The Legislature this year is eager to do away with local control: city plastic grocery bag bans or the use of red light cameras, restrictions on tree cutting or the carrying of firearms on municipal property—plus, the big one, banning hydraulic fracturing to drill for gas within a city limit.
But by a 20-11 vote today, the Senate made it clear that local control is just fine when a state official—including the senators themselves—is accused of committing an ethics crime ranging from election code violations to the corruption of bribery, perjury and abuse of office. Essentially, they voted to put the venue for prosecuting an alleged crime into the location where they will have the greatest influence over whether that crime is prosecuted, their own hometown.
It’s very understandable to me why Senator Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, would want to change the system from the current standard of having Travis County grand juries investigate public corruption under a Democratic district attorney and then have the case tried in a Travis County court. The Travis County system of selecting grand juries creates a high likelihood that the grand jury will not just be majority Democratic but that the jurors will be activist Democrats. There is a strong argument for the idea that the indictments of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Governor Rick Perry had as much to do with partisanship by the grand juries as with wrongdoing, especially since DeLay’s case ultimately was dismissed by the state’s highest criminal court.
Huffman’s SB 10 takes ethics prosecutions in the completely opposite direction, increasing the likelihood that public offenders never will be prosecuted. In arguing against the bill, Senator Kirk Watson was right when he said the legislation will create a special class of people. “You get to go to a hometown judge, a hometown jury, a hometown prosecutor,” Watson said. Huffman repeadtedly referred to the current system as a “scheme” and said her bill would turn prosecution over to voters of more than just one county. “I would disagree in caling it a privileged class,” she said. “It’s a different venue.”
I have a little better handle on the bill than I did when I wrote about it earlier today. Essentially, it is this: A special unit of the Texas Rangers will investigate allegations of official misconduct and then determine whether to refer it to a prosecutor. The case will go to the hometown prosecutor of the accused offender. Please, read my previous post to understand why this is a bad idea.
In the case of those state officials required to live in Travis County by the state Constitution—or as Huffman put it, “forced by the Constitution to move to Travis County”—the referral will be to whatever county they called home before winning statewide office.
The absurdity of this is simple: As far as I can recall, Governor Ann Richards and former Comptroller Carole Keeton were the only statewide elected officials in my lifetime who lived in Travis County before being elected to statewide office. Even if you take the current case of Rick Perry, he moved from Haskell County to Austin in 1991 after winning election as state agriculture commissioner. A child born in Haskell County the year Rick Perry moved to Travis County could have graduated from college by now. Would the ethics complaint against Perry have reverted to Haskell County, where the district attorney is another Democrat? And the would people of Texas feel like Perry was investigated fairly by the Texas Rangers when he has appointed the entire public safety commission and the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety is one of his former aides?
The very first legislative hearing I ever covered in 1982 was on a bill for ethics reform in the Legislature. Since that time, I’ve covered almost every ethics scandal and every ethics reform bill that has come up in state government. There have been times when I thought Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was justified in his investigations of public officials, while also believing he ignored some and went after others for political reasons. I’ll readily admit that it would have been less likely that special prosecutor Michael McCrum would have gotten an indictment against Perry if McCrum had presented the case to a grand jury in any other county in Texas. This is a baby with the bathwater approach, though.
With each generation of ethics legislation that I’ve seen over the years, the system improved. Huffman and the Republicans are justified in wanting to diminish Travis County’s disproportionate role as the ethical arbiter of Texas. But Huffman’s SB 10 is an open invitation to future corruption in state government.