AUSTIN, Texas — Texas lawmakers are closer to gutting the anti-public corruption unit that was at the center of former Gov. Rick Perry's indictment last year.
The Republican-controlled Texas House gave preliminary approval Monday to letting the Texas Rangers investigate allegations of public corruption. Under Weatherford Republican Rep. Phil King's bill, the Public Integrity Unit would continue to investigate insurance fraud and motor vehicles tax fraud.
The Senate has already passed a similar measure.
House Democrats had stalled passage of the bill last week, but Republicans are bent on uprooting the unit out of the Travis County District Attorney's Office, which is run by an elected Democrat. The current configuration puts "too much power in one elected official," King said.
If his measure passes, complaints deemed credible by the Texas Rangers would be forwarded to the district attorney in the county where the official was elected.
"There is no perfect answer, but this is a lot better than what we have now in terms of removing politics from the equation," King said.
Perry vetoed funding for the unit in 2013 after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to resign following a drunken driving arrest. He was later indicted on abuse-of-power charges. The Public Integrity Unit was not involved in the Perry investigation, which was handled by a special prosecutor and remains pending.
"Is this just because of her?" asked Edinburg Rep. Terry Canales, apparently referencing Lehmberg. Canales was one of a half-dozen Democrats whose amendments, many of which attempted to change the venue of the trial to the county where the crime was committed, were defeated.
But 16 amendments to the bill — 10 carried by Democrats — passed, including one to withdraw prosecutors who have relationships with the officials they are meant to probe.
Recently, a district attorney in Collin County — home of state Attorney General Ken Paxton — turned a criminal complaint involving his admitted securities violations over to the Texas Rangers for investigation. He was fined $1,000 for being paid for investment advising without registering, but Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning watchdog group, filed a criminal complaint.
Texans for Public Justice then criticized Collin County officials for foot-dragging and called for the prosecutor's recusal because he and Paxton are friends and business associates.
Craig McDonald, the group's director, said after the House vote, "Corruption prosecutions are now in the hands of hometown cronies."
Meanwhile, Public Integrity Unit head Gregg Cox on Monday rebuffed a request from the Texas Department of Public Safety to clear the agency's name over $20 million in border security contracts that have come under intense scrutiny. Cox told DPS that his thin staff can't handle any more cases. He said he hopes lawmakers notice that Texas currently has no other agency that can investigate allegations of political malfeasance.
According to a fiscal note attached to King's bill, there were 193 public corruption complaints filed in fiscal year 2013, eight of which amounted to criminal offenses.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.
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