A Special Prosecutor Is Investigating Governor Perry's Decision To Cut Funding To The Public Integrity Unit
Fri April 4, 2014 11:14 am

There are few defenders of Rosemary Lehmberg, the embattled Travis County District Attorney who embarrassed her office after she was stopped, arrested, and jailed for DWI last April. The night of Lehmberg's arrest has been well-documented, and her "do you know who I am" routine did not speak well of an official tasked with enforcing the law. (At the same time, that her treatment in the criminal justice system—which included a rare jail sentence for a first-time DWI in Travis County—seemed to offer her no undue leniency because of her position speaks well of her office.)

Many called for Lehmberg to resign after her arrest; some attempted to have her removed from office; and Governor Perry used his veto power to attempt to force her out—by threatening to strip the budget of the state-funded Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which Lehmberg, as DA, oversees, and which investigates allegations of public corruption in Texas. Created by the legislature in the 1980s, the Travis County Public Integrity Unit was given the authority to investigate statewide officals because the legislature and major offices of state government are based there.

Given that most public officials in Texas are Republicans, that means that the unit frequently investigates Republican officeholders—and some say the fact that the people responsible for the unit are elected by voters in the Democratic stronghold of Austin makes it unpopular with Republicans. 

That background is necessary to understand the reactions to Perry's promise last June to strip the Public Integrity Unit of its funding if Lehmberg failed to resign, a promise he later carried out.

Travis County managed to scare together roughly a third of the unit's previous budget, and it retained fifteen employees. And now, Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum, tasked to investigate the Governor's decision, says that he is "very concerned" about what happened, according to the Austin American-Statesman

“I cannot elaborate on what exactly is concerning me, but I can tell you I am very concerned about certain aspects of what happened here,” San Antonio attorney Michael McCrum said in an interview with the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV.

Asked if his concerns pointed specifically at Perry or his staff, McCrum said, “Yes.”

There are a few ways to consider this: As Perry himself put it when he promised to veto the unit's budget, it's hard to countenance providing funding of $7.5 million to an office "at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public's confidence." That's not an unreasonable position, and when reached by the Statesman for a follow-up after McCrum's statements yesterday, his office reiterated that the Governor stands by his decision, saying that, "as he has done following every session he’s been governor, Gov. Perry exercised his constitutional veto authority through line-item vetoes in the budget."

Had Lehmberg resigned, her replacement would have been appointed by Perry himself, though, which potentially casts the decision to withhold funding from the Public Integrity Unit in another light: Namely, if the governor of the state can threaten to defund an office with statewide oversight authority unless its duly-elected leadership resigns her position and allows him to appoint her replacement in this case—even as Lehmberg lacks much support among the public—what's to stop a future governor from using such threats and following up on them (to, say, the detriment of uninvolved employees working in the same office). 

It's not unlikely that questions like this will be at the core of the findings that McCrum brings to the grand jury later this month, as they decide whether or not to pursue the potential allegations of impropriety in the governor's office.  

(Brandon Wade/AP Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals)

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