*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect passage in the House and Senate
Texas politicians are on the verge of creating a new system for prosecuting a unique type of white-collar crime — the type that involves them.
Looking past criticism from watchdog groups, the House and Senate have approved legislation Saturday that would require elected officials and their staffers to be prosecuted in their home counties and escape initial investigation by local prosecutors based in the state capital.
The proposal was pushed by Republican legislators who fear they can’t get a fair trial in liberal Travis County, where Democrats control all of the county-wide posts, including the office of district attorney.
Both chambers on Saturday voted to send the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has called on legislators to “dedicate this session to ethics reform." The Republican has not yet publicly weighed in on the proposal.
The Senate's 20-11 vote came after just one brief exchange between lawmakers. The House debated the measure a bit longer, with Democrats raising their objections before approving it 96-51.
Critics, mostly Democrats and government watchdogs, say the bill stacks the deck in favor of lawmakers and sets up one system for average citizens and another one for people who hold elective office or work for someone who does.
“It’s a very poorly drafted bill in which legislators claim themselves and statewide elected officials as a privileged class,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “I think what we’ll see is that Texans’ faith in the integrity of public officials will be diminished when they realize the Legislature has carved out special rules for themselves.”
One of the chief architects of the reform, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Watson is the “only one who has a special privileged class” because he lives in Austin and, if he were to run afoul of anti-corruption laws, would be prosecuted and face any resulting trial in his home county.
“I think that voters will embrace this,” Huffman said. “I think they will understand it. I haven’t received any complaints so far about what we’ve set up. I think voters can understand that they would like to have the elected officials returned to the county.”
Under the bill, public corruption complaints against elected officials and state employees would no longer be directed to the Travis County district attorney’s office but instead would go to a new white-collar crimes division inside the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Critics say it’s a conflict of interest for politicians to be investigated by an agency whose budget they control, a move they say amounts to the “fox guarding the henhouse.”
But the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, says the state police are insulated by civil service protection from political heat that might come down from the governor or his appointees on the Department of Public Safety Commission.
Once the Rangers investigated, any referrals would be sent to the county of residence — defined as the place where this new class of defendants claims his or her homestead. For state employees who live in Austin, the prosecution would still take place here.
Examples of public corruption would include offenses such as bribery, misuse of campaign funds and official coercion.
King says hometown juries and prosecutors are likely to be far tougher on politicians who run afoul of the law than a district attorney in another county.
“I think people are going to be very pleased with how seriously and how thoroughly the Texas Rangers investigate these cases and then they’re going to turn them over to a DA. And we’ve got good, tough DAs across the state,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a very good system in that regard.”
But prosecutor Gregg Cox, the current head of the Travis County public integrity unit — who said he already stands to lose all of his state funding from this Legislature — told The Texas Tribune that the move will make it harder to prosecute state employees in some cases.
It could also lead to situations in which people are prosecuted in two different counties for the same underlying crime because offenses such as theft remain within the county where the offense occurred while others, such as tampering with government documents, do not.
An earlier version of the bill had removed state employees from the newly envisioned prosecutorial system, but they were put back in during negotiations behind closed doors. Now the bill lawmakers will consider will include both elected officials and state employees.
“It has set up a very inefficient system, and it’s taken away a very important tool from us in prosecuting state employees that steal,” Cox said. “It’s setting up a special class that I think is bad policy.”
Jim Malewitz contributed to this story.