The GOP vs. the PIU

Posted in Around The State, Commentary, Corruption, Open Government at 2:42 pm by wcnews

Ever since taking over complete control of our state’s government the GOP has had it out for the Public Integrity Unit (PIU) that resides inside the Travis County District Attorney’s office.  The Democrats, when they were in power, didn’t like it much either. Which means it probably does a good job.  The PIU is known for taking on political corruption in our state – see Tom DeLay. But as Nate Blakeslee points out, Sneak Attack on Public Integrity Unit?, the PIU does much more.

The Public Integrity Unit doesn’t just do public corruption investigations—it also prosecutes insurance fraud and tax fraud, including on sales of gasoline and tobacco. In the last 4 years, the unit has recovered over $8 million in restitution. With no funding, those investigations would cease, too. In other words, Zedler wouldn’t just be screwing the men and women of the Public Integrity Unit, he’d be screwing the taxpayers of Texas–which is something that Tom Delay would not have appreciated.

They’re also looking into Gov. Perry’s cancer agency, CPRIT. Which is likely why Perry is making threats.

A number of Republican efforts have failed to dislodge her from the office, which she steadfastly has maintained that she intends to keep. As the Travis County DA, Lehmberg’s office also oversees the public integrity unit that investigates malfeasance by public officials.

The problem with Perry’s insistence that she step down or see all funding cut for the public integrity unit is that the office currently is investigating Perry appointees and their roles in awarding millions in public money to cancer research outfits — some that had ties to Perry backers — that failed to undergo the normal vetting process.

Glenn Smith, director of the Democratic group Progress Texas political action committee, filed a criminal complaint last year with the district attorney’s office over the dealings in the Cancer Prevention and Reseach Institute of Texas.

Smith said he is alarmed the the governor would veto money for the public integrity unit, seeing such a move as a gross conflict of interest.

“Killing funding for the public integrity unit obviously would end the investigation into CPRIT, which is looking at at diversions of public money to Perry cronies,” Smith said.

Rich Parsons, spokesman for the governor, said Perry is concerned at the integrity of the district attorney’s office under Lehmberg. Perry would appoint her replacement should she step down.

And Texans for Public Justice is alleging those threats may be illegal, Governor’s Threats to Travis County DA Likely Violate the Law Says TPJ Complaint.

In a complaint sent to prosecutors today, Texans for Public Justice alleges that Governor Rick Perry potentially committed several criminal offenses related to his recent threatto use his discretionary power to withhold money from the Travis County District Attorney’soffice unless DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigns. TPJ believes the governor’s actions violate the Texas Penal Code, Title 8, Offenses Against Public Administration.

“Governor Perry has no legal authority to remove the Travis Country District Attorney from her job. Threatening to take an official action against her office unless she voluntarily resigns is likely illegal,” said Craig McDonald, TPJ Director.

“The governor overstepped his authority by sticking his nose in Travis County’s business. Alegal process is currently underway. That process is alone should determine the fate of the District Attorney.

“Governor Perry’s official threats attempt to obtain two things that he can’t achieve through legal democratic means. First, to remove an elected Democrat and replace her with an appointedRepublican DA. Second, to wipe out the state’s public corruption watchdog, which is currently investigating corruption in at least one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.

Of course all of this was only made possible because of the horrible decisioin that Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg made in driving drunk and her actions while under arrest. But it’s clear that Perry and the wing nuts see this as a great excuse to take power from the  PIU which is one of the best checks the people of Texas have on power.  And of course Perry sees it as a way to deal with a possible political problem, by appointing a loyalist to a position to make a possible problem go away.  It wouldn’t be the first time, see John Bradley and the Forensic Sciences Commission.

There are petitions pending to remove Lehmberg and a recent Statesman editorial asked Perry’s move unseemly.

Lawsuits citing intoxication and official misconduct have been filed to remove Lehmberg from office. They are winding their way toward a trial date.

The governor would clearly be acting within his authority if he were to line out the integrity unit’s budget. But just because he can doesn’t mean he should. Instead, Perry should let the petitions take their legal course. Instead, the governor is threatening to neuter the Public Integrity Unit to force Lehmberg to resign, and by getting involved in this way Perry is complicating matters he should let Lehmberg and others deal with.

In a senatorial understatement to Ward, Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin said it would be “very unfortunate if the governor is going to do this.” Indeed.

We’ll be more direct than Watson: It’s unseemly politics.

