[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.
Sunset Commission Report on the Texas Ethics Commission.