Cyber Crimes Efforts Abbott Touts Began Under Predecessor

Throughout his campaign for governor, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has touted his work prosecuting online child predators as the state’s attorney general through his office’s Cyber Crimes Unit.

His biography on the attorney general office’s website and his campaign site say that after taking office in 2003, he "established" the unit, which targets and arrests criminals who use the internet to prey upon children. In announcing his “Securing Texans” policy plan, Abbott said he "created" the unit to track down child predators.

A review of the unit’s history found that while Abbott established a new entity and gave cyber crimes a more focused approach, the unit’s work extends beyond Abbott’s tenure as the state’s top lawyer and chief law enforcement official.

In 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn announced the launch of the Internet Bureau, which was focused on fighting fraud and crime online. Among the crimes the bureau pursued were the exploitation of children through online forums and the promotion and distribution of child pornography on the internet.

Those crimes are also among those that the Cyber Crimes Unit was tailored to focus on. The Internet Bureau’s priorities also included investigating internet fraud, hacking and computer viruses, which have now been relegated to other divisions in the AG’s office.

 

The Cyber Crimes Unit was officially unveiled in a September 2003 press release as an effort to investigate and pursue child predators suspected of online solicitation and child pornography promotion or distribution.

But a press release issued by the attorney general’s office the day after the "new program" was unveiled refers to it as “formerly the Internet Bureau.” Soon after, Cyber Crimes Unit press releases stopped mentioning the bureau. Press releases from early 2003 — before Abbott created the Cyber Crimes Unit — tout arrests of suspected child predators made by “Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Texas Internet Bureau.”

Asked about the differences between the bureau and the Cyber Crimes Unit, Lauren Bean, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, initially said that the two entities are “the same thing,” although the Cyber Crimes Unit’s focus is more narrowly tailored.

In a later statement, Bean said Abbott promised to create a new unit to crack down on child exploitation when he took office and “with the launch of the Cyber Crimes Unit in 2003, a new, more focused approach with more resources and more officers was deployed to replace the Internet Bureau.”

The Abbott campaign referred questions regarding the Cyber Crimes Unit to the attorney general’s office.

The unit, which works with undercover law enforcement officers who pose as children in internet chat rooms and social networking sites, has a successful track record. Since it was created, the unit accounts for 351 arrests, 556 indictments and 414 convictions related to child pornography and online solicitation.

In a 2006 press release, the attorney general’s office said that the Cyber Crimes Unit had made 76 arrests since its September 2003 creation. But a list of arrests for online solicitation provided by the AG’s office in February shows that 16 of those arrests were made before the unit was unveiled. Bean confirmed that the 16 arrests were made during Abbott's tenure "when this unit was called the Texas Internet Bureau."

When Abbott’s unit was unveiled, press releases also show it was at first funded through the governor’s Criminal Justice Division — the same funding source appropriated for the Internet Bureau. The Cyber Crimes Unit is now funded through general revenue from the state, and it receives additional funding from the U.S. Department of Justice after the department selected the unit to house the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for southern Texas, according to the attorney general's office.

 

Asked about the overlap between Abbott’s unit and the Internet Bureau, Cornyn did not provide a direct answer and instead said in a statement that “Abbott’s leadership has protected Texas’ most vulnerable from the child predators and human traffickers who perpetrate some of the most horrific crimes imaginable.”

The size of the division has increased during Abbott’s tenure. Cornyn’s Internet Bureau was made up of 10 individuals, including attorneys, investigators and administrative support staff. The Cyber Crimes Unit is currently made up of 19 individuals, including six field investigators, four forensic investigators, an evidence custodian and an analyst.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said that Abbott’s “overclaiming” in regard to the Cyber Crimes Unit’s innovation is a familiar predicament for many politicians.

“[Politicians] claim to have invented something, and this is always a little dangerous because most things develop out of earlier iterations,” Jillson said, adding that it was a mistake for Abbott to have made the claim that he established the unit and not acknowledge that he built on previous efforts launched under Cornyn.

Jillson said he didn’t expect Abbott to face the attention that his Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, did when her biography was scrutinized.

The Abbott campaign went after Davis following the publication of a Dallas Morning News story that questioned some of the details of her personal story.

Jillson said that Davis got the extra attention because of how crucial her rags-to-riches story was to her persona — despite the fact that no “dramatic revelations” were found when her biography was scrutinized.

At the time, Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said Davis had “systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived Texans for years about her background, yet she expects voters to indulge her fanciful narrative.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)