Sneak Attack on Public Integrity Unit?
Thu March 31, 2011 9:28 am

Buried in the four-inch stack of amendments to the house budget bill is a subtly crafted ambush on the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s office. This is the outfit that investigates corruption cases involving public officials, the most famous of which in recent memory was Ronnie Earle’s dogged pursuit of Tom Delay in the TRMPAC case. Earle has moved on, but Republicans haven’t forgiven or forgotten. This session, Arlington Republican Bill Zedler filed a bill (HB 1928) seeking to move the unit out of the Travis County D.A.’s office and into the Attorney General’s office, which is to say, out of Democratic control and into Republican-held territory. Similar efforts in previous sessions went nowhere, and Zedler’s bill has yet to get a hearing.

But he may not need one to get the revenge Republicans have been seeking. That’s because one of Zedler's proposed HB 1 amendments, a seemingly simple half-page item (on page 251 of the stack) moving funding for the Public Integrity Unit over to the AG’s office, contains what appears to be a cleverly couched sneak attack.

The amendment provides that funding for the unit will be moved to the AG’s office only if HB 1928 is passed into law and the unit’s duties are officially transferred out of the D.A.’s office. Careful readers will note, however, that this contingency provision is inserted only midway through the amendment. The first part of the amendment, which zeroes out the funding for the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County D.A.’s office, is not contingent on passage of HB 1928. So even if HB 1928 dies and Zedler fails to get the unit moved to the AG’s office,  passage of the amendment—according to a couple of  budget veterans I consulted—will still zero out funding for the salaries of everybody who works in the Public Integrity Unit at the D.A.’s office. Small consolation for Tom Delay, perhaps, but a score will have been settled.

But that's not all the amendment would do. The Public Integrity Unit doesn’t just do public corruption investigations—it also prosecutes insurance fraud and tax fraud, including on sales of gasoline and tobacco. In the last 4 years, the unit has recovered over $8 million in restitution. With no funding, those investigations would cease, too. In other words, Zedler wouldn’t just be screwing the men and women of the Public Integrity Unit, he’d be screwing the taxpayers of Texas--which is something that Tom Delay would not have appreciated.

These types of contingency amendments, if adopted, typically get shuttled off into a portion of the budget bill known as Article 11, a wasteland of wish list items that may or may not get funded. It’s the perfect place to hide a time bomb. I asked Representative Zedler this morning if I was reading his amendment right--that the Public Integrity Unit would be defunded even if HB 1928 failed to pass. "I would say that's right," he said. Zedler said if HB 1928 failed, then the money for the unit could be moved somewhere else in the budget, like nursing homes, for example. Zedler denied that revenge was a factor. "I've always been puzzled why a statewide function should be undertaken by a local elected official," he said. He was unaware, he said, that the unit also handled insurance and tax fraud investigations. "I'm sure the AG's office can handle those types of investigations, too," he said.

When I pointed out that some members might not notice the unusual placement of the contingency clause, he laughed. "Oh, I bet somebody will catch that."

NATE BLAKESLEE

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