To keep running, Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit could drop dozens of cases, slash positions and cut its budget by a third, according to a proposal the Commissioners Court plans to consider Tuesday.
The unit would have $2.5 million to operate, with about $1.8 million coming from taxpayers and up to $734,422 from a fund of forfeited property that District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg controls. In June, Gov. Rick Perry cut the unit’s $3.7 million annual budget for the next two years after Lehmberg refused to resign following her drunken driving conviction in April.
Under the proposal, only three of the unit’s formerly 34 employees would be laid off. Others are quitting or being assigned to other areas within the district attorney’s office. The unit would ultimately have 24 employees.
Amid the political fallout of Lehmberg’s drunken driving arrest and conviction, commissioners have been left to decide whether to fund the unit, which prosecutes fraud, corruption and other crimes for the state. Tuesday’s proposal has some support, but not all commissioners believe Travis County should pick up the tab.
“If you’ve got a pot of money like out of the forfeiture deal, then just spend it. But I’m not voting to pick up any of the slack out of our budget,” said Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican commissioner and the only one to call on Lehmberg to resign.
The unit handles public corruption cases, typically involving state politicians, but the vast majority of its work is prosecuting tax, insurance and other fraud cases. It covers fraud cases from around the state, but about 70 percent of the unit’s 425 cases occurred in Travis County and can be prosecuted only in Travis County.
Under the plan, the unit would drop cases from outside the county that do not have indictments yet. Those that have indictments — including 78 from outside Travis County — would continue to be prosecuted.
The office would return at least 54 cases to the state agencies that brought them forward.
“What we’re trying to do is keep all remaining personnel from the Public Integrity Unit,” Lehmberg said. She declined to say whether she was happy with the proposal or whether she thought the unit could continue to be effective after the cuts.
Margaret Gómez is one of two commissioners on the five-member court to voice early support for the plan. “I think this is the best we can come up with. It sounds fair to me,” Gómez said. “We have to take care of Travis County cases. That seems to be something that we need to do as taxpayers.”
Commissioner Bruce Todd said he had not read the proposal fully but was critical of Perry’s cut. “I think the public is demanding that we find the best way we can to continue to prosecute those we believe to commit crimes,” Todd said.
County Judge Sam Biscoe, whose office provided a copy of the proposal to the American-Statesman on Monday, and Commissioner Ron Davis did not return calls.
County commissioners, who set the annual budget for the district attorney’s office, will discuss and possibly vote on the proposal Tuesday afternoon.
Lehmberg’s office is asking for $17.2 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which starts in October. Overall, commissioners are considering an $844 million budget for Travis County; the budget includes $4.1 million in reserves for unexpected one-time costs.
The proposal does not suggest where commissioners could find the $1.8 million in the budget.
This is the first interruption in state funding for the unit since the Legislature started fully paying for it in 1982. State officials have tried to dismantle the unit in the past, with legislators regularly filing bills to move its role to a state agency or other entity. In a statement after his veto of the unit’s funding, Perry said Lehmberg “has lost the public’s confidence.”
The forfeited property money would pay for up to eight full-time employees and one part-timer. The $1.8 million would pay for another 15 employees.
County commissioners gave layoff notices to the entire unit in July. Policy requires 90 days’ notice, but Lehmberg’s office is requesting another 90 days, keeping the three employees who would be laid off until January, at a cost of $113,000 to be paid by leftover funds from this year’s budget. The office wants to give the employees more time to find new jobs.
Public Integrity Unit downsizing
Under a proposal to be presented Tuesday to Travis County commissioners, taxpayers would pick up much of the tab for the unit, whose funding Gov. Rick Perry vetoed in June.
Before veto// Under DA’s proposal
Total budget $3.7 million // $2.5 million
Funding from state $3.7 million // $0
Funding from county $0 // $1.8 million
Total employees 34 // 24
Of its 425 pending cases, the unit would kick 54 from outside Travis County back to referring state agencies. It would retain 78 from outside Travis that already have indictments.