Lawmakers close to stripping Travis County of public corruption cases

Texas House-Senate negotiators on Friday unveiled the final version of a bill that would remove corruption cases against public officials and state employees from Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit.

The Republican-written bill instead creates a special two-part process, with the Texas Rangers investigating allegations of corruption and prosecutors in officials’ home counties deciding whether to take the cases to court.

The new version of House Bill 1690, unveiled by a conference committee Friday and eligible for final votes as early as Saturday, would end more than 30 years of public corruption cases being handled by the Public Integrity Unit, which is part of the Travis County district attorney’s office — that is run by an elected Democrat.

Several high-profile investigations of Republicans, particularly former Gov. Rick Perry, fueled GOP distrust of the unit and momentum toward change.

But the bill unveiled Friday also included no state money for the Travis County unit, which is still charged with investigating and prosecuting cases of fraud against state agencies, as well as insurance and tax fraud.

Without state money, the unit will need about $1.4 million from Travis County to keep its 17 employees — and it will be unable to pursue fraud cases from outside the county, said Gregg Cox, director of special prosecutions for the Travis County district attorney’s office.

“The bill leaves us with between 98 and 99 percent of our caseload, so we will have to go back and ask the county for increased funding — and if the county doesn’t come through, we’ll have to figure out how to do this,” Cox said.

“Without state funding, we will not be taking any statewide cases at all,” he said. “Many of these cases involve people committing fraud and other financial crimes where the state is the victim, and it’s just not right for Travis County to pay to protect the state’s assets.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, was a member of the conference committee but refused to sign the panel’s report, saying the bill improperly carved out special rules for politicians.

“This is a very poorly drafted bill in which legislators proclaim themselves and statewide elected officials as a privileged class, receiving a benefit their constituents don’t have,” Watson said. “It’s a step backwards.”

The negotiated bill removed several amendments that had been added by Houses members last month, including language that dropped state employees from home-county prosecution and required prosecutors to step aside if they had a business relationship with an accused public official.

A House provision allocating $500,000 to pay for travel for witnesses and prosecutors, and other costs related to the home-county prosecution system, remained in the bill.

Critics, including Democrats in both chambers, argued that home-county prosecution would create a system rife with potential conflicts of interest, particularly if a local prosecutor is a political crony of an accused official.

But the GOP authors of the bill — Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston and Rep. Phil King of Weatherford — argued that Republicans cannot get a fair shake from grand jurors and trial jurors who get seated in Travis County, a Democratic stronghold. Having a Democratic district attorney exacerbates the situation, they said.

“The problem here is you put too much power in one elected official. This diffuses the power to (prosecutors) in the 254 counties,” King told House members last month.

The state stopped funding the Public Integrity Unit in 2013, when then-Gov. Perry vetoed a two-year, $7.5 million appropriation — carrying out a threat to do so unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned after her drunken driving conviction.

The veto threat led to criminal charges alleging that Perry had misused the power of his office.

The former governor, preparing to announce a second campaign for the White House, has asked an appeals court to throw out the charges, which came in a Travis County grand jury indictment sought by an appointed special prosecutor. The court has not yet ruled on Perry’s request.

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