Former Gov. Rick Perry is still trying to fight off the indictment returned against him seven months ago by an Austin grand jury, and the charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant have become the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for Republicans in the Legislature.
They are determined to defang the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office.
The unit prosecuted cases of alleged corruption in state government, powered by state funding from 1982 until 2013. Then Perry vetoed the $7.5 million, two-year appropriation and ensnared himself in allegations that he did so illegally.
The Senate could consider as early as Monday a bill to reconstitute the unit, move it to the attorney general’s office and set up a complicated system to move these cases out of Democrat-dominated Travis County.
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State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the author of Senate Bill 10, says the goal is to be more fair to officials and state employees who are accused of wrongdoing.
Huffman, a former prosecutor, has been working hard on the bill. But what she’s done is not enough.
If the problem is that Democratic prosecutors in Travis County have been overly zealous and political in pursuit of Republican officeholders, SB10 swings too far the other way and is vulnerable to political cronyism and coverups.
Discussions early in the session about moving these cases out of Travis County included suggestions that voter approval through a constitutional amendment would be needed.
After all, Travis County is home to most state agencies and statewide elected officials, and these cases usually stem from things that happen there. In Texas, most alleged crimes are prosecuted in the place where they occur.
Huffman’s bill circumvents that, and she believes this can happen without the bother — and required two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate — of a constitutional amendment.
It’s not at all clear that she’s right.
Under SB 10, all allegations of official misconduct would first go to the new Public Integrity Unit in the AG’s office for investigation.
If the unit determines that there is reasonable cause to believe an offense has been committed, that would have to be confirmed by a Texas Ranger assigned to the unit.
If the Ranger agrees, the matter would be referred to the district attorney in the official’s home county, or where that official last lived before moving to Austin.
That’s where the danger of cronyism comes in. What are the odds that the DA in the home county would be buddies with the accused official? Pretty high, you’d think.
The DA would have the option to bow out of the case, but it’s not required. If it does happen, the presiding judge in that judicial district would name a new prosecutor.
The bill says if charges are brought, they would go to a grand jury and possible jury trial in the official’s home county.
Huffman says the folks back home are more likely to administer justice to someone they’ve elected.
Maybe, but appearances are important. Anything but a harsh sentence would bring talk of favoritism.
Finally, the bill obstructs the properly elected Travis County DA from carrying out the duties of that office. He or she would have no power to bring a misconduct case, no matter that the alleged offense occurred in Austin, without approval from the AG’s Public Integrity Unit and its Texas Ranger.
SB 10 needs more work. The Senate should not take it up until the bill’s flaws are fixed.