After Travis County commissioners approved funding Tuesday to keep the Public Integrity Unit going, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg chided the governor for yanking the unit’s state dollars amid a political power play.
“In April, I made a huge mistake,” Lehmberg, referring to her drunken driving arrest and conviction, told reporters after commissioners voted Tuesday. “I have worked steadfastly to regain the confidence of the community, and I’m going to continue to do that. But it is not Rick Perry’s job to fire me or to remove me. (The veto is) unconstitutional, and it’s probably illegal.”
The unit, which prosecutes fraud, corruption and other crimes across the state, will drop at least 54 cases and cut nearly a dozen jobs as it operates with a leaner, $2.5 million budget next year. It will gradually narrow its focus to Travis County cases, which already make up 70 percent of the unit’s load. In June, Perry vetoed $3.7 million in funding for each of the next two years when Lehmberg refused to resign after her drunken driving conviction.
On a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved spending $1.8 million from taxpayers and up to $734,422 from a forfeited property fund that Lehmberg controls to pay for a 24-person department, down from 34 at the time of the veto.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who cast the lone vote against the plan, has called on Lehmberg to resign and said that paying for the unit locally “is not healthy for this community.”
County Judge Sam Biscoe, who made the motion to approve the spending, said he’s not happy about the decision, but “it was the right thing to do.”
Other commissioners agreed the spending was necessary to prosecute important cases unique to Travis County.
“You can’t just let crime occur and just say, ‘Well, sorry, we just can’t do anything about that now,’ and put it off,” Commissioner Margaret Gómez said.
Three employees will be laid off in early 2014, but Lehmberg said she is trying to find other positions for them. Others are quitting or being assigned to other areas within the district attorney’s office. In addition to the unit’s $2.5 million budget, the county will spend about $110,000 to keep the three workers on for an additional three months and about $300,000 to employ the whole unit in September, after state funding runs out and before the county’s next fiscal year begins.
Perry’s veto extended to the 2014-15 budget year as well, so commissioners might have to decide again next year how to fund the unit. The forfeited property fund has more than $900,000 and took at least 10 years to accumulate, Lehmberg said, meaning it will be much smaller next year and unlikely to fund many positions.
The office is dropping at least 54 cases from outside of Travis County that have not produced indictments but is keeping up to 78 from outside the county that have. Biscoe and Commissioner Bruce Todd suggested the office bill the counties where those cases occurred or the state agency that brought them forward. Lehmberg said she is interested in doing that but “can’t promise (Travis County) will get paid. We don’t have a lot of leverage on that.”
The office will not take on any more cases from outside the county — typically fraud cases referred by the state Department of Insurance and the Texas comptroller’s office.