AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some lawmakers believe a group that looks into public corruption is too political, but its record shows it prosecutes both parties.
The Public Integrity Unit started under Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. The unit is still housed in that office, now under another Democrat, Rosemary Lehmberg.
For years, critics have explored the idea of moving the unit, which received state money, out of that office. The conversations continue this legislative session. In fact, the Senate budget includes no money for the unit.
The group is already operating with out state money. Former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the unit. A felony indictment accuses Perry of abusing his power and coercion of a public official for threatening the veto if Lehmberg didn’t resign following her drunk driving arrest and plea. Perry has said he had lost faith in the leader of the office.
“I personally don’t believe it belongs in Travis County. It’s too poltical,” said Texas Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
The unit is perhaps most famous for its case against former U.S. Congressman and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican. After the indictment, DeLay claimed the Travis County District Attorney, Earle, was abusing his power and that the indictment from the Public Integrity Unit was a “political witch hunt.”
The unit’s record
Records from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office show the Public Integrity Unit has prosecuted 21 cases involving elected officials since the late 1970s. Of those, 15 cases are Democrats and six are Republicans.
Still, Democrats were long the dominant party in the state, until a shift in the 1980s.
Through its history, the PIU has prosecuted lawmakers at the some of the highest levels of state and federal government.
The unit’s prosecutions include Republicans like U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. As for Democrats, the unit went after Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, Texas Speaker of the House Gibson “Gib” Lewis, and Texas Treasurer Warren G. Harding.
Still, these records show what has risen to the level of prosecution, not what has been investigated.
The director of the unit Gregg Cox wouldn’t comment Monday on accusations involving any political motivations. When asked about the current state of the unit and the attitude within the PIU, Cox said the unit is focusing on doing its job.
“We don’t really have much time to sit around and fret about those kinds of things,” he said. “We just have a lot of work to do.”
For now, the unit continues as a smaller version of its former self. Cox says the PIU disbanded its sections that focused on insurance and motor fuels tax fraud. What’s left is a unit looking into about 250 cases. Nineteen of those cases are public corruption cases. Only one of those is an elected official, although Cox declined to say who that person is. Cox says the remaining corruption cases are “fairly low-level” state employees. The majority of the cases PIU works on are fraud cases where the state is the victim, not corruption.
“I certainly believe that the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important. However, I know there is going to be discussion this session. We’ve got a long session to discuss where the function should be placed and at what level they should be funded,” Nelson said. “And so, I didn’t put [any money in the budget for the Public Integrity Unit] until we know where we’re going with this.”