INTEGRITY UNIT OVERHAUL GETS INITIAL APPROVAL
|Senator Joan Huffman of Southside Place authored the bill to move the Public Integrity Unit to the Department of Public Safety.|
(AUSTIN) — The Senate tentatively passed a bill Wednesday that would take the responsibility for investigating public corruption cases out of the Travis County DA's office and give it to the Texas Rangers. The Public Integrity Unit has been embroiled in controversy since Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving in 2013. Then-Governor Rick Perry used his line item veto to zero out funding for the PIU after Lehmberg refused to resign. Without state funding, the future of the office tasked with investigating public officials and employees accused of corruption was up in the air until Travis County appropriated some money for the PIU to continue limited operations.
When the Senate laid out its version of the state budget in late January it appropriated no funds for the PIU. Finance Chair and principal budget author Jane Nelson said that while the functions of the office were critical, it shouldn't be located in Austin. "I think it's too political," she said. Nelson said the Senate budget would fund the office, but only after deciding where it should be located.
The bill that passed its first vote Wednesday would place that office under the Department of Public Safety, with the Texas Rangers tasked with investigating allegations of public corruption. Since its inception in the mid-1980's, the PIU has operated under the assumption that all crimes by public officials can be assumed to have taken place in Travis County, said bill author Senator Joan Huffman of Southside Place. "After more than three decades of accepting this cultural norm, the public has lost confidence in this tacit scheme, and Texas needs a fair and explicit process to hold wrongdoers accountable," said Huffman.
Under her bill, SB 10, the Texas Rangers would lead each initial investigation into allegations of public corruption. The case would then be referred to the District Attorney that the accused calls home. The local DA could request that the PIU continue to aid in the investigation as it moves forward, and he or she would have the authority to end the investigation due to lack of evidence. "[SB 10] finally creates a process for the state of Texas to de-politicize the process by which we hold our public officials accountable while placing that decision to hold them accountable in the hands of more voters than just one county," said Huffman. The bill will likely face a final vote later in the week.
Also Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee voted out its version of the budget bill, unanimously approving a $211 billion plan to pay for state services for the next two years. Nelson said she intends to bring the bill before the full Senate early next week. The House passed its version of the budget last week. Once the Senate passes its budget, five members of each chamber will be appointed to reconcile differences between the two bills. The final product will then be presented to both bodies for a final vote.
The Senate will reconvene Thursday, April 9 at 11 a.m.