If embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is prosecuted for misusing government funds, his trial would be in Travis County, officials said Friday, despite a new law that sends some corruption cases against state officials and employees to their home counties.
Before December, the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney's office investigated and prosecuted alleged corruption by state officials and employees. House Bill 1690 changed that, moving investigation of accusations such as bribery, gifts to public servants, perjury and tampering with government records to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under the new law, charges can be brought in the official or employee's home county.
The Rangers are investigating Miller for two February 2015 trips he reportedly took on the state's dime. Liberal advocacy group Progress Texas requested an investigation into Miller's state-paid trips, following reports that he participated in a rodeo and received an injection called the "Jesus Shot" while he was supposed to be on the job.
But if Miller's case leads to a prosecution, it wouldn't be heard in his home county of Erath because the events in question occurred before the new law took effect in December, officials from DPS and the Travis County district attorney's office told the Tribune.
Lawmakers created the home county provision last legislative session because of concerns that Republican members couldn't get a fair trial in liberal Travis County.
Democrats and watchdog groups argued that the bill would give special treatment to state officials, particularly lawmakers, and throw a lifeline to embattled ones. State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, one of the leaders on the legislation, said it allows for accountability.
"This provision was added to make the elected official more accountable to the people who elected them," she said.
The new law takes only a few cases out of the hands of the Travis County district attorney's office, said Gregg Cox, director of the office's public integrity unit.
The most common cases the office investigates and prosecutes involve charges of theft by a public servant and other fraud offenses, and most state employees in those cases already live in Travis County, Cox said. Fraud offenses are not grouped with the ones that the Rangers will exclusively investigate going forward.
"We still see almost all of the cases we would have seen anyway," he said. "My guess is the bill will probably pull one or two cases a year away from us at the most."
In Miller's case, it's unclear what offenses, if any, the Rangers might conclude he committed, Cox said.