Analysis: Moving Integrity Unit Won't Curb Conflicts

Legislators frustrated and angry with public corruption prosecutions in Travis County want to move them somewhere else. But the problems are likely to tag along: It's always hard to prosecute the people who pay for the prosecutors.

Anybody who suggests that a state officeholder is a dirty rotten so-and-so is sure to be called a dirty rotten so-and-so in return. That's just the way things work. 

It’s why it is so difficult to find a truly neutral office to work on state corruption cases: One person’s oversight is another person’s conflict of interest.

Some state lawmakers are unhappy with the public integrity unit, which is housed in the Travis County district attorney’s office. They want to take its state money away and give some other office the job of prosecuting state officials for ethics and campaign finance violations. Republicans, who control state government and therefore are more likely these days to be charged with corrupting it, contend the Travis County gang is packed with Democrats who have partisan motives for their prosecutions. When Democrats ruled the land, their rap was that the Travis County gang was trying to undermine anyone in state politics who wasn’t part of the Travis County gang.

Maybe they were all correct and the unit ought to be moved. Relocation of it is front and center this legislative session. 

But relocation is like putting someone new into the dunking booth: It’s difficult to remain independent while policing the same public officials who provide your funding. It is hard to justify spending on independent prosecutors when you think those prosecutors are not doing their jobs.

Moving the unit simply means lawmakers can get mad at someone else for a while.

Phil King, a former police officer who is now a lawyer and a Republican state representative from Weatherford, wants to create a special prosecutor appointed by the state Supreme Court to handle public integrity prosecutions after investigations by the Texas Rangers. His House Bill 1690 would give that prosecutor the power to bring in someone other than the Rangers to investigate cases where they might have a conflict of interest — and accused officials would be tried in their home counties. The bill is safely out of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee but hasn’t been scheduled for consideration by the full House.

But the problems exist no matter where you put this thing. The Texas Rangers are part of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until Gov. Rick Perry vetoed its funding in 2013, the public integrity unit was investigating complaints about state contracts at DPS, according to Assistant Travis County District Attorney Gregg Cox. Those cases were never fully developed, which is why they were on the list of things let go when the state funding dried up. Still, anyone can see the potential for conflict.

Joan Huffman, a former state district judge who is now a Republican senator from Houston, has her own legislation, Senate Bill 10, that would move the entire unit to the attorney general’s office, including its jurisdiction over state tax and insurance fraud cases. The AG would hand the cases over to the Texas Rangers, who could then hand them to accused officials’ home county or district attorneys. That’s been voted out by the Senate State Affairs Committee and is a vote or two short of what’s required to bring it up for debate in the full Senate.

That has problems of its own. An ethics investigator in the AG’s office would have been in an uncomfortable position from time to time over the last few decades, investigating one boss or another.

Jim Mattox was acquitted of commercial bribery charges brought by the public integrity unit. Dan Morales went to federal prison for lying on loan documents and his income taxes — charges that grew out of an investigation of his dealings with outside lawyers in the state’s litigation against big tobacco companies. Some of them are merely ambitious, in a business where a well-timed prosecution could take out a potential competitor. It's a solid launching pad without this proposed leverage: John Hill ran for governor and lost; Mark White ran and won; John Cornyn is in the U.S. Senate; Greg Abbott is now the governor.

Abbott’s successor is Ken Paxton, a former state legislator elected to the office after a tough Republican primary and a relatively easy general election last year. No telling what he wants to do next, but if history is any guide, he’ll run for something.

Perhaps. Paxton is also the target of persistent complaints from opponents about his own alleged transgressions. He paid a fine to the Texas State Securities Board after it found out he had referred law clients to a particular financial adviser without telling those clients he was being paid for the referral, and without registering — as required by state law — as an agent.

No charges have arisen from that, but some of the complaints landed with prosecutors in Travis County, who decided not to proceed and who said that case, which did not involve Paxton in his official capacity, would be better handled by local prosecutors in Dallas and Collin counties. Dallas passed on it, and Collin County’s district attorney is a Paxton ally and sometimes business partner. That’s not over yet; in fact, The Dallas Morning News editorialized last week for appointment of a special prosecutor for Paxton.

Legislators can’t get away from the conflicts of interest here — those are baked in. This is just a matter of deciding which conflicts they can stomach.