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Public Integrity Unit Chief Testifies Before State Senators

The head of the state's public integrity unit told Senate lawmakers on Monday that Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of its funding in 2013 forced the division — which investigates public corruption — to lay off staff and give up cases.

State Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson R-Flower Mound, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discussed the Senate's base budget plan at a Jan. 27, 2015, news conference.

The head of the state's public integrity unit told Senate lawmakers on Monday that Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of its funding in 2013 forced the division — which investigates public corruption and is housed in the Travis County District Attorney's Office — to lay off staff and give up pursuing multiple cases.

“Since we’ve lost state funding, we’ve shrunk considerably,” Gregg Cox told members of the Senate Finance Committee.

And he suggested there could be "jurisdiction" issues with moving the public corruption duties of the unit to another state entity — which some GOP lawmakers have called for to get it out of a district attorney's office in liberal Travis County. 

In 2013, Perry vetoed $7.5 million in state funds for the unit after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign after she was charged with drunken driving. His threat to do it has him in legal hot water; he's currently fighting a criminal indictment. 

Cox was invited to present to the Senate committee on its first day of budget hearings, which Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said would last about a month. Nelson's initial proposed budget gives no money to the unit, which has requested $6.6 million to cover, among other responsibilities, public corruption cases. Nelson has said she does not believe those cases should be handled by the Travis County District Attorney's office.

Last month, Cox confirmed to reporters that his unit had decided to drop a number of criminal cases involving state government — including an investigation of contracting by the state police — following Perry's veto.

While the public integrity unit, or PIU, is best known for its work on high-profile cases involving Texas politicians, it spends more of its time in two other areas: insurance fraud and motor fuels tax fraud. Just 19 of the PIU’s 250 current cases would be classified as public corruption, Cox told lawmakers — and only one of those involves an elected official. Most involve state employees and “lower-level people.”

When state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, asked Cox if it would be possible to move the public corruption duties of the PIU to some sort of statewide agency, Cox said, "feasibly, yes.” Such an agency would only need about five employees or so, he said.

But he warned that “the venue issue” could be a challenge. The PIU is in the Travis County DA’s office because the county has original jurisdiction over offenses involving state government.

Huffman said she had consulted with legal experts who told her that the Legislature could give a state agency jurisdiction without amending the Texas Constitution.

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Courts Criminal justice Joan Huffman Rick Perry