. This sounds terrible, but I wonder if there is anything being left out here. Why the vendetta? How come Ponton didn’t get so much as a verbal warning for carrying out a vendetta?

    My trust in reason has been eroded, I can only assume there is more to this story. The way it’s presented here, Ponton is clearly a vile human being. But I suspect there’s something else at play.

    1. Because West Texas is completely corrupt, that’s why. I was the one who took the photos mentioned in the article, and I can personally attest that this is just the tip of the iceberg with Ponton. He got caught at the border with something like $500k in drug money, has multiple DWI and drug arrests, and tried to drop charges against the guys who violently robbed me at my place of business because he was pissed at me for publishing the photos I did and not backing down, and too much more to even get into here.

      In my case, the same judge in that video appointed a special prosecutor who got a felony conviction and that was one of the big reasons why he lost his election and got kicked out of the District Attorney’s office. The dude is pure scum.

    2. There’s a Texas Observer story called “The Thin Purple Line” that goes a little deeper into the story.

      1. Thank you!


        The Thin Purple Line
        After a controversial raid on a West Texas smoke shop, nothing is hazier than the truth.

  12. This guy has a child young enough to do that? I’ve got a 12 year old, and my *father* is younger than he is

  13. Everyone knows cats are jerks.

    1. Ya, this sounds like something a cat might do. In which case he’s also guilty of perjury for lying to that judge!

  14. Best of reason or bored writer who spends too much time on internet banality.

  15. I’m not a cat.

    1. I’m a Milkshake Duck

  16. As the policeman once said, “Show me the man, I’ll show you the crime”. They can nail anyone any time.

    1. This is a bit beyond “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime,” but it may not be beyond “show me the prosecutor and I’ll show toy the prosecutorial malfeasance in the face of an unconstitutional drug war.” The 9-year prior sexual encounter seems like it might be less relevant that they make it out to be, after all. Then again I tend to think prosecutors should all end up in prison for such stuff anyways, so I guess it changes nothing.

      If he were a cat, though, I’d be willing to forgive.

    1. Surprise, surprise.

  17. Sounds like he should have use a sphincter filter instead.

  18. Milkshake Duck

  19. Rod Ponton is a bona fide idiot. In the arson/homicide case of Texas v Sonia Cacy, he tried to hire me to help him defend some truly awful chemistry performed in the Bexar County (home of Fred Zain) Medical Examiner’s Office. He had such a good grasp of the facts that he was unaware that two years earlier, I had provided an affidavit debunking the chemical analysis. The defendant was eventually exonerated by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which gave her a certificate of actual innocence.

    It surprises me not at all that Ponton is the Cattorney. His abuse of power as reported in this article shows that he is not only stupid, but also evil.

  20. As prosecutor, he should never have been involved in arranging searches and prosecutions of his former lover. This alone should get him disbarred or suspended, before we even get to the bond condition demands advancing his personal interests, abuse of power, and creating a crime where there was no crime. The real disgrace is that it took 7 years and a cat filter to bring this criminality to light.

  21. The guy could make a killing as a Drug Gestapo agent. Then again, you know what they say about payback…

  22. Alpine is a stone’s throw from the border, with a perfect road running south. One of my colleagues worked in their district court at the time. The whole town is given over to violent government thugs bent on asset forfeiture looting. In FL, potpourri is the name of a bathroom deodorant. The frame-up was another potentially deadly precursor to the murderous raid that killed those folks in Houston–and thousands more like it. But it is what voters ask for when they rationalize some lame excuse for voting for coercion instead of the LP.

  23. Reason should do an entire article about “Why we Can’t have Nice Things”

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