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Be careful what you wish for

As noted yesterday, Republicans in Texas are once again threatening to remove the power to investigate election code violations from the Travis County District Attorney’s office to the Attorney General, presumably on the theory that they won’t have to worry so much about the fine points of corporate campaign cash with a fellow traveller in charge of enforcement. Partisan interests aside, I think there’s actually a decent case to be made for this. For one thing, the AG shouldn’t have any of the jurisdictional problems that Ronnie Earle faces:

The election code allows Earle to prosecute Colyandro because he lives in Austin. It also gives Earle jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. But because Craddick and DeLay live in Texas, but outside of Travis County, their local district attorneys would have jurisdiction over election code violations.

Earle could argue for jurisdiction in Craddick’s case if he has a dual residence. It’s unclear if the speaker’s apartment provided in the Capitol would qualify.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that any Republicans who believe this change would eliminate what Henry Bonilla called the crackpot district attorney problem are being naive. Have we ever had a non-ambitious Attorney General in Texas? John Cornyn is now a Senator. Dan Morales ran for Governor. Jim Mattox ran for Senate. Greg Abbott is rumored to have his eye on David Dewhurst’s job. What’s a good way for an AG with aspirations to make a name for himself or herself? How about collecting the scalps of a few corrupt politicians? I think that’d play pretty well in whatever our equivalent of Peoria is. Why would any self-respecting Crusader for Justice pass up that opportunity?

Even if (God forbid) the Republican Party remains the only game in town at the state level for the next generation or so, I don’t think this will be the panacea they’re hoping for. Sure, the current AG would never have touched the TRMPAC case, but that’s because he’s up to his eyeballs in conflicted interests. Will that be true for the next scandal, or the next AG? And again, remember the nature of people who run for Attorney General. When the chips are down, their own ambition will trump the greater good of their party and its image. I think that will be even more true in the one-party-state scenario, since taking down a colleague may be the only way to create a job opening.

No, if the Republicans want to make sure that no one ever gets in trouble for throwing around corporate campaign contributions again, their best bet is to decriminalize it, as they’re also talking about doing. I think (I could be wrong here) that would necessitate a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by the voters in a referendum. I can just imagine how that puppy would get marketed – “Buying access: It’s not just a good idea, it ought to be the law!” Do you think they’d also remove the adjoining restriction on donations from unions, or will they simply tell us that corporate cash is Good and labor cash is Bad? I’d better stock up on batteries for my Unintentional Comedy Meter just in case.

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  1. R. Alex says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m no fan of the Majority Leader and honestly couldn’t care less if he’s tossed out of office and thrown in the slammer if he’s guilty. But it has seemed odd to me that Earle has been in charge of the investigation of a Houston congressman’s dealings in Washington. The best answer, it seems to me, is to give it to someone that can clearly have jurisdiction over it. The first thing this would accomplish is accountability (if an AG goes after someone of the opposite party and the people are duly outraged, his political career is at risk) and second legitimacy. To whatever degree that Earle’s investigation is legitimate, his position as the Democratic DA of a Democratic County gives the GOP something to hide behind and paint it all as partisan witchhunting. Honestly, it’s politically easy for a Travis County DA to go after a Republican house leader because he doesn’t have anything to fear from his voters, who uniformly dislike DeLay, so when Republicans say that it’s a witchhunt that accusation (true or not) becomes more credible. It gives those of us in the GOP that are not fans of the Majority Leader pause. Put it in the DA’s hands, and I don’t care whether the DA is Greg Abbot or Jim Maddox, and it instantly has more credibility because the DA can be held accountable by Texans and the legitimacy of the investigation is not so much up to dispute.

  2. John Hill says:

    I’d like someone to explain why Earle can’t get around the jurisdictional restriction through a charge of conspiracy.

    RICO prosecutors use this all the time, as did government attorneys targeting anti-war activists in the 1960’s. It’s a catch-all legal strategy.

    If the actions of the conspiracy to break Texas election law law took place in Austin, as it appears they did, why can’t he prosecute anyone/thing that participated in that conspiracy given his power under the constitution?

    Sears and the other 7 corporate defendants don’t have thier HQ’s in Austin, so how’d they rate an indictment?

    Any lawyers wanna please give this a shot?

  3. kevin whited says:

    Alex: Guilty of what? Have I missed an indictment while out drinking tonight?

    All: Who cares about the motivations — does it make sense to move this power from a parochial AG to the state AG. I agree with Charles that it does (or at least that there’s a decent case to be made for it).

  4. Oh, Sarah! says:

    The Public Integrity Uit was orginally housed in the Travis County DA’s office precisely to avoid the problems that prevailed and would again if R. Alex’s recommendations were ever adopted.

    The argument that the DA is not held accountable by voters is wrong-headed. Of course he is, just as the Attorney General is.

    Stripping authority away from the DA and giving it to Greg Abbott, whose own political consultant is at the heart of the current criminal grand jury investigation, is a bad idea.

  5. R. Alex says:

    Kevin, I never said it was indicted nor did I say he was guilty of anything. I did say that “if he is guilty”, by which I meant the charges that have been levelled at DeLay by his political opponents.

    Sarah, the Travis County DA is only politically accountable to a small set of non-representative voters while the State AG is politically accountable to the entire state. One can make the argument that “political accountability” can deter objectivity and fairness (in the name of political expediency), but that is essentially the same argument that gave rise to Ken Starr in the 90’s (it didn’t matter how unpopular he was, so in essence it didn’t matter what he did). But the variables in accountability to the Travis County DA (accountable to half a million voters) and an attorney general (accountable to seven million voters) is not insignificant.