- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 3, 2014.

State funds should be reinstated for much-needed watchdog division

Once a target, always a target. And the Texas Public Integrity Unit is one heck of a bull’s eye.

For years, threats of eliminating the unit have abounded, but until recently, none had delivered a substantial blow. Since Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the watchdog’s 2014 and 2015 state funding, the Public Integrity Unit has been holding its head above water, but just barely. The cut in state funds resulted in a reduction of staff - from 34 to 24 - and curtailed the unit’s ability to take on additional cases. Unless the Legislature approves more funds for 2016, the unit will potentially downsize even further. The Legislature should not allow this to happen.

The Public Integrity Unit, housed within the Travis County district attorney’s office, is a valuable and indispensable part of the checks and balances system of state government. Instead of crippling the unit any further, the Legislature needs to restore proper funding for the unit to better serve Texans.

As the American-Statesman reported recently, the unit has held a tense relationship with Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle since it was created in 1982 under the reign of outspoken former district attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.

Nearly every legislative session, allegations that the unit operates under a partisan lens spurred debate at the Capitol. But Earle, who stepped down in 2008, has always been vocal about his mission for the office, saying it has never been driven by politics but by a desire to weed out corruption in state government. The unit’s record speaks for itself.

From its inception through 2012, the Public Integrity Unit has brought charges against top legislative aides and corporations, in addition to handling insurance and tax fraud cases statewide. That nitty-gritty public service makes up the bulk of its work. The unit has also nabbed headlines for its 21 prosecutions of elected officials: 15 Democrats and six Republicans.

High-profile cases against Democratic leaders include former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox in 1985 for accusations of commercial bribery and South Texas state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores in 2010 for failing to disclose income from companies with state contracts. Mattox later won acquittal in a trial, and Flores was convicted of four felony charges and five related misdemeanor charges.

Yet the indictments (previous to Perry’s) that have reeled in the greatest national prominence as well as reproach have been the prosecutions of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2005 and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 1993, both Republicans. DeLay was found guilty in 2010 of laundering money to conceal corporate campaign contributions in a greater scheme to win political seats across the state. The case against Hutchison, indicted for misusing her prior office of state treasurer for personal and political business, was eventually dismissed.

Overall, the case numbers don’t scream partisan politics.

Now, future investigations and prosecutions are in danger of never seeing the light of day. Lawmakers are rattling sabers about moving the unit or cutting its funding as a consequence of the felony charges of coercion of a public servant and abuse of official capacity brought against Perry last month by a Travis County grand jury.

To review: The indictments focus on Perry’s threat to veto funding for the unit in the wake of the drunken driving arrest of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. The crux of the threat: If Lehmberg refused to step down, Perry would veto the unit’s funding, which he ultimately did.

A petition Perry filed last week argues the charges wrongly infringed on his veto power.

While those matters are being worked out in the courts, the Public Integrity Unit’s future sits in limbo.

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