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Corruption Investigations to Continue Despite Funding Veto

On the latest Agenda Texas, from KUT News and the Tribune: What's next for the state's only political corruption investigation unit, whose funding Gov. Rick Perry has eliminated.

Gov. Rick Perry prepares to sign a series of education reform bills in the Governor's Reception Room on June 10, 2013.

Gov. Rick Perry has eliminated funding for the only office in the state that investigates and prosecutes political corruption cases.

The decision to do so came after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg landed in jail for drunken driving.

“She accepted the sentence that was determined by the county attorney to be appropriate — 45 days in jail and a $4,000 fine — and walked into the jail and is in that jail to serve that sentence," Lehmberg's attorney, David Sheppard, said on the day she entered prison.

Lehmberg apologized, saying she was seeking treatment. But she also said she wouldn’t resign.

The Travis County DA is also in charge of the Public Integrity Unit, or PIU, the state’s only official unit that investigates and prosecutes political corruption cases. That makes it less than popular among the ruling party in Texas, which at the moment is the Republican Party.

So as Perry began considering what bills and budget items to veto, he said he would eliminate millions of dollars in state funding for the PIU if Lehmberg didn’t step down.

“All agencies, whatever they might be, they have the ability to prioritize what’s important to them," Perry said last week. "I would suggest to you, if that line item were to be removed, then Travis County would have to prioritize whether they think those cases are important enough to go forward with or some other cases. That would be their call."

Some said that ultimatum crossed an ethical and legal line. Craig McDonald was among them. He directs Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that follows the influence of money on Texas politics.

"The governor was using his office, and the power of his office, in threatening to use one of his official acts to try to coerce a member of the public, in this case a duly elected Travis County District Attorney, to give up her job," McDonald said.

The governor followed through on his threat Friday night. As it stands now, all state funding for the unit will stop come Sept. 1. In his veto explanation, Perry said he could not continue to fund the office when "the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public's confidence."

This week, pushback on the veto began. When the Texas House convened Monday, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked whether there was any plan for how to continue the 400 cases pending in the PIU, including a high-profile investigation of the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

“Does it not, Mr. Speaker, show poorly on the Texas Legislature for the ethics bill which governs our behavior to be vetoed, and for the Public Integrity Unit, that oversees our behavior, funding to be eliminated, and we cannot tell the people in the state of Texas how we intend to move forward?" Turner said.

“Moving forward” could mean finding money to continue funding the unit. That was a topic taken up by the Travis County commissioners on Tuesday. Lehmberg told them only the money is gone but that the investigations are still going.

“It’s important to point out that that responsibility remains, whether or not the state gives us funding. We’ll still have to review cases occurring in our county and we’ll do so. Just have to figure out how to prioritize them," Lehmberg told commissioners.

Thirty-four employees in the unit may not have jobs after Aug 31. Those employees are working on 400 cases. About 280 of those are specific to Travis County. The rest originated elsewhere. Many are gas tax or insurance fraud cases that were sent to Travis because the PIU specializes in those cases.

The House Appropriations Committee meets Thursday to consider how to fund the PIU after the governor’s veto. Travis County commissioners, also looking for ways to keep the office running, will meet again in two weeks to talk about whether there is additional money in next year’s county budget to shift over to the PIU.

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