House Panel Refers Witness Registration Inquiry to Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers will investigate allegations that witnesses were improperly registered to testify on a bill banning red light cameras at a transportation committee hearing last week.

State Rep. John Kuempel (center), R-Seguin, pauses during debate on the local and consent calendar on May 13, 2011.

The Texas Rangers will investigate allegations that witnesses were improperly registered to testify last week on a bill banning red light cameras at a House Transportation Committee hearing.

The House General Investigating and Ethics Committee voted Thursday evening to refer the investigation to the Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last week, the committee's chairman, state Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, announced plans to look into the situation.

"The integrity of our committee process depends on reliable and accurate witness information," Kuempel said Thursday evening. 

During a Thursday night hearing of the House Transportation Committee, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the committee's chairman, and state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, got into an argument as Stickland presented House Bill 142, which would ban red light cameras. Pickett ordered Stickland to leave the hearing and accused Stickland of listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his legislation.

Following last week's hearing, Pickett expressed his concerns about "the integrity of the process" to Kuempel.

After meeting for about two hours in executive session Thursday, Kuempel made a motion for the Texas Rangers to investigate the allegations involving improper witness submissions at the Transportation Committee hearing and report back to the General Investigating and Ethics Committee. The committee approved the motion.

The move represents the latest effort by lawmakers to give the Texas Rangers more authority into investigating allegations of impropriety in state government. The Legislature has also considered a proposal this session to move the state's public integrity unit, which investigates public corruption cases, from the Travis County district attorney’s office to the Texas Rangers.

Legislative rules require witnesses who want to participate in a hearing to be physically in the room. They must register through electronic kiosks outside the hearing rooms. Witnesses invited by the committee can arrange to testify remotely.

In a statement to supporters this week, Stickland stood by his actions and said that his attorneys had reviewed applicable laws, rules and legislative manuals and "have been unable to locate anything that commands that a person must be present in the Capitol to register their support or opposition to a bill."