Ignoring calls for a veto, Gov. Greg Abbott signed controversial legislation this week that will allow elected and appointed state officials and state employees to bypass Austin prosecutors when they are accused of public corruption.
Abbott, a Republican, signed the bill Thursday without making a statement or staging a public signing ceremony. His press office did not respond to requests for comment left via email and over the phone.
The unique carve-out for politicians and state employees drew fire throughout the recently concluded session of the Texas Legislature. John Courage, state chairman of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, said he believes the bill is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court by various watchdog groups.
“They’ve set up a separate legal process for the legislators,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. A normal person would be tried in the location where they committed the offense and not the legislators. It’s just an unfair, unbalanced system.”
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.
Under the law, which takes effect Sept. 1, public corruption complaints against elected officials and state employees will no longer be directed to the Travis County district attorney’s office but instead will go to a new white-collar crimes division inside the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The politicians and others — from the governor on down — would face any resulting prosecution in their counties of residence, defined as the place where they claim homesteads, rather than enduring the traditional route of facing trial in the county where the crime was allegedly committed.
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.” The state historically provided some but not all of the funding for the public integrity unit in Travis County; it provides all of the funding for the Texas Rangers. Opponents also say moving the trial to the county where the elected officials declare their homestead will create a “home field advantage.”
"This is the end of unbiased prosecution of elected officials," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. Smith said the bill could have unintended consequences by giving ambitious prosecutors a motive to go after elected officials they don't like. He said "Tea Party purists," for example, could use the new law to target moderate Republicans and "create opportunities for their political buddies."
The politicians who wrote the legislation — and now will be impacted by it — said the state police are insulated by civil service protection from any political heat that might come down from the governor or his appointees on the Department of Public Safety Commission. And they said hometown prosecutors and juries could deal with them more harshly than those in the state capital.