For the past few weeks, we’ve been covering the saga of Republicans’ proposed “get-out-of-jail-free” bill as it moves through the Legislature. The bill would move the Public Integrity Unit from its current home in the Travis Count DA’s office, and instead allow corruption to be prosecuted in officials’ home counties. This week, corruption got one step closer to becoming entrenched in Texas law, as the Republican-led House passed its version of the bill.
As the Texas Tribune reported, HB 1690, the House bill, ” would create a special process for public officials accused of corruption. …Under HB 1690, these cases… would be handled by the Texas Rangers and then referred for prosecution to the elected official’s home county.” Democrats did their best to try and stop the bill, with Rep. Mary González’s (D-Clint) point of order about a paragraph of analysis in the bill delaying the vote by several days late last week. She also pointed out that the Texas Rangers receive funding from the Legislature, which could create conflicts of interest if the Rangers were to investigate a legislator, and she reiterated that prosecution in home counties makes trials more susceptible to undue political influences.
The House bill is similar to the Senate’s bill to move the PIU out of Travis County, with a few additional amendments. For example, the House adopted an amendment that exempts state employees from home-county prosecution, leaving that avenue available only to elected and appointed officials. There’s also an amendment that would require local prosecutors to step aside in cases where they had a business relationship with the defendant.
The provisions in the bill would not affect any of the PIU’s current cases, said Gregg Cox, who heads the PIUIn fact, only four of the cases the PIU has investigated in the past 15 years would have been affected by the bill’s terms. The trouble is, at least one of those cases would almost certainly not have been prosecuted had this bill been in effect. As Cox explained:
“The danger is, one of those cases was Kino Flores, and he had been committing crimes in his home county, and no one would pursue the case there. … If this bill had been in effect at that time, he would probably still be in office and would not be prosecuted.”
HB 1690 isn’t even supported by all Republicans. Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) argued that the bill gave those accused of corruption a “home-court advantage” when it comes to prosecution. His amendment to also allow for prosecution in the county where the crime was committed was shot down by a vote of 93-49. Said Simpson:
“I just want to plead with you that you not create, with this bill, a specially protected class…I urge you not to treat yourself better than the constituents who you serve.”
The Texas Democratic Party also came out strongly against the bill’s passage. In a statement, Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia condemned Republicans’ actions (emphasis added):
“Putting the power of political prosecution in the hands of a politician’s local district attorney opens the door to cronyism and cover-ups. In the past few years, we have heard case after case of Republican political corruption and mismanagement at state agencies. Today, House Republicans rewarded themselves with the equivalent of a get out of jail free card for politicians.
Republicans’ misplaced priorities has taken center stage today. Meanwhile, House Democrats made the best of a bad bill by offering amendments to strengthen public accountability and protections against conflicts of interest.”
The next step is for the House and Senate to reconcile their two versions of the PIU bills. Despite Democrats’ best efforts to stop them, all we’re able to do now is sit and watch as Republicans entrench their decades of corruption firmly into state law.