The Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to legislation that would take the job of prosecuting lawmakers out of the hands of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
Much of the discussion in the Texas House of Representatives Monday afternoon sounded like a flashback to 2013, when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested and jailed for driving drunk. A Democrat in charge of the Travis County-based Public Integrity Unit, whose purview includes investigating public officials, Lehmberg was immediately pressured by Republicans to resign.
Gov. Rick Perry followed through on a threat to veto the agency's state funds if she refused, which eventually led to his own indictment on coercion and abuse of power charges in 2014. His case remains up in the air, and Republicans maintain the Public Integrity Unit has been marred by the politics of its directors.
"You've concentrated too much power in one person," State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) told House members Monday. After demanding Lehmberg's resignation in a speech on the House floor in 2013, King returned to the Texas Legislature in 2015 with House Bill 1690.
The bill would hand the job of investigating public officials to the Texas Rangers, an agency within the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Each official would be prosecuted by the district attorney of the county in which they reside.
"If someone commits a crime against the state, they're committing a crime against all the people of the state, and they should be tried before the people that actually put them in office," King said to KVUE. "Those are the people that are going to hold them most accountable and have to make the decision whether to send them back."
"What my concern is, is that your bill is driven by one particular prosecutor," State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) said during Monday's debate. "So we're going to dismantle a unit that we created that's worked for decades. It's never been partisan, in fact there's been more Democrats prosecuted by the Public Integrity Unit than there have been Republicans."
"This bill is about what is the proper way, what is the best way to remove politics and the concentration of power as far as possible from the criminal investigation and prosecution process and that's really what I'm trying to do here," King told Canales.
The bill was initially approved by a vote of 94-51 after a day of floor debate that resulted in the addition of a number of amendments. King told KVUE afterward that the most significant change was an amendment allowing holders of statewide office to be prosecuted in their original home district during their first term, but requiring them to update their residence -- likely to Travis County -- upon reelection.
Opponents warned changing the system could create conflicts of interest, such as politicians being prosecuted by friends. Another example is the prospect of Texas Rangers being asked to investigate the governor, to whom they report as an arm of the state's executive branch.
Lone Star Project director Matt Angle issued a statement following the vote accusing the bill of being "clearly crafted to protect public corruption rather than end it. King's bill is designed to shield corrupt public officials and agencies at the very time the media and others are exposing one public scandal after another involving personal profiteering and the misuse of millions in taxpayer dollars."
King suggests in the case of the governor's office, an investigation would be passed off to another law enforcement agency. An amendment accepted Monday would require a prosecutor with business ties to an official to excuse him or herself due to conflict of interest. How it will ultimately affect law and order for lawmakers remains to be seen.
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