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Kino Flores

Republicans try again to kill Public Integrity Unit

They might have the votes this time, though as with some other highly publicized “replacement” efforts, their substitute idea lacks a few key elements to make it successful.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Under Senate Bill 10 by Sen. Joan Huffman, the attorney general’s office would conduct the initial investigation of complaints against officials, with help from the Texas Rangers.

If the investigation yields “reasonable suspicion,” a state judge would send the findings to a district or county attorney who is outside of the official’s county. That prosecutor could terminate the case or continue with prosecution.

If the case goes to trial, under SB 10, the proceedings would be held in the public official’s hometown.

“These changes will inspire confidence in these critical functions of government and keep this process fair to all Texans, no matter where they live or to which political party they belong,” Huffman said in a statement.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed Huffman’s bill, saying it would place the unit “in a more appropriate setting.”

Gregg Cox, head of the Public Integrity Unit, warned against hometown prosecution during a Senate hearing last month, saying his agency was created in part to avoid conflicts of interest that can mar prosecutions of local officials. Cox did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group, said: “Huffman’s bill creates a maze of chutes and ladders that offers politicians numerous escape hatches from prosecution.”

The first problem with this is that as the Chron story notes, the state attorney general likely would have to do the initial investigation without subpoena power. That would seem to be a significant obstacle in any case where one or more key witnesses did not want to testify. Another problem, as seen in the increasingly bizarre ethics case against professional sleazeball Michael Quinn Sullivan is that prosecutors and judges in the home county of an official under investigation may be more likely to have conflicts of interest. If nothing else, the fact that a DA in the home county of an officeholder under suspicion will face at least some of the same voters that elected that official in the first place may provide some perverse incentives.

The bottom line here is, and has always been, that the Republicans who constitute the majority of potential prosecution targets don’t want their fate in the hands of an elected Democrat. (Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones who do get into the crosshairs of the Public Integrity Unit, as former State Rep. Kino Flores could attest.) I admit to some sympathy for this, as I’m sure I’d feel the same way if the situation were reversed, but let’s be honest, if Sam Houston had been elected AG this past November, Sen. Huffman would not have filed SB10, at least not in that form. It’s not about the office but about who holds it.

SB10 would also move insurance fraud and issues relating to the imposition of the motor fuels tax, both of which are handled by the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office today, to the AG’s office. You may recall that it was this sort of investigation that was cut off by Rick Perry’s veto of PIU funds in 2013. Seems to me that the AG’s office would have to enlarge if this goes through, though I suppose in the end the cost may be a wash since the state budget normally funds the PIU anyway. Still, this is bigger than just shifting the way political prosecutions are done. It’s hard to see how SB10 will be an improvement in process over the status quo.

Former Rep. Kino Flores convicted

Former State Rep. Kino Flores, who was indicted last year on multiple counts of tampering with a governmental record, was convicted today on eleven of those counts.

Flores, a 14-year state representative, was convicted of five counts of misdemeanor tampering with a governmental record, four counts of felony tampering with a governmental record and two counts of misdemeanor perjury.

He faces up to two years in a state jail and a $10,000 fine on each of the felony counts. Any state jail time assessed for each count must run concurrently with other counts under state law.

Flores, D-Palmview, elected to be sentenced by state District Judge Bob Perkins, who set sentencing for Nov. 22.

Flores and his lawyers left court without commenting.

“This verdict represents the public saying to public officials that they expect elected officials to maintain the highest ethical standards,” Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said. “That accurate and full public disclosure is an important part of public service and that the public will not accept excuses like ‘I was too busy’ or ‘I just didn’t know.’”

Two points: 1) Keep this in mind the next time someone claims that prosecutions by the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit are partisan in nature. 2) I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad that Flores declined to run for re-election. He won a hard-fought primary in 2008 that was largely about his Craddick connections, and I would have been leery about betting against him this year had he run, even after the indictment. So much better this way.

TPJ files complaint with Ethics Commission against Craddick

Texans for Public Justice has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against former Speaker Tom Craddick, alleging that he obfuscated campaign donations made to several Democratic supporters of his prior to the 2008 primaries. From their press release (PDF):

Jobs PAC reported that it received $250,000 from Tom Craddick’s campaign committee on January 10, 2008. According to news reports, around that time Craddick campaign employee Christi Craddick also provided Texas Jobs with written instructions to distribute the funds to Democratic Reps. Kevin Bailey, Dawnna Dukes, Kino Flores and Aaron Pena.1 All four incumbents previously supported Republican Speaker Craddick and faced challengers in the 2008 Democratic primary.2 According to its own reports, Jobs PAC wrote three checks of $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Reps. Bailey, Flores and Pena on January 11, 2008. By its own accounting, at the time Texas Jobs wrote these checks its sole source of funding was the $250,000 that it received the day before from the Craddick campaign. Rep. Dukes, the fourth lawmaker, told the Austin American-Statesman that she rejected an offer to receive $50,000 from Texas Jobs because her opponent already was making her Craddick ties a campaign issue.3

“Tom Craddick wanted to move tens of thousands of dollars to his favorite Democrats without letting voters know,” said Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Hiding the true source of campaign funds is illegal. Craddick could have contributed the money directly and openly. Instead, he used Texas Jobs to launder his money and keep Texans in dark.”

