Yesterday, the Texas Senate took one more step forward in making it easier for Republican elected officials to get away with corruption without legal consequences, by voting to advance SB 10. The bill, authored by Joan Huffman (R-Houston), would move the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates corruption, from its current home in the Travis County DA’s office to the Texas Rangers. It would also permit officials and state employees to face trial in their home counties for crimes they commit in Travis County. The bill passed strictly on party lines, 21-10.
As we previously reported, this bill would have serious consequences for the prosecution of government corruption in Texas. The Public Integrity Unit, housed in the Democratic Travis County District Attorney’s office, has become one of the few institutions remaining in the state that isn’t controlled by Republicans, causing Republicans to complain that its corruption investigations unfairly target them. However, the PIU has actually investigated more Democrats than Republicans, and it is only in the face of increasing Republican corruption that the PIU has emerged as a check on their illegal behavior.
The changes that SB 10 posits are harmful in more ways than one. Hometown prosecutors are easily susceptible to being influenced by the powerful, corrupt, officials that they would be charged with prosecuting. And, as R.G. Ratcliffe at Texas Monthly points out, the Texas Rangers themselves aren’t immune to undue influence:
- “The governor appoints Texas Public Safety Commission. The current director of DPS was an aide to Governor Rick Perry before taking the top job at DPS. Through a governor’s influence over the public safety commission, a governor could halt or prompt almost any investigation. Imagine an unscrupulous governor bending legislators to his will by threatening to have their campaign accounts investigated.”
Nowhere do these problems become more apparent than in the case of our current attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton. Ken Paxton has admitted to violating state securities laws that constitute a third-degree felony. The PIU declined to investigate him, because his crimes did not take place in Travis County. So the case went to his hometown DA in Collin County, Greg Willis, who is Paxton’s “longtime friend and business partner.” Unsurprisingly, Willis’ office took no official action to investigate the case. The situation was so bad that the Dallas Morning News called for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case. The DMN editorial board didn’t mince their words:
- “The public’s faith in the justice system requires that there be no hint of prosecutorial bias or that staffers under Willis’ direction might fail to pursue justice to protect their boss and his friend. …
The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.”
Fortunately for Texans, a Collin County grand jury has stepped in where Greg Willis did not, and has taken up investigation of the case, which may very well result in an indictment. (For those who want to read more about the Ken Paxton saga, Christopher Hooks has a good recap over at the Texas Observer.)
Nonetheless, Paxton’s case illustrates the problems that could become commonplace if SB 10 becomes law. Had the Collin County grand jury not stepped in, Greg Willis would have been left to his own devices. Ken Paxton’s hometown prosecutor happened to be is close friend, so he chose not to investigate felonies that Paxton himself has admitted to committing. Under SB 10, even more corrupt politicians across Texas could use hometown ties to get out of facing consequences for their own actions.
The watchdog group Texans for Public Justice (who initiated the criminal complaints against Paxton, among others) put it best in their statement criticizing SB 10 (emphasis added):
“SB 10 remains a politician’s dream posing as reform legislation. The bill creates a special legal system for the exclusive use of politicians. The bill does more to promote corruption than prosecute corruption.
SB 10 invites cronyism and hometown favoritism. Crimes should be prosecuted in the county in which they were committed.
Political corruption crimes need to be treated like all other crimes. There should be no special criminal process for political crimes.
Texas needs to turn away from the corruption of the Perry administration, not embrace it.”
SB 10 faces another vote in the Senate before it moves on to the House. Given the many flaws in the bill, here’s a question to consider as it moves forward–why exactly is it that the Republican legislature is so eager to advance legislation that entrenches corruption even deeper? There’s an obvious answer, and it’s shameful that Republicans are trying to fool Texans into being enablers for their own crooked goals.