Senate Backs Bill That Would Relocate Public Integrity Unit

The Texas Senate has preliminarily passed a bill that would move the state’s public integrity unit from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers.

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, speaks during a Texas Tribune event on Jan. 12, 2015.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

The Texas Senate has preliminarily passed a bill that would move the state’s public integrity unit from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers. 

Senate Bill 10, filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, passed on second reading along party lines. The integrity unit is currently a state-funded division of the Travis County DA’s office that investigates public corruption, insurance fraud and tax fraud. Some Republicans have said the unit has had partisan motives for its prosecutions.

"Moving the Public Integrity Unit will help restore its accountability and the public's trust," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement after the Senate's vote. "It is important and befitting that any alleged unlawful activity by a public official be investigated in their jurisdiction and adjudicated by their constituents."

SB 10 must be voted on one more time before it passes from the Senate to the House. 

In addition to moving the public integrity unit from the Travis County DA's office, the bill would allow lawmakers and state employees to face prosecution in their home counties for alleged crimes committed in Travis County. On Wednesday in the Senate, Huffman said the public had lost confidence in the unit. 

"I firmly believe it will be a better process, and there will be more accountability," Huffman said. 

The bill had originally put the unit under the attorney general’s office, but a substitute to the bill removed the AG’s office from the process and gave the Texas Rangers sole authority to pursue investigations. 

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the bill gave lawmakers a special privilege of facing prosecution in their home counties.

“I believe this bill has created a special class of people that has the opportunity to go back to their hometown county, hometown judge and hometown prosecutor,” Watson said.

He also said the bill could allow lawmakers to face their prosecution in any county where they own property. Huffman said that was not the bill’s intent.

Gregg Cox, the public integrity unit’s director, told The Texas Tribune last week that many issues arise when people misunderstand what the unit does. 

“Everyone thinks we have statewide jurisdiction and that we do our investigations,” Cox said. "Not true. We have statewide authority with respect to certain types of insurance fraud and state tax fraud and that's it." 

As for political or state employee corruption, the unit steps in if the alleged crime occurs inside Travis County, he said. 

“We only investigate if the offense occurred here,” Cox said. 

Terri Langford contributed to this report.