Now under new management, the Travis County district attorney’s office is trying to restore some muscle to its Public Integrity Unit after a Republican backlash led to deep funding cuts and limitations on the unit’s duties.
Under District Attorney Margaret Moore, who took office in January, negotiations with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and key lawmakers paid off when the proposed House budget, introduced earlier this year, set aside $4.8 million for the unit.
But the budget approved this week by the Senate included no money for the Travis County division, raising doubts about plans to beef up the unit’s investigations and prosecution of insurance scams and fraud committed against state agencies or by state employees.
“We’re in the House version, and we’re hopeful that when they meet to reconcile the different budgets, they’ll find a way to fund our request,” said Don Clemmer, director of the special prosecution division, which includes the Public Integrity Unit.
Troubles for the Public Integrity Unit began in 2013 when then-Gov. Rick Perry, upset that then-District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down after a drunken-driving scandal, vetoed $7.5 million in state money for the division.
Perry’s veto led to criminal charges alleging that he had misused the power of his office to try to oust Lehmberg, a Democrat. Even though those charges were pursued by an appointed prosecutor from San Antonio rather than the unit, Republicans in the Legislature responded in 2015 by removing public corruption cases from the Public Integrity Unit’s duties — saying Perry’s prosecution was proof that Republicans couldn’t get a fair shake in heavily Democratic Travis County. (Appeals courts eventually dismissed Perry’s charges.)
The 2015 Legislature also declined to restore the unit’s state funding, which had previously been provided to underwrite prosecutions for fraud against state agencies or by state employees, most of which are based in Austin, as well as tax and insurance fraud.
This year’s House budget would let the Public Integrity Unit hire 21 full-time investigators and prosecutors, restoring its ability to go after fraud that was limited by Perry’s veto, Clemmer said.
“We no longer had the resources to address cases that did not occur in Travis County, so we quit looking at cases in other parts of the state,” Clemmer said. “We told state agencies involved in those cases to deal with their local district attorney’s office, which in many cases didn’t have the staff or the expertise to deal with these types of cases.”
The extra workers would not prosecute public corruption cases against elected officials. The Legislature removed that function from the Travis County unit in 2015. Since then, the Texas Rangers investigate corruption allegations and refer their findings to the district attorneys in the counties where the activity took place.
The change had little impact on the Public Integrity Unit, said Clemmer, who estimated that less than 5 percent of its work had involved allegations of corruption.
Most of the division’s work focuses on “anything that involved fraud and the loss of state funds,” he said.
In 2012-13, the unit recovered almost $1.2 million in state government fraud cases, almost $460,000 from insurance fraud cases and $150,000 from motor fuel tax fraud, according to figures Travis County provided the Texas Tribune, which first wrote about the funding request.
In addition to the restitution paid back to the state, Clemmer said prosecution also tends to pay greater dividends by dissuading fraud.
“If there is not an effective prosecution program, then people become a little bit more emboldened to commit more of these types of crimes,” he said.