State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Spring, makes a good point when talking about the bill she filed Friday on the Public Integrity Unit, which prosecutes cases of alleged official misconduct by state officials and employees.
“It needs to be about integrity, not politics,” Riddle told the Houston Chronicle.
Still, there’s good reason to question whether Riddle’s bill would further the goal of pushing politics — or the perception of political motives — out of these prosecutions.
The Public Integrity Unit has been a state-funded part of the Travis County district attorney’s office in Austin since 1982. It also prosecutes cases of insurance fraud and compliance with the motor fuels tax.
Riddle would move the funding to the state attorney general’s office, although cases would be brought in the county in which the accused person resides. District attorneys there would be required to assist when asked.
Some Republican officials, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, long have seen political bias in the Travis County unit’s prosecutions. Travis County is predominantly Democratic.
Longtime Travis DA Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, established the unit and said before he retired in 2008 he had prosecuted 19 elected officials, only five of whom were Republicans.
But the controversy surged anew in August. An Austin grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on charges that he abused his office in 2013 when he vetoed the unit’s $7.5 million in state funding in an attempt to get DA Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign.
Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving in April 2013, pleaded guilty and was jailed for three weeks. Her term ends in December 2016.
Many Republicans see Perry’s case as political persecution, but the case itself has been handled by a Republican judge and a publicly unaffiliated special prosecutor, both from San Antonio.
Nothing about the attorney general’s office guards it from accusations or the reality of political bias. In fact, the AG’s primary role is on behalf of state agencies, leaving the office open to allegations that it overlooks its clients’ wrongdoing.
The AG’s office does not currently prosecute criminal cases. Giving it that role is a step Texas should not take.