The TPJ filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s office last year when this information first came out. I am not aware of any updates to this case, but I suspect that it went nowhere, else there’d be little reason to take things up with the TEC. We’ll see what happens. More on this can be found here and here.

Kino Flores not running for re-election

The March primary season just got a little more interesting.

Embattled state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election to an eighth term in 2010.

Citing recent indictments handed down against him, the legislator said in a statement that he must concentrate on clearing his name and spending time with his family.

“I worked effectively, fought hard and delivered for South Texas,” he said. “I will not apologize for standing up for our region.”

In July, a Travis County grand jury charged Flores with 16 counts of tampering with government documents and three counts of perjury, alleging he hid more than $847,000 in personal assets from the Texas Ethics Commission over a period of six years.

I blogged about that here. Hard to know how much effect that had on his decision to step down, but it’s hard to imagine it had no effect.

The lawmaker’s announcement Tuesday now opens up the race for Texas House District 36 to a new candidate. Former teacher and probation officer Sandra Rodriguez, who gave the representative one of his closest challenges, during the 2007 Democratic primary has already announced her intention to run for the office again.

Several western Hidalgo County political operatives have also mentioned attorney Sergio Muñoz Jr. – son of former state Rep. Sergio Muñoz Sr. – as another possible candidate.

Flores, who won election in 1996 by defeating the elder Muñoz, became a polarizing figure among his constituents and colleagues during his 12 years in office.

Flores was of course a Craddick D, which is a big part of the reason why he wasn’t so well-liked in other parts of the state. That’s thankfully much less of an issue now than it used to be, but forgiveness and forgetfulness don’t always come easily. I don’t know much about the folks who are or may be running next year, but I’ll be very interested to see who lines up behind whom. A (long) press release from Rep. Flores is beneath the fold. Burka and BOR have more.

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Rep. Kino Flores indicted

Breaking news.

State Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, was indicted by a Travis County grand jury for failing to disclose sources of income, gifts and other information that state officials are required to detail in personal financial statements, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said today.

Her office said the six indictments include 16 counts of tampering with a governmental record — for which Flores faces up to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000 — and three counts of perjury — for which he faces up to one year in state jail and a fine of up to $4,000.

Flores was a Craddick D who won a hard-fought primary challenge last year. He was on the Texas Monthly Ten Worst Legislators list this session after being a dishonorable mention in 2007; his inclusion this year, for which a spat he induced over a veterans’ tax break bill was cited as a reason, generated some strong pushback from veterans’ groups in his district. This is going to be fascinating to watch.

UPDATE: Rep. Flores has released the following statement.

“When I was first elected to represent my constituents, I took an oath to uphold the laws and ethics rules of this great state. At no point during my public service have I intentionally or knowingly violated any state law or rule. So today, I am extremely disappointed that the Travis county public integrity unit has decided to hand out an indictment against me after a lengthy investigation into my personal and political dealings. Today’s indictment concerns a number of reports that were allegedly incomplete. Throughout this entire investigation, I have fully cooperated and have disclosed any evidence required of me. Moving forward, it is my intent to continue my cooperation in order to bring closure to this matter. I hope that I receive the support of my constituents throughout this unfortunate event and ask that they reserve judgment until I have my day in court. I can assure you that I will fight as hard as I do for District 36 to clear my name. My family and I ask for your thoughts and prayers during this tumultuous time.”

Busy day yesterday

There were a lot of bills passed yesterday by one chamber or the other. My mailbox is full of press releases touting them. I’m going to go ahead and print them beneath the fold as a roundup. A few bills that got notice in the media:

– The Tim Cole Act passed out of the House.

Texans wrongfully convicted of crimes will get a much larger paycheck from the state for their incarceration under a bill tentatively approved by the state House today.

Wrongfully convicted persons currently are paid $50,000 in two installment payments. The new proposal would pay $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. An identical measure by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is pending in the Senate.

“Think for a few moments about walking in their shoes,” Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, one of the authors of HB 1736, told his colleagues.

[…]

The measure is known as Tim Cole Act to honor a former Texas Tech student wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. Cole died in prison from an asthma attack in 1999 – about halfway through a 25-year sentence.

“This bill cannot make people whole. But we can do better,” Anchia said.

The measure passed on a voice vote without opposition and prompted applause in the chamber.

The record vote on third reading (PDF) was 136-1. I noted Anchia’s bill last month. We’ll see if it passes muster with Governor Perry. Grits has more.

– Ignoring a mandatory evacuation order for a hurricane and then needing a rescue may cost you in the future.

More than 20,000 people stayed on Galveston Island last year despite a mandatory evacuation order as Hurricane Ike approached the Texas coast. Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Pery, said there were 3,540 rescues in the region by state and local authorities, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“They have that right to remain if they choose to,” said bill author Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “But they stay at their own peril, and they stay with the possibility that if recovery is necessary to preserve their lives, they’d pay the related cost.

“And that’s potentially a lot of money.”

The cost of a helicopter rescue is about $4,400 an hour.

I believe the bill in question is SB12, which passed unanimously on third reading. I agree with the principle of the bill, though I wonder what mechanism will be used to collect the fees from the people who will need such rescues. What if they claim they tried but were unable to get out? There will be an interesting legal battle over this some day, I expect.

– Not a bill, but the Senate budget conferees were announced. No word yet on the House contingent.

There were more bills passed, and we can expect a lot more action in the coming weeks. Click on for the press releases.

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