This Monday, the State Affairs Committee of the Texas Senate moved forward with SB 10, a bill that would move the Public Integrity Unit (PIU), currently housed in Travis County, into the jurisdiction of the state’s attorney general. The committee passed the bill on partisan lines, voting 7-2 to move discussion of the bill to the full Senate.
The Austin American-Statesman summarized what exactly SB 10, authored by Joan Huffman (R-Houston) would do:
Under Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Joan Huffman, the attorney general’s office would conduct the initial investigation of complaints against officials, with help from the Texas Rangers.
If the investigation yields “reasonable suspicion,” a state judge would send the findings to a district or county attorney who is outside of the official’s county. That prosecutor could terminate the case or continue with prosecution.
If the case goes to trial, under SB 10, the proceedings would be held in the public official’s hometown.
The PIU is “a state-funded division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office [that]investigates public corruption, insurance fraud, and motor fuels tax fraud.” Because it is housed in the Travis County DA’s office (which has been occupied by a Democrat since the PIU’s inception in the early 1980s), Huffman and other Republican legislators claim that the PIU is overly partisan, and unfairly targets Republicans. Yet, the PIU has actually investigated more Democrats than Republicans. If anything, Republicans are the ones who have politicized the office–Rick Perry is the one who threatened to veto the PIU’s budget if Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg did not resign after her DUI, leading to his current prosecution on corruption charges.
In actuality, because the PIU has always been controlled by Democrats in the face of increasing Republican power, it has emerged as one of the few checks on their corruption. As one of the limited number institutions with statewide power that isn’t controlled by the GOP, the PIU has served to hold Republicans accountable. Gregg Cox, the current head of the PIU, also pointed out that the agency’s location in Travis County allows it to “to avoid conflicts of interest that can mar prosecutions of local officials.” It also allows it to avoid the conflict of interest that might emerge if the AG’s office had to investigate a corrupt state agency that it ultimately would have to defend in court. Moving the office out of Travis County would remove all of these protections, making prosecution of corruption even more difficult.
Huffman acknowledged as much during testimony over the bill, noting that her concern didn’t lie with the prosecutors. Said Huffman, “It needs to be fair to the public, but I also think it needs to be fair to the accused.”
Given the history of past attorneys general in Texas, transferring control of the PIU to the AG’s office would likely serve to politicize the office even more, contrary to what Huffman and other Republicans are claiming. Democratic Senators Judith Zaffirini and Rodney Ellis, the lone committee votes against SB 10, questioned “whether the attorney general, sitting in an office that has been a frequent stepping stone to higher office, would make prosecuting public officials more political.” If an attorney general is preparing for a run for higher office (like our current governor Greg Abbott did), they could potentially use their control of the PIU as a bargaining chip for other political favors that would help them on their way up the ladder, further entrenching corruption.
What’s more is that the current attorney general of Texas–the man who would control the PIU if SB 10 passed, Republican Ken Paxton–is someone who already has a proven record of legal misconduct and corruption. Last summer, Paxton admitted to violating several provisions of the Texas Securities Act, paying a fine for actions that, by his own admission, constitute a third-degree felony. In fact, Ken Paxton was actually investigated by the PIU for his behavior, though they ultimately decided not to prosecute him. If Paxton had been in charge of the PIU, it is doubtful that he would have chosen to investigate himself.
The watchdog group Texans for Public Justice condemned the bill in a statement (emphasis added):
“SB 10 is a politicians dream, a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card for public officials. SB 10 creates a special legal system reserved for politicians only — a system designed to end corruption prosecutions, not pursue them.
The bill is another attack on local control by big government Republicans. It strips all county district attorneys of their traditional power to prosecute corruption within their own jurisdictions. It transfers that power directly to the Attorney General.
Senator Huffman claims her bill will ‘restore public confidence’ in corruption investigations and then hands those cases to a partisan attorney general, himself under a cloud of corruption allegations. In fact, punishing a corrupt politician under SB 10 requires the unanimous approval of the attorney general, the Texas Rangers, a state judge AND a district or county attorney.
SB 10 will likely breed more corruption by advertising the fact that there is no functioning deterrent.“
SB 10 would also require amending the Texas Constitution for it to even go into effect, because, as the Lone Star Project points out the Texas Constitution currently “does not provide the Legislature with the authority to remove the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes within a county. ” State Rep Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) has filed a bill in the House to take care of that, and change the Texas Constitution to entrench corruption more even more deeply in our state’s laws.
The next step for the bill is to go before the full Senate, where it will likely face a tough debate on partisan lines. Knowing the far-right nature of the current Legislature, we may very well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Public Integrity Unit as we know it.