The 34-person unit of attorneys, investigators, accountants and others who prosecute a wide range of white-collar crimes, including prominent cases of corruption by state officials, has a couple months of paid work left.
Then the funding runs out, and they could all lose their jobs.
Travis County commissioners are considering dipping into their own coffers, up to $3.7 million, to keep the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit going. Commissioners expect to discuss a proposal Tuesday to ask other counties to also chip in for the unit, which had been funded by the Legislature since 1982.
“I think (Travis County) ought to pay an equitable amount,” Commissioner Bruce Todd said. “What is that equity? I don’t think we know yet.”
County Judge Sam Biscoe said that the discussion is premature. He hopes to keep the pressure on the Legislature to pay for the unit.
Another commissioner has taken a firm stance against using county taxpayer money to pay for the unit.
“I’m not going to feel bad about not funding the Public Integrity Unit. It’s just not my responsibility as far as I’m concerned,” said Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican commissioner.
On June 14, Gov. Rick Perry cut the $7.5 million budgeted for the next two years to fund the unit, as part of a showdown with Travis County’s District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who refused to resign after her drunken driving arrest and conviction. That set off a scramble among local and state officials to try to fund the unit.
The unit handles a mix of insurance and tax fraud cases, as well as allegations of corruption among state officials. Over the years, it has secured indictments against a Texas attorney general (Jim Mattox in 1985), a U.S. senator (Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1993) and a U.S. House majority leader (Tom DeLay in 2005). A jury acquitted Mattox, and the case against Hutchison became a high-profile failure when charges were dismissed. DeLay was found guilty in 2010, but he is appealing his conviction.
“I have not heard a single person say, ‘you ought to shut down (the Public Integrity Unit) and not prosecute those cases,’ so the question is how is it funded,” Todd said.
Todd and Biscoe said the first priority should be trying to get the state to continue to pay for the unit. But it’s unclear whether the Legislature, which returns Monday for its second special session, can override the governor’s veto from a previous session. County officials haven’t been optimistic about getting state funding, but Biscoe said Friday “we ought to determine what else we can do to urge the state to restore funding for the Public Integrity Unit.”
Travis County officials would only ask other counties to pay a share of the unit “after we develop the solid evidence” for what a fair share would be, Todd said. Daugherty called the idea “a practical approach” but wouldn’t say whether he’d back it if Travis County taxpayers are also paying a share. Other commissioners didn’t return calls for comment.
Travis County can tap up to $3.7 million from a reserve fund for unexpected expenses for this budget year. But the decision isn’t just a question of available money. Daugherty and Biscoe have openly worried that if the county picks up a state expense this time, the Legislature will never foot the bill again.
County officials have also considered paying for just the portion of the unit handling cases with Travis County ties. That would present a separate challenge: The district attorney’s office would have to decide who to lay off and which cases are still worth prosecuting.
As it is now, the state funding will run out Sept. 1. If no other funding is lined up, the unit would close and 425 cases would be taken on by other Travis County prosecutors, farmed out to other counties or dropped altogether.
Commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on whether to send layoff notices to the unit’s employees. County policy requires 90 days notice, so the county would be on the hook for about a month’s worth of salaries — about $300,000 — after the state money runs out.
State law gives Travis County’s district attorney statewide jurisdiction for insurance and tax fraud cases, which make up the majority of what the unit handles. The office prosecutes corruption by state officials because much of the state government is in Austin. Many of the fraud cases could be picked up by prosecutors in the counties in which they occurred, but about two-thirds of the cases occurred in Travis County.
Gregg Cox, the unit chief, said he expects the district attorney’s office would figure out how to continue prosecuting the 220 cases that have already been indicted. But the other 205 cases that the unit is preparing for a grand jury would be dropped, given to another county to handle or routed to other Travis County prosecutors.
None of that rearranging has started yet, and “it’s business as usual around here right now,” Cox said.
The statewide jurisdiction, unique to Travis County, allows tougher prosecution of insurance and tax fraud cases — typically companies or scammers stealing from ratepayers or businesses not paying their taxes. Often such cases involve businesses and victims in multiple counties.
“If you just rely on general-venue statutes, which say you can only prosecute the offense that occurs in your county, you would end up with a whole bunch of small DAs offices, each with a tiny piece of the case. Some may pursue it. Some may not,” Cox said.
He said 88 cases that occurred outside Travis County and haven’t been indicted could be prosecuted by other district attorneys — though it’s unclear whether those offices would take them on. The Travis district attorney’s office would find a way to see through the 44 indicted cases that occurred outside the county, Cox said.
Since the unit was established to prosecute white-collar crime in state government with grant funding from the governor’s office in 1978, it has grown in size more than ten-fold. A series of cuts in the past decade have trimmed the unit from 42 staff positions to 35. (One is currently unfilled.)
Then-District Attorney Ronnie Earle first tried for state funding during the 1979 Legislative session, but was ultimately denied. Lawmakers and state officials he had investigated, including Gov. Bill Clements and Comptroller Bob Bullock, had balked at the idea. Earle said in 1980 that the unit is important because, without it, a large part of the investigations will be “left to the press.”
Earle eventually won funding in 1982, with $190,000 appropriated, and the state has paid the unit’s entire tab since then.