Public Integrity Unit Move Halted, For Now
A point of order from state representative Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) delayed a vote on a bill that would remove a key function of the Public Integrity Unit. Among the duties of the Unit, a division of the Travis County District Attorney's Office, is investigating allegations of corruption leveled against state-level officials, such as members of the Texas Legislature or employees of state agencies.
Under the bill authored by state representative Phil King (R-Weatherford), that function would go away. Investigation would be the responsibility of the Texas Rangers, an elite division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Prosecution would be handled by the District Attorney's Office in the home county of the accused.
“If someone takes a bribe, that is not a crime committed against the citizens of Austin; that is a crime committed against the State of Texas at large," Rep. King said on the House floor Wednesday. "I believe that we are most accountable when we are prosecuted before our voters, before our electorate, the people who actually sent us down here to do this work."
The push to remove this function of the Public Integrity Unit stems from the notion that, being in Democrat-leaning Travis County, there may be an anti-Republican bias among its staff or leadership.
“I’m trying to remove politics as far away from this process as possible," Rep. King said. "The great thing is, there is a great distance between a member of the state legislature, for example, and that Texas Ranger who is the investigator handling the case."
Not long after that, Representative Mary Gonzalez asked to be recognized to question Rep. King about his bill.
"If your bill were to pass," Gonzalez said, "the Texas Rangers would be able to investigate any of the members of the Legislature for wrongdoing, correct?"
"If there was a complaint filed today, it would be filed with the Public Integrity Unit. Instead, [under this bill], it would be filed with the Texas Rangers' White Collar Crime Unit and then, yes, they would investigate the complaint."
Gonzalez continued, "But who determines the budget for the Texas Rangers?"
"Ultimately the Texas Legislature," King said.
"Well," continued Gonzalez, "do you think there could be a potential conflict of interest?"
"We have an awful big budget," King said.
"But if you were in fear that your paycheck was connected to investigating members of the Legislature," said Gonzalez, "you may not be as aggressive in doing that work, and for that reason, Chairman, I raise a point of order under Rule 4, Section 32, C 2."
That point of order ultimately was sustained, sending King's bill back to committee and delaying a House vote at least until next week.