While Lehmberg’s mistake was bad she plead guilty, did her time in jail, and is now in treatment. It doesn’t make up for what she did but it looks like she is trying to atone. But Perry sticking his nose into this, in a big way, might be enough to make those who saw this as a non-political issue to think twice.  Clearly those in power see this as a golden opportunity to move against the PIU, which they’ve been after for a long time.

Further Reading:
Perry will veto Integrity Unit funds unless Lehmberg resigns.


Public Integrity Unit under attack again

Posted in Around The State, Corruption, Open Government at 10:46 am by wcnews

[UPDATE]: That was quick, Ethics commission drops plan to take on criminal enforcement role.

Facing a fast-brewing storm of opposition, the Texas Ethics Commission this morning abandoned a plan to take over criminal enforcement of state ethics laws from Travis County prosecutors.

Ever since former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle took on former GOP Congressman Tom Delay, the GOP in Texas has wanted to neuter the Travis County Public Integrity Unit – which is part of the Travis County DA’s office. This article by Nate Blakeslee at Burkablog from 2011 is a great primer on why the Public Integrity Unit is under attack,  Sneak Attack on Public Integrity Unit?

Buried in the four-inch stack of amendments to the house budget bill is a subtly crafted ambush on the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office. This is the outfit that investigates corruption cases involving public officials, the most famous of which in recent memory was Ronnie Earle’s dogged pursuit of Tom Delay in the TRMPAC case. Earle has moved on, but Republicans haven’t forgiven or forgotten. This session, Arlington Republican Bill Zedler filed a bill (HB 1928) seeking to move the unit out of the Travis County D.A.’s office and into the Attorney General’s office, which is to say, out of Democratic control and into Republican-held territory.

As Blakeslee goes on to point out the Public Integrity Unit does more than just oversee the conduct of public officials.

The Public Integrity Unit doesn’t just do public corruption investigations—it also prosecutes insurance fraud and tax fraud, including on sales of gasoline and tobacco. In the last 4 years, the unit has recovered over $8 million in restitution. With no funding, those investigations would cease, too. In other words, Zedler wouldn’t just be screwing the men and women of the Public Integrity Unit, he’d be screwing the taxpayers of Texas…

The latest attempt to remove duties from the Public Integrity Unit appears, at least so far, just to be an attempt to remove it’s power over the conduct of public officials.
Ethics Commission to consider taking over watchdog job from Austin prosecutors.

The Texas Ethics Commission, long criticized for its lax enforcement of public officials, is considering a plan to take over all ethics enforcement from the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has a long history of prosecuting errant state officeholders.

The eight-member Ethics Commission, meeting Thursday in Austin, is scheduled to consider a recommendation “transplanting certain existing investigative and prosecutorial authority and budget from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit to the Texas Ethics Commission.”

“Only the authority and budget relating to the conduct of public officials elected and appointed should be so reassigned,” the recommendation states. “Many of the existing personnel staffing these functions would come across as seamlessly as possible.”

But the reality is the Texas Ethics Commission would be extremely unlikely to do the kind of bipartisan enforcement the Public Integrity Unit is know for. When Democrats still had power in Texas Ronnie Earle prosecuted them as well. But removing this power from the Public Integrity Unit would essentially free-up public officials in Texas to do as they please, with little worry of recourse.

Noting that watchdog groups were hoping for ramped-up enforcement by the Ethics Commission, not a takeover of the county’s Public Integrity Unit that has prosecuted the only criminal violations, he added: “This is a dream turned into a nightmare.”

Fred Lewis, a former assistant attorney general and advocate who is considered one of the state’s foremost experts on the Ethics Commission, was more blunt: “This agency is not only toothless, it’s gumless. You can’t get any more ineffectual than they’ve been.”

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said she hadn’t been contacted about the proposal and wasn’t sure that the proposed transfer of enforcement duties is legal.

“I oppose it,” she said. “It gives authority to a branch of government where it doesn’t belong. … The law places jurisdiction with me for offenses that occur in my county. I think we’ve been fair and balanced in the way we’ve handled these cases in the past.”

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit has long been the only true enforcement arm over the corruption of public officials in Texas. It’s easy to see that if the only entity known for holding public officials accountable is disarmed it will become a free-for-all in Texas.  This coupled with Citizens United the pubic’s voice will be drowned out even more than it already is in Texas politics.

A lack of enforcement on this issue makes public corruption more likely, not less.  But that’s what will happen if we let the foxes guard the hen house.  Instead of this we should be trying to make it harder for public officials to get away with their ethics violation.

Further Reading:

Texans United to Amend.

Sunset Commission Report on the Texas Ethics Commission.