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The Public Integrity Unit probably won’t have to worry about a veto next year

They’ll have bigger things to worry about.

Rosemary Lehmberg

With Republican partisans campaigning loudly to strip Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of her control of the unit, chances of getting the funding restored under her by the GOP-dominated Legislature that convenes in January do not look good.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said Thursday she thinks the unit should be moved elsewhere if it is funded.

“I have never thought this unit should be placed as an attachment to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” Nelson said. “I am certain we will have extensive discussions during the next legislative session regarding where they should be placed, but we need to move them somewhere less partisan.”

In the past, lawmakers have filed bills to move the unit to the attorney general’s office or into a separate agency. Both proposals have faltered over questions about separation of powers, as it is a judicial branch agency and not an executive branch function. Even if its investigative powers were moved out of the district attorney’s office, cases still would be referred there for prosecution.

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Throughout its history, the unit has faced repeated threats of funding cutoffs or transfer of its duties to the state attorney general’s office, often when it begins a high-profile investigation or brings an indictment against a prominent official.

Sherri Greenberg, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2001, and is now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, said the unit’s funding and location have been an issue off and on for years.

“That’s been looked at, but it’s never been moved, probably for a reason,” she said.

State Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat who supported the PIU’s creation in 1982, has been investigated and cleared by the unit, and who has been one of its champions in recent years, said the unit was housed with local prosecutors to give it some independence from state government, which it may be investigating.

“Why would you want to fool with a unit that can investigate you? … If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t worry about the Public Integrity Unit,” he said. “I don’t know how to handicap (the chances of restored funding), but if I were working over there, I’d probably be looking for a job.”

Republicans have wanted to move the investigative function of the PIU to the Attorney General’s office for at least as long as they’ve held the AG’s office, which is to say since 1998. That’s a part of the backdrop of the Perry indictment saga, and however one feels about that I think Sen. Whitmire is reading the tea leaves accurately. One does wonder what the fallout will be if the next Attorney General gets indicted or otherwise sanctioned by the State Bar, but I rather doubt the Republicans that are pushing for the PIU to be reassigned are thinking about that very much. I also wonder if their ardor for moving the PIU’s investigative function into the AG’s office will get cooled if Sam Houston gets elected AG, but again I doubt they’re thinking about that. So just file it away for now and we’ll see if it matters later.

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