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Officials: Perry vows veto of state funding unless Lehmberg resigns

Move seeks to force Lehmberg out after after drunken driving conviction

By Mike Ward - American-Statesman Staff

Gov. Rick Perry is vowing to veto funding for the state’s Austin-based ethics-enforcement unit unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigns, officials confirmed Monday.

Perry has until Sunday to veto bills passed by the Legislature during its regular session that ended in May, including the state budget that contains about $7.5 million to fund the Public Integrity Unit for the next two years.

The officials confirmed that Perry intends to exercise his line-item veto on the appropriation for the unit unless Lehmberg steps down in the wake of a drunken driving charge, something she has steadfastly refused to do so far. She pleaded guilty after her April 12 arrest in northern Travis County, served a 45-day jail sentence and entered a treatment program.

While Perry’s office would not discuss specifics, spokesman Rich Parsons said, “we’re going through the budget line by line. (The governor) has very deep concerns about the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit.”

Asked whether Lehmberg has been advised of Perry’s veto intentions, Parsons would say only that “our position has been communicated very clearly today to Sen. (Kirk) Watson.”

Watson, D-Austin, called it “very unfortunate if the governor is going to do this.”

“If he does, this should be Rosemary’s decision,” he said. “If she decides to (resign), I will do whatever I can to make sure whoever might replace her represents the interests of Travis County.”

As the senator who represents most of Austin, Watson has some sway over whom Perry would appoint to replace Lehmberg, should she resign. Her term ends in 2016, and Perry could appoint a replacement quickly and call a special election later this year.

Lehmberg could not be reached for comment, though she has said several times previously that she had no plans to resign. She is expected to return to work this week, officials said Monday.

Since her arrest and conviction, partisan scuffling has continued on her job status. A Republican-led petition drive to force her ouster has failed so far, and Democrats have been pushing hard for her to stay in office — since Perry is a conservative Republican and Lehmberg is a Democrat.

Lehmberg, 63, was arrested for drunken driving by Travis County deputies after they responded to a report that a Lexus sedan was driving erratically near RM 2222 and FM 620.

Deputies found a bottle of vodka on the passenger seat of her car, and an analysis of a blood sample later showed her blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

She subsequently pleaded guilty to a first offense, and in addition to the jail time, she paid a $4,000 fine and had her drivers license revoked for 180 days — punishment that her attorney David Sheppard called “the harshest sentence anybody has ever received for a first offense for a DWI in the history of this county.”

Her travails were the subject of several unsuccessful attempts by some Republican leaders in the Texas House to cut funding to the Public Integrity Unit or to transfer its operations to the Attorney General’s Office.They insisted that her arrest and conviction were more than enough reason she should not continue serving as the district attorney in Texas’ capital city.

According to the proposed budget, the Public Integrity Unit is slated to receive about $3.7 million in state funding in the 2014 fiscal year and $3.8 million in 2015. That pays for more than 30 employees who at present have more than 400 active cases, ranging from motor-fuels tax fraud to ethics enforcement.

It was not clear who would prosecute those types of cases in the future or what would happen to pending cases if Perry vetoes the state funding.

Over the years, the Public Integrity Unit has prosecuted a variety of public officials, including lawmakers and statewide elected officials.

The county spends about $16 million on the overall operations of the District Attorney's office, according to Gregg Cox, the unit's director.

Former Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, a close friend of Lehmberg, said Perry’s apparent veto threat “gets into very dicey territory” of making an untoward demand on an elected official. He also said it would not remove the authority of Lehmberg’s office to investigate official wrongdoing.

It also receives about $14 million in funding from Travis County for items such as office space, computer servers and other similar costs, though Gregg Cox, the unit’s director, said that money does not pay for personnel.

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