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Bill to kneecap Public Integrity Unit gets unstuck

And away it goes.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Senate Bill 10, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, passed on second reading along party lines. The integrity unit is currently a state-funded division of the Travis County DA’s office that investigates public corruption, insurance fraud and tax fraud. Some Republicans have said the unit has had partisan motives for its prosecutions.

SB 10 must be voted on one more time before it passes from the Senate to the House.

In addition to moving the public integrity unit from the Travis County DA’s office, the bill would allow lawmakers and state employees to face prosecution in their home counties for alleged crimes committed in Travis County. On Wednesday in the Senate, Huffman said the public had lost confidence in the unit.

“I firmly believe it will be a better process, and there will be more accountability,” Huffman said.

The bill had originally put the unit under the attorney general’s office, but a substitute to the bill removed the AG’s office from the process and gave the Texas Rangers sole authority to pursue investigations.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the bill gave lawmakers a special privilege of facing prosecution in their home counties.

“I believe this bill has created a special class of people that has the opportunity to go back to their hometown county, hometown judge and hometown prosecutor,” Watson said.

He also said the bill could allow lawmakers to face their prosecution in any county where they own property. Huffman said that was not the bill’s intent.

See here and here for the background. Via the Chron, we now know who the holdouts were.

Disagreement over having the Attorney General involved in the investigation and prosecution of cases, and the issue of prosecuting the violations in the counties where they occurred, had stalled the passage of Senate Bill 10 for more than two weeks.

With Sens. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and all Senate Democrats opposed to the anywhere-but-Austin prosecution exception for statewide officeholders, lawmakers and lobbyists, Huffman had been unable to get her bill called up for a vote by the full Senate.

Seliger last week had proposed allowing the Texas Rangers to investigate all cases, and to have a special prosecutor appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court handle any charges filed.

Opponents of Huffman’s original bill said the revised plan would not solve the issue of sending cases to the home counties of politicians and lobbyists, where they are more likely to get favorable treatment.

“This perpetuates the problem, because now you will move these cases back in a home county where a courthouse cabal will not go after a state rep or other official because they are part of that local group,” said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a government-watchdog group. “They will have every reason to protect one of their own.”

I’m still a bit unclear on the details – was the special prosecutor bit still included or not? I suppose a system like that could work, jerry-rigged as it is. It’s just that the more moving parts you add, the more likely something will gum it all up. Of course, that would be considered a feature, not a bug. RG Ratcliffe, who isn’t a big fan of the current system, lays out his objections to the proposed one.

Merely turning ethics investigations over to the Texas Rangers is an almost equally bad idea. The governor appoints Texas Public Safety Commission. The current director of DPS was an aide to Governor Rick Perry before taking the top job at DPS. Through a governor’s influence over the public safety commission, a governor could halt or prompt almost any investigation. Imagine an unscrupulous governor bending legislators to his will by threatening to have their campaign accounts investigated. This is as bad a public policy as leaving ethics investigations in the office of one elected district attorney in heavily Democratic Travis County. Besides, I’d rather have the Texas Rangers chasing drug dealers, murderers and other crimes that endanger the public’s safety.

Seliger’s idea has some merit in that it allows the Supreme Court chief justice to name a special prosecutor, but it still involves the Texas Rangers and the political influence a governor can bring to the case. The federal experience also has shown that special prosecutors don’t seem to believe they’ve done their job unless they indict someone.

Probably the best course would be to finally give the Texas Ethics Commission some real powers to investigate and enforce the state’s ethics laws and election codes. As the Texas Tribune reported last week, at least one member of the commission is frustrated by how little power the commission actually has.

But if you are looking for a means of spreading the concentration of power involved in ethics investigations, the commission is a pretty good start. The commission consists of two appointees by the House speaker, two by the lieutenant governor, and four by the governor. Properly funded and authorized, the commission staff could investigate complaints and make recommendations for civil or criminal cases to the full commission. The commission could then decide whether to refer criminal cases to the Texas Supreme Court, which in turn could name a special prosecutor. Allow the court to also establish the county of venue for the prosecution, excepting the counties within the district of the accused offending politician.

Yeah, well, there’s no way they’d want to empower the TEC. The great irony here is that the Rick Perry case, which was the catalyst for all this, was driven by a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. More from Ratcliffe here.

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