AUSTIN (KXAN) — Whoever wins the race to become Travis County district attorney will be facing an uphill climb. The office has been through very public turmoil, leaving its name and reputation sullied. Candidate Margaret Moore believes the race is about a return to respectability.
“I think this race is about a restoration of confidence in the office and it starts with the district attorney themselves,” said Moore.
Her opponent Gary Cobb has worked in the DA’s office as a prosecutor since 1990 and agrees there is rebuilding to do.
“Absolutely, they have lost trust in the DA office,” said Cobb about the people who will vote in the primary election on March 1.
Multiple prosecutors in the office have been arrested in recent years including the drunk driving arrest of sitting District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. That arrest led to then-Governor Rick Perry vetoing $4 million the office received in state funding to house the Public Integrity Unit. That veto crippled a unit which once had 35 positions and has been forced to slash down to 10 without the state funding.
Moore, a former prosecutor in the office as well as the former county attorney and county commissioner, believes the right leader is the first step in turning the office back around.
“That office should be the most professional and most outstanding DA office in the State of Texas and that would be my intention.”
Working with the community is the best way to regain trust according to Cobb. He said he wants the community and the office to work together to help prevent crime, not just react to it.
“I have personally been involved with community groups and trying to be responsive to their needs,” he said. “I plan to regain trust by doing what we have always done; working not just with leaders or activists, but everyday members of the community.”
But another candidate, Rick Reed, says changes must be made in how the office investigates cases. A former prosecutor in Dallas and Travis County, Reed said he saw firsthand the shortcomings in DA investigations while working as a defense attorney the past eight years. He says those shortcomings have led to innocent people spending time behind bars.
“They are not doing an adequate job investigating cases before presenting them to grand jury,” said Reed.
Election night will be the end of what has already been a heated battle in court between Cobb and Reed. In the weeks leading up to the election, Reed sought to have Cobb taken off the ballot after raising legal questions about his candidacy.
“There is a very definite need to regain the public trust. Frankly, it is something that Margaret and I can both do. I don’t think it is something Gary is in a position to do,” said Reed.
Public Integrity Unit
All three candidates said they hope to restore the state funding which was vetoed following Lehmberg’s DWI arrest. However, they did not agree on how the unit might run in the meantime.
Cobb hopes his relationships and reputation at the capitol can help return the PIU to how it once operated.
“I think I have a good relationship with numerous legislators and they have a trust and understanding of how I will deal with the issues and hopefully we can talk them into re-funding us.”
But having seen resources slashed considerably, Cobb thinks it will be hard to prosecute the corruption cases the unit typically would handle.
“If we spend our county resources on it, we cannot properly fight crime here in Travis County,” he said.
If elected, Moore also said she would work to convince legislators the unit’s funding should be added back into the state budget. She also thinks she might have a leg up when it comes to getting it done.
“I think I am the best person for that. I worked for Governor Greg Abbott as an assistant attorney general and helped lead a division in the AG office that prosecuted civil Medicaid fraud,” said Moore.
Moore said she helped recover a billion dollars through prosecuting fraud cases. Even without state funding, Moore wants to prosecute as many corruption cases as possible. “I don’t actually buy this ‘we don’t have the resources to do it so we won’t do it’ attitude. My approach is we are going to do our jobs the best we can by prioritizing cases.”
Restoring funding is also a goal for Reed if he is elected, but he does not think it will happen quickly because of the trust issues all candidates acknowledged with the office.
“I think it is something that is not going to happen in the near future. It will require working with the legislature and the governor and establishing trust in the legislators,” said Reed. He thinks it could take multiple legislative sessions to get state money back for the PIU.
“Regardless of who is elected I don’t think the legislature will restore that funding. I think it is something that can be done in the foreseeable future but it will take time to work with legislators.”