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The effect of the law that was supposed to cripple the Public Integrity Unit

Never tempt the weauxf gods. Or the Senate Republicans.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Nearly a year after Texas Republicans cheered the passage of a law to strip the Travis County Public Integrity Unit’s power to investigate elected officials and state employees, the unit’s director says little actually has changed.

Though the law took away the unit’s authority to prosecute officials who do not live in Travis County for government misconduct, including bribery, perjury and abuse of office, director Gregg Cox said he has found that the myriad other charges still under the authority of the unit are more than enough for him to take on virtually any case of alleged public corruption.

“We have opened new fraud cases against state employees. … We have not had any cases come to us that we weren’t able to take. … We have not closed any investigations,” Cox said. “The bill changed nothing for us. No impact at all.”

As an example, Cox cited the 2011 case of former state Rep. Joe Driver, who pleaded guilty to taking state-funded reimbursements for travel paid by his campaign. Driver pleaded guilty to abuse of office, a crime that the new law said the Travis County Public Integrity Unit now could not prosecute.

Cox, however, said the representative instead could have been charged with theft, which is not mentioned in the new law.

“A lot of cases are like that,” said Cox, who added that the new law also maintained his unit’s special authority to prosecute any alleged tax or insurance fraud in the state.

[…]

To be sure, everything is not exactly the same at the Travis County Public Integrity Unit’s office on the second floor of a county building a couple of blocks from the state Capitol.

The crimes specified in new law, although rare, are controversial, meaning the change has all but ensured that the most scandalous cases will be tried in the hometowns of the defendants rather than automatically in Travis County.

In addition, the 2013 removal of state funding, coupled with more recent county budget cuts, has lowered the unit’s staff from 35 three years ago to 17 last year to a current team of six full-time employees and four people shared with other parts of the district attorney’s office.

The lack of resources has led the unit to drastically cut back on its prosecution of insurance crimes and tax fraud, including those related to the motor fuels tax, Cox said.

It also has forced the unit to transfer another law enforcement agency its well-publicized investigation into a no-bid contract given by the state health commission to Austin technology company 21CT, among other moves.

Still, at least one sponsor of the Public Integrity Unit legislation said she was surprised to hear how it has turned out.

“I would hope that the Travis County district attorney’s office would follow the spirit of the law and what the clear intention of the Legislature was,” said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who said lawmakers will review the new system to ensure the legislation is working.

Gotta say, I’m not sure what David Cox is trying to accomplish here, waving the red flag in front of the bull like that. Seems to me he’d be much better off talking about how it’s never been a better time to cheat the state out of motor fuels tax revenue, right when the local economy is flagging and sales tax revenues are down. Same thing for insurance fraud. But bragging about how this law that Republicans have been trying to pass for a decade has been useless because your office can pull lawyerly tricks to get around its wording? Yes, I know, every law professor in the state agrees that you have the discretion to do that and all, but still. Doesn’t seem like smart strategy to me. When a new bill to gut the Public Integrity Unit further advances out of the Senate in 2017, I’m sure it will seem that way to David Cox as well.

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