Every two years, some Republican legislators try to kill the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office.
An amendment tacked on to the House budget bill approved last week would shift roughly $3.4 million a year from the district attorney’s office to the Texas attorney general’s office. The funding shift would happen only if the Legislature approves a separate bill granting the attorney general broad powers to prosecute offenses against public administration.
The proposals by Republican lawmakers are being watched closely by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat. None has had a committee hearing.
The Public Integrity Unit, which investigates and prosecutes state officials and politicians, has received state money since 1982 on the premise that many ethics violations occur around the Capitol or at Austin-based state agencies. In 1999, the unit’s duties expanded to include statewide prosecution of insurance fraud and violations of the motor fuels tax laws.
The proposals to give the attorney general the authority to prosecute state ethics laws in criminal courts were filed by Reps. Wayne Christian, R-Center, and Bill Zedler, R-Arlington. The bills say that prosecutions by the attorney general’s Public Integrity Unit would occur where the defendant resides. Under current law, most crimes are prosecuted where they occur.
Zedler, who expects his bill will get a committee hearing soon, said, “Basically, I believe that if you are going to have statewide authority, you ought to be accountable to the statewide voters.”
Lehmberg noted that her office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute public corruption cases with no link to Travis County. She said she prosecutes crimes that occur in Travis County and noted that the Public Integrity Unit has prosecuted both Democrats and Republicans.
I’m not unsympathetic to Zedler’s argument. If you were designing Texas’ government from scratch, having that jurisdiction with the Attorney General would be sensible. But let’s be honest: This is all about taking the authority away from a Democrat and giving it to a Republican. You can’t separate the motive from the legislation. I know I have no reason to believe that Greg Abbott would be any more impartial or less political than Ronnie Earle and Rosemary Lehmberg have been. The current system works as well as can be expected, so I see no good reason to change it.