On April 20, Texas republicans voted to protect themselves from ethics investigations, by placing “elected officials” into a special class of public entities that cannot be investigated by the state’s Public Integrity Unit.
Under House Bill 1690, The Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which was created to investigate political corruption, will no longer be able to investigate the state’s elected officials. The bill, which was introduced by republican Phil King, was passed 94-51, along party lines.
The bill will prevent the Public Integrity Unit from investigating members of the state House and Senate, and protect them from being prosecuted anywhere except in the communities that elected them. While the unit will still have authority to investigate public agencies, it will no longer handle investigations of political corruption carried out by elected officials. Instead, the Texas Rangers, a branch of the state’s Department of Public Safety, will be in charge of investigating elected officials.
How will that work out for state republicans? Well, the Texas Department of Public Safety is headed up by a five member commission, all appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the republican controlled senate.
The state’s Public Integrity Unit, which has been in charge of investigating political corruption since the 1980’s, has long been on the radar of Texas republicans. Last year, the state’s right wing governor, Rick Perry, was indicted by a Grand Jury for abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant, after he attempted to use the power of office to defund the same public integrity unit, solely for his own political gain. In January, a state judge refused to drop the charges against Perry, who now faces up to 109 years in prison for his actions as governor.
The charges stem from Perry’s attempt to force the resignation of Rosemary Lehmberg, the democrat who was elected District Attorney in Travis County, and therefore heads up the Public Integrity Unit. After Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving, Perry demanded her resignation, and promised to veto funding for the unit if she refused to resign – a threat he later followed through with. Had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have had the opportunity to appoint her replacement. While details of the case against Perry have yet to be fully disclosed to the public, a Grand Jury which heard all of the evidence in the case chose to indict the now-former governor on both the abuse and coercion charges.
While republicans claim that the Public Integrity Unit engages in partisan “witch hunts,” the facts say something else. Between 1978, when the unit began operating, and 2008, when the unit’s founder retired, 19 elected officials were prosecuted. Just five of them were republican.
In February, prior to the state Senate’s passing of a similar bill, the head of the Public Integrity Unit spoke to the Senate Committee. Greg Cox, unit director, told the republican dominated senate that there is no other agency in the state that can handle the work that the Public Integrity Unit carries out.
While I’m sure this information was meant to dissuade them from passing the bill, the truth is it probably gave them an even greater incentive to do so.
According to the Texas Observer:
“Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.”
It seems likely that republican politicians had already figured that out, and it’s reason they wrote it into the bill in the first place.
The recently passed House bill now goes to the state Senate, which has already passed a bill that mirrors this one.
Those opposing the legislation, including a few republicans, spoke out against the actions of their colleagues. State Representative David Simpson urged his republican counterparts not to create a “special protected class for us as elected officials.” He went on to say that the bill treats Texas politicians differently from ordinary citizens, who face prosecution in whatever district the crime is committed. Democratic Senator Kirk Watson, who voted against the measure when it came before the Senate, made similar statements about Texas republicans putting themselves into a protected class. “Most people don’t get to be tried by a hometown judge, a hometown jury and a hometown prosecutor,” Watson said.
But Texas republicans already are a privileged class, especially since they have the power to decide when, where, how, and by whom they can be investigated or prosecuted for their crimes. Once HB 1690 clears the Senate, which it undoubtedly will, all that’s left is for right wing governor Greg Abbot to sign on the dotted line.
Here’s more on the work of the Public Integrity Unit from kxan, via youtube.