Is There a Future for Texas' Political Corruption Investigation Unit?
Texas Governor Rick Perry has eliminated funding to the only office in the state that investigates and prosecutes political corruption cases.
It started with a mistake that landed Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in jail for drunk driving.
“She accepted the sentence that was determined by the county attorney to be appropriate, a 45 days in jail and a 4 thousand dollar fine and walked into the jail and is in that jail to serve that sentence," Lehmberg's attorney David Sheppard said on the day she went to jail.
Lehmberg apologized, said she was seeking treatment, but also said she wouldn’t resign.
But then came the ultimatum from Governor Rick Perry. You see the Travis County DA is also in charge of the Public Integrity Unit, or PIU. It’s the state’s only official unit that investigates and prosecutes political corruption cases. That makes it less than popular among the ruling party in Texas, which at the moment is the Republican Party.
So as Governor Perry began considering what bills and budget items to veto he said he would eliminate millions of dollars in state funding for the PIU, if Lehmberg didn’t step down.
“All agencies, whatever they might be, they have the ability to priorities what’s important to them. I would suggest to you, if that line item were to be removed, then Travis County would have to priorities whether they think those cases are important enough to go forward with or some other cases. That would be their call," Perry said last week.
Some said that ultimatum crossed an ethical and legal line. Craig McDonald was among them. He directs Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that follows the influence of money on Texas politics.
"The governor was using his office, and the power of his office, in threatening to use one of his official acts to try to coerce a member of the public, in this case a duly elected Travis County District Attorney, to give up her job," McDonald said.
The Governor followed through on his threat Friday night. As it stands now, all state funding for the PIU will stop come September 1st. In his veto explanation, Perry said he could not continue to fund the office when “…the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public's confidence.”
This week, pushback on the veto began. When the Texas House convened Monday, State Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) asked whether there was any plan for how to continue the 400 cases pending in the PIU, including a high profile investigation of the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
“Does it not, Mr. Speaker, show poorly on the Texas legislature for the ethics bill which governs our behavior to be vetoed, and for the Public Integrity Unit, that oversees our behavior, funding to be eliminated, and we cannot tell the people in the state of Texas how we intend to move forward," Turner said.
“Moving forward” could mean finding money to continue funding the unit. That’s a topic taken up by the Travis County Commissioners today. District Attorney Lehmberg told them only the money is gone. The investigations are still going.
“It’s important to point out that that responsibility remains, whether or not the state gives us funding. We’ll still have to review cases occurring in our county and we’ll do so. Just have to figure out how to prioritize them," Lehmberg told commissioners.
There are 34 employees in the unit that after August 31st may not have jobs. Those employees are working on 400 cases. About 280 of those are specific to Travis County. The rest originated elsewhere. Many are gas tax or insurance fraud cases that were sent to Travis County because the PIU specializes in those cases.
The House Appropriations committee meets Thursday to consider how to fund the PIU despite the governor’s veto. Travis County Commissioners, also looking for ways to keep the office running, will meet again in two weeks to talk about whether or not there is additional money in next year’s county budget to shift over to the PIU.