Skip to main content

Analysis: The Hunt for a Different Spot to House Political Watchdog

Lots of people want to take prosecutions of state officials away from the Travis County district attorney's office. But agreeing on a place to put it is not going to be easy.

Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas.

Suppose we all agree that investigations and prosecutions of corruption by state officials ought to be taken away from the local prosecutors in Travis County.

Skip to the next question: Is there a place where political cases could be handled without any smell of politics?

Gov. Rick Perry’s indictment on charges that he abused his official powers has reignited the perennial argument over who monitors the periodic criminal behavior of politicians and bureaucrats in Texas. The state has put that power in the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has a public integrity unit partly financed by the state to handle tax and insurance cases, as well as those involving accusations of misbehavior by state officials.

Lately, conservatives have complained that prosecutors and grand juries in Travis County — the seat of state government and a Democratic stronghold in the middle of a reliably Republican state — are out to get Republicans, trying to wrest power they cannot win in state elections.

That has been part of the governor’s response to his indictment, along with his argument that he was trying to unseat an unfit district attorney — Rosemary Lehmberg — after her drunken driving arrest in 2013.

Legislators have considered this before, most recently on the heels of her arrest and the viral videos of her terrible, horrible, very bad day at the jail in the wake of her traffic stop.

They did not get anywhere, largely because of the questions about where to shift these duties. A 2013 proposal would have moved the operation to the attorney general’s office, an obvious idea that quickly runs into objections.

In Texas, the attorney general is a statewide elected official, independent of the governor and other officials even if they run as members of the same party. It is a reliable steppingstone to higher office, enough so to inspire an adage that AG stands for “Almost Governor.”

The current attorney general, Greg Abbott, is the Republican nominee for governor. His predecessor, John Cornyn, is the state’s senior U.S. senator.

Two of the last four state attorneys general were indicted on charges related to their actions in office, one by prosecutors in Travis County and the other by federal prosecutors.

The first, Jim Mattox, a Democrat, was accused of commercial bribery and won acquittal in a trial. He served two terms as attorney general, earning an image as the junkyard dog of Texas politics, before falling short in races for governor and the Senate.

The second, Dan Morales — also a Democrat — went to prison after he was convicted of falsifying tax returns and loan documents. The case grew out of a federal investigation of his dealings, as attorney general, with the lawyers who were representing the state in litigation against the tobacco industry. Morales also ran for governor, unsuccessfully, before the legal troubles caught up with him.

The first issue is whether the state’s politicians want to place oversight of their behavior in the hands of ambitious colleagues, and whether an investigation of politicians by politicians would somehow look less political than the current setup. Then there is the evident need to keep a watchdog’s eyes on whoever might be the attorney general.

“It’s a very good question,” said state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the author of the last attempt to relocate the operation to the attorney general. “That’s probably why we have never been able to move it.”

The Texas Ethics Commission, a bipartisan panel that handles campaign finance and filings and has the ability to refer items of interest to prosecutors, is a possibility. King suggested the Department of Public Safety, calling public integrity a law enforcement issue, or letting local prosecutors across the state handle the cases, drawing on a state fund for financial help when they need it.

It is hard to take the politics out of it, but the governor’s indictment has reignited the debate.

“We’re just trying to design something as apolitical as possible,” King said. “It’s hard. But you’ve got a single person in a single county in charge of this, and there is more will now to diffuse that power.”

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

State government Governor's Office Greg Abbott John Cornyn Phil King Rick Perry