The Travis County district attorney’s office, with its unusual power to police the crimes of public officials, has a decidedly mixed record.
Ronnie Earle, the Democrat who served as the county’s district attorney from 1977 to 2009, always maintained that he was prosecuting people who abused their official powers, whether they were Democrats or Republicans. But his last two large-scale prosecutions involved high-profile Republicans and cemented the office’s reputation as a briar patch for conservatives.
The former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, lost his political fight but is on the verge of winning a legal battle over campaign finance that started in the 2002 elections. Even his original accusers say he will probably be exonerated when his appeals are final, but his political career was left in shambles.
DeLay has contended from the onset that prosecutors’ pursuit of him was politically grounded and legally shaky — that the case against him was a liberal community’s attack on a conservative stalwart and proof that Democrats try to win in the courtroom what they cannot take at the ballot box.
He wasn’t the first to say that, and with Gov. Rick Perry’s initial response to his own indictment, the argument continues.
Kay Bailey Hutchison’s fight against the charges that she used her position as state treasurer for political gain fortified her strength at the polls. Between the special election that put her in the U.S. Senate and the regular election that kept her there, her acquittal established her as a conservative champion who survived a liberal attempt on her political life.
Those two cases in particular started the story line that Perry relies on today — that Republicans cannot get a fair shake in Austin, the seat of Texas government. There was a time when Democrats were squawking about the same thing, contending that the Democratic faction in favor in the halls of local government was from a different wing of the party than the officials serving in the halls of state government.
Then-Attorney General Jim Mattox was indicted on commercial bribery charges soon after he took office in 1983 and won acquittal two years later. Former State House Speaker Gib Lewis gave up his office after an investigation into his ties with lobbyists and lawyers; he admitted failing to report political gifts as the law requires, and agreed not to seek another term in 1992.
Earle decided not to seek another term in 2008, and one of his longtime deputies, Rosemary Lehmberg, won the race to succeed him. As it turns out, she also inherited his reputation: Her election did not stem attempts by Republicans to remove state funding for the Travis County district attorney’s public integrity unit, which has jurisdiction not just in local public corruption and tax cases, but also statewide, because it is at the seat of state government.
After the Hutchison case and again after the DeLay case, lawmakers questioned that arrangement. The most common suggestion has been to move the operation to the state attorney general’s office. The most common objection is that state officials like the attorney general should not be in charge of investigations of state officials. In fact, the same group that filed the complaint that led to Perry’s indictment — a liberal, self-professed watchdog outfit called Texans for Public Justice — has filed a complaint against State Sen. Ken Paxton, a Republican, with Travis County’s public integrity unit. He's now the Republican nominee for attorney general.
Perry’s indictment has renewed calls for moving the unit. Lehmberg herself provided the spark, shredding her public reputation with belligerent behavior — caught on video and posted widely on the Internet — following a drunken-driving arrest in April 2013.
The governor concluded that she had made herself unfit for office, and vetoed the state’s funding for the public integrity unit. A special prosecutor and a Travis County grand jury considered complaints about how Perry had done that, and decided to indict him.
And they renewed the questions about politics and crime, and how to differentiate between the two.