The director of the state’s criminal anti-corruption unit told a key Senate committee Monday that “there is no one else” in the state that could handle the cases his office does.
The Public Integrity Unit, which is housed within the Travis County DA’s office, has long been a target of Republican legislators, who argue that its prosecutions are politically motivated. In 2013, Rick Perry vetoed funding for the agency after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down over her embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Some lawmakers want to transfer the cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. But Public Integrity Unit director Gregg Cox told the Senate Finance Committee that a constitutional amendment would be required to do that. Many of the cases the unit deals with occur in Travis County because Austin is the state capital, he said.
Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.
Cox also stressed that public corruption has never made up more than 7 to 8 percent of the Public Integrity Unit’s total caseload—and of the 19 public corruption cases currently pending, only one involves an elected official. (Cox declined to name the official; Perry’s prosecution is being handled by a special prosecutor not affiliated with the Public Integrity Unit) The majority of the caseload, he said, has historically been ones in which the state is the victim, such as unemployment or welfare fraud.
Since Perry vetoed funding, Cox and his team have been referring fraud cases to other DA’s offices, but few have led to indictments. Such cases require specialized staffs that most prosecutors don’t have.
The Senate budget proposal doesn’t include any funding for the unit, which was defunded by Perry in 2013, making good on a threat that lead to his indictment in August on abuse of power charges. In a press conference last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he didn’t see a reason to replace that funding in the next two-year budget.
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said in the meeting that she believes “the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important.” But she left funding out of the budget bill because the Legislature might decide to create another agency or assign cases to other offices.
Before the committee adjourned, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked whether there was any constitutional obligation to provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit. The answer doesn’t bode well for the corruption watchdog: no.