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Analysis: Bickering Over Investigations, With a Legislative Audience

As the Texas Legislature debates moving ethics investigations out of Travis County, an exchange between prosecutors and state police illustrates some of the problems ahead.

Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Steve McCraw gives testimony during the joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking in La Joya, Texas July 24th, 2014

Most of us would be delighted to find out that the local grand juries have dropped our cases. Not Steve McCraw. He even suggested that his agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, might pay for it.

But while it was strange enough to see the head of the state police asking prosecutors to resume their investigations of alleged irregularities in the DPS’s border security contracts, it was stranger still to see the “Thank you, no” letter from the prosecutors.

Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit at the Travis County district attorney’s office, told McCraw — they’re writing letters to each other and sharing them with news outlets — that his office doesn’t have the staff to help with the DPS investigation. And he thanked the state’s top cop for “highlighting this issue in such a public way,” and suggested state legislators consider the problem while they’re still in town.

McCraw’s letter from last week was addressed to Cox, and Cox’s letter this week was addressed to McCraw, but the state’s elected officials are the real audience for both of them.

McCraw wants his agency’s name unsullied, especially with lawmakers willing to drop hundreds of millions into the border security operations that have lately overshadowed DPS’s traditional work.

Cox heads an important and much-derided office that prosecutes state officials suspected of breaking the law.

And the plotline has a twist: The Texas House voted tentatively on Monday to move the ethics functions of the public integrity unit to the Texas Rangers — from Cox’s office to McCraw’s.

In his letter, McCraw asked the integrity unit to restart it investigation of one particular border security contract at DPS.

“Because you and others have made this contract a cause celeb, we would request that you finish your job and complete your investigation,” McCraw wrote. Further down in the letter, he added, “We will also consult with state leadership to determine if the elements of an offense are present or not.”

That’s just one contract. The DA’s office dropped several investigations of contracting at DPS after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the state’s funding of the public integrity unit in 2013. Without the $7.5 million from the state, the unit had to figure out which cases to pursue and which ones to drop. Cox, who runs the unit, told The Texas Tribune in January that it sent some tax cases back to the state comptroller, some insurance cases back to the Texas Department of Insurance, just let go of some others that were not fully developed.

The DPS cases — including the one referred by McCraw — were in that last bunch. “It needed more work,” Cox said three months ago. “There were multiple cases and they were at different stages, all involving DPS contracting issues. One went to the grand jury, and more information was needed before we could present it again. Another needed some work before we could present it. One was really at an earlier stage.”

Two other things stuck out in that January interview. First, Cox said he had seen nothing to suggest that the governor had any idea of what particular cases might be affected by his veto. Perry was later indicted by a Travis County grand jury under the direction of a special prosecutor unaffiliated with the district attorney in connection with that veto. The governor faces charges he used the veto in an illegal attempt to force District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign from her elected position after she was jailed for drunken driving. Perry and his lawyers are still trying to get those charges erased.

Second, and Cox repeated this in his letter to McCraw this week, investigations are most often done by other agencies that bring their results to prosecutors and to grand juries, which then decide whether the allegations are substantial enough to take to trial.

So that’s the situation. The Travis County folks don’t have the money or the staff to look into the DPS contracts — or a lot of other things. Legislators wearied by the long criminal case against Tom DeLay and others involving Republicans are trying to wrestle the integrity unit from the district attorney elected in one of the state’s most reliably liberal counties. And the Texas Rangers might find themselves with a conflict of interest investigating contracts between private companies and their own agency.

“It is very timely that you should choose now to write me a letter pointing out that there is no other agency in state government that is equipped to investigation allegations concerning your department,” Cox wrote.

Timely indeed: The Texas Legislature will be in session for six more weeks.


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