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District Attorney Hopeful Criticizes Privately Funded Prosecutions

Gary Cobb, a candidate for Travis County district attorney, vowed to seek changes to the unusual deal allowing a giant insurance company to pay for fraud prosecutions, as highlighted in a series of reports by The Texas Tribune and Austin American-Statesman.

By Jay Root, The Texas Tribune, and Tony Plohetski, Austin American-Statesman
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A top candidate for Travis County district attorney promised Tuesday to seek alternatives to a controversial funding deal allowing a giant insurance company to pay the government for fraud prosecutions. 

Gary Cobb, an assistant district attorney in Austin, joined other officials who have expressed concerns about the unusual and cozy partnership between Texas Mutual Insurance and the district attorney’s office, exposed in a series of reports by The Texas Tribune and Austin American-Statesman.

“I want to be very clear that I also have concerns about this issue,” Cobb said. “While I understand the need for additional funding to ensure that fraudulent criminals are brought to justice, we should consider alternative arrangements and funding sources to reach this objective.”

The Tribune and the Statesman reported that the company has authorized payments of about $4.7 million under its contract with the district attorney’s office since 2001, when Texas Mutual became a stand-alone mutual insurance company. 

Both the company and the district attorney's office say state law and their contract guarantee that prosecutors retain their discretion and independence. 

But in recent days several Travis County elected officials have expressed surprise and concern about the privately funded prosecutions.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, a Democrat, said Monday she had put an item on the Travis County Commissioners Court’s Sept. 22 agenda to discuss the court’s responsibility and authority, if any, relating to the contract between the insurer and the district attorney’s office. 

Also, Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin, who has championed efforts in the Legislature to rein in the power of insurance companies, said he wants to review the deal when lawmakers meet in 2017.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, added his voice to the chorus this week, saying the issues raised by the Tribune and Statesman “rise to the level of where the Legislature, and I’m talking specifically about the House, should take a look at this.”

Naishtat said he would support including an interim study of the issue before the Legislature reconvenes.

“I join state legislators and county representatives who have stated that we should seek state funding to eliminate the need for this type of relationship,” Cobb, a Democrat, said in his press release. “Most importantly, I want be very clear that as DA, I will do things differently. It is not enough to say to the citizens of Travis County, ‘trust us.’ We have to earn our credibility and then we have to keep it.”  

Without providing any detail, Cobb spoke of “mistakes” made by the district attorney's office in recent years and promised to make changes if elected. If Cobb takes the helm after the 2016 elections, he would replace District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges in 2013 and served 22 days in jail. Lehmberg is not seeking re-election.

“I am ready to lead this office in a new direction and to ensure that transparency and integrity are foremost in everything we do,” Cobb said.

Disclosure: Texas Mutual Insurance is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Editor's note: Tony Plohetski is a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

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