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Travis County Can't Stop Privately Funded Prosecutions

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt blasted the funding deal that allows a giant insurance company to pay for criminal prosecutions of its fraud cases, but said Tuesday that the Commissioners Court is powerless to stop it.

Travis County District Attorney's office in Austin, Texas.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt blasted the funding deal that allows a giant insurance company to pay for criminal prosecutions of its fraud cases, but said Tuesday that the Commissioners Court is powerless to stop it.

“I think that arrangement is highly suspect and a complete derogation of the duties of the state to ensure that our workers' compensation system is fair,” said Eckhardt, a Democrat. “That is the law, however, and I think this Commissioners Court should continue to pursue a better system from our state.”

Eckhardt and the commissioners met in executive session Tuesday to discuss the contract between privately-held Texas Mutual Insurance and the office of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, an arrangement revealed by The Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman after a six-month investigation. After emerging from behind closed doors, the Commissioners Court took no action, which puts the ball back in Lehmberg’s court.

Lehmberg, a Democrat, remained tight-lipped, saying only, “we have a lot of work to do.” But Eckhardt said Lehmberg and Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, who oversees the privately-funded unit, “are keenly interested in negotiating in a much higher degree of transparency than is currently in there.” 

The contract between the company and the district attorney’s office is up for renewal on Oct. 1. Texas Mutual declined comment Tuesday.

Under the arrangement, allowed under a decades-old state law, Texas Mutual Insurance pays more than $400,000 a year to fund a special unit in the Travis DA’s office dedicated to prosecuting acts of fraud against the company.

Several local elected officials have criticized the deal and called for reforms, saying the cozy arrangement between government prosecutors and a private company at a minimum creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Eckhardt said Lehmberg wanted the county to treat the contract with Texas Mutual as if it were any other county contract — meaning it would be negotiated and approved by the Commissioners Court. But the Commissioners Court did not choose to take oversight of the contract, leaving the next move up to Lehmberg. 

Eckhardt said the blame for the funding deal lies with the Texas Legislature for creating a “truly stinky” law that specifically authorizes the arrangement.

“This is a pay to play set-up by the Texas Legislature,” Eckhardt said. “The Texas Legislature has put this power at the discretion of Texas Mutual Insurance. TMI gets to ask a prosecutor to the dance.”

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

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