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A Simple Story Made Complicated by Politics

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg's story was primarily about a public fall from grace. When Gov. Rick Perry stripped funding from the public integrity unit she runs, it also became a story about a political power grab.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down after her April 2013 drunken driving arrest, and Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the public integrity unit, which is housed in the Travis County DA's office.

The governor of Texas holds the keys to the account that pays for Austin prosecutions of criminal matters involving state officials, and he kept his promise to take that money away because the local district attorney did not quit.

That district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg of Travis County, was arrested in April after driving erratically in the wee hours and later giving the arresting sheriff’s deputies a hard time for causing her trouble. She pleaded guilty to drunken driving charges and went to jail for three weeks.

Her late-night adventures were captured on camera and posted on the Web, as was her booking at the county jail a few hours later. It was the opposite of good politics, of behavior befitting a public official, of deportment you’d like to see from the person in charge of prosecuting public officials and regular old citizens caught doing things like, say, driving drunk in the middle of the night. She apologized publicly, accepted responsibility and said she would “seek professional help and guidance” about her behavior.

Lehmberg is a longtime prosecutor but a relatively new politician, serving her second term after first winning the office in the 2008 elections. Lots of people said she should break camp and go home. Her hometown paper, the Austin American-Statesman, quickly chimed in, saying a lawsuit to remove her would put undue strain on her and her office. Things got relatively quiet for several weeks — although there has been steady activity on the civil side by folks trying to unseat her in court — and then the governor weighed in.

The Public Integrity Unit that is supported by the state funds in question has a long history as a legislative tackling dummy. Its financing comes under threat whenever a powerful officeholder is under fire or expects to be. It’s set up for that, relying on the county government for buildings and equipment and on the state for payroll.

“It was always in danger,” said Ronnie Earle, who was Lehmberg’s predecessor and boss. “Any time we prosecuted anyone with any stroke, it would come up.”

The unit is not just an ethics enforcer, or even mainly that. The daily toil in that office centers on tax and fuel regulation cases. The only real difference between the prosecutors in Travis County and their counterparts across Texas is the location of the state government. For purposes of criminal law, this is local. Move the Capitol and the treasury, and the cases themselves would move.

This part is important, too: The governor and the Legislature have the power to defund the public integrity operation, but not to disband it. County officials could step up. Lehmberg could get the green eyeshade brigade to rework her office’s budget.

The politics are complicated. If the district attorney steps down before her term expires, it falls to the governor to appoint someone to serve out the rest of her term. Travis County is reliably Democratic — frustratingly so for a state government overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans.

The Democrats who elected Lehmberg don’t like the idea of a Republican governor appointing someone from his party to run a powerful office in a county controlled by the Democrats.

The governor’s threat raised some eyebrows, even among his own. He gave Lehmberg an arguing point she did not have before. This was a story about a public fall from grace and the consequence. Now there is another story line, about a sharp-elbowed state official trying to force out a local prosecutor for political gain and to put someone beholden to him in a watchdog role.

You can say that everyone makes mistakes, but you can also say that everyone doesn’t make the one the district attorney made, and that not everyone is in the sort of public office where they are asked, in effect, to remain beyond reproach.

Lehmberg failed that test, whatever your politics. And she has said she won’t seek another term in 2016, when her term ends. She does have the opportunity between now and then, if she wants it, to rebuild her reputation. Redemption stories can work in public life. Hers would require a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.

The governor could be making it easier. This was all about inappropriate behavior, and now it’s about that and more. Now it is about politics.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the length of Lehmberg's term in office.]

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