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Republicans try again to kill Public Integrity Unit

They might have the votes this time, though as with some other highly publicized “replacement” efforts, their substitute idea lacks a few key elements to make it successful.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Under Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Joan Huffman, the attorney general’s office would conduct the initial investigation of complaints against officials, with help from the Texas Rangers.

If the investigation yields “reasonable suspicion,” a state judge would send the findings to a district or county attorney who is outside of the official’s county. That prosecutor could terminate the case or continue with prosecution.

If the case goes to trial, under SB 10, the proceedings would be held in the public official’s hometown.

“These changes will inspire confidence in these critical functions of government and keep this process fair to all Texans, no matter where they live or to which political party they belong,” Huffman said in a statement.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed Huffman’s bill, saying it would place the unit “in a more appropriate setting.”

Gregg Cox, head of the Public Integrity Unit, warned against hometown prosecution during a Senate hearing last month, saying his agency was created in part to avoid conflicts of interest that can mar prosecutions of local officials. Cox did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group, said: “Huffman’s bill creates a maze of chutes and ladders that offers politicians numerous escape hatches from prosecution.”

The first problem with this is that as the Chron story notes, the state attorney general likely would have to do the initial investigation without subpoena power. That would seem to be a significant obstacle in any case where one or more key witnesses did not want to testify. Another problem, as seen in the increasingly bizarre ethics case against professional sleazeball Michael Quinn Sullivan is that prosecutors and judges in the home county of an official under investigation may be more likely to have conflicts of interest. If nothing else, the fact that a DA in the home county of an officeholder under suspicion will face at least some of the same voters that elected that official in the first place may provide some perverse incentives.

The bottom line here is, and has always been, that the Republicans who constitute the majority of potential prosecution targets don’t want their fate in the hands of an elected Democrat. (Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones who do get into the crosshairs of the Public Integrity Unit, as former State Rep. Kino Flores could attest.) I admit to some sympathy for this, as I’m sure I’d feel the same way if the situation were reversed, but let’s be honest, if Sam Houston had been elected AG this past November, Sen. Huffman would not have filed SB10, at least not in that form. It’s not about the office but about who holds it.

SB10 would also move insurance fraud and issues relating to the imposition of the motor fuels tax, both of which are handled by the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office today, to the AG’s office. You may recall that it was this sort of investigation that was cut off by Rick Perry’s veto of PIU funds in 2013. Seems to me that the AG’s office would have to enlarge if this goes through, though I suppose in the end the cost may be a wash since the state budget normally funds the PIU anyway. Still, this is bigger than just shifting the way political prosecutions are done. It’s hard to see how SB10 will be an improvement in process over the status quo.

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