What is the Public Integrity Unit?

Rosemary Lehmberg (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas Public Integrity Unit’s history is storied. And in a latest chapter, appears to have survived Gov. Rick Perry’s alleged attempt in the summer of 2013 to starve it of funding. Now it will be up to state lawmakers to elect to re-fund it somewhere down the political road, after Gov. Perry scheduled final day in office in January 2015.

The funding veto hit suddenly and hard in mid-2013. The decision brought the Travis County DA’s Office to a new low a year ago Aug 6th. That was the day when Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg reminded County Commissioners the Public Integrity Unit was a vital part of the judicial system of checks and balances – not merely for the County, but for the entire state.

The Public integrity Unit prosecutes insurance fraud, motor fuels tax fraud and government corruption – in 2013 that meant 425 cases. It’s no mistake the Unit is housed at the Travis county DA’s Office, in the capital of Texas where some element of these types of crime can take place. Since 1982 under former DA Ronnie Earl’s watch, The Public Integrity Unit had been state-funded under a reimbursement scheme to the county. In June 2013 when Governor Perry ordered the funding shut off, the unit was left to fend for itself.

During the crisis, in a first major public appearance since her DWI arrest that spring, DA Lehmberg persuaded county leaders to completely fund a pared down version of the Unit. The money came from two local sources: $1.8 million from county tax funds and about $734,000 from forfeited property controlled by the county, in other words – Sheriff’s Office seizures.

Hard times for a group of Texas attorneys who, over the years indicted US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and US Representative Tom DeLay.

The impact of the Governor’s funding veto meant the unit:

  • saw staff cut by a third from 34 to 24 (a few were transferred to the regular County payroll)
  • sent back insurance tax fraud cases to referring agencies (except already indicted cases)
  • no longer heard statewide cases (134 in 2013 according to Lehmberg)

Gov. Perry’s veto explanation was “the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
Last summer, DA Lehmberg made it clear to Commissioners who she answered to saying, “It is not Rick Perry’s job to fire me or to relieve me,” adding “He did not elect me, Travis County voters elected me, and I answer to them.”

After the announcement of the indictment, one political watcher tweeted ‘Just one more reason why we should have transferred the PIU from Travis County to the State Attorney General’s Office.’ That would take an act of the Republican-dominated state legislature.

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