If the legislation to move the prosecution of state officials in ethics cases from Travis County to their hometowns becomes law, it could usher in one of the greatest eras of public corruption in the state since gamblers controlled Galveston and Dallas and the political bosses ruled in South Texas.
Republican lawmakers—apparently afraid of the heavily Democratic grand juries and petit juries of Travis County—sent Governor Greg Abbott HB 1690 by Representative Phil King and Senator Joan Huffman to move the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County district attorney’s office and into the Texas Rangers, with any resulting prosecutions occurring in a state official’s home county. The bill is awaiting Abbott’s signature or inaction to become law, or his veto.
While HB 1690 would apply to members of the Legislature, a proposed state constitutional amendment on the November ballot, SJR 52, effectively would extend this to statewide officials. Since 1876, they have been required to live in Austin under the state Constitution, but the new language would allow them to live anywhere in the state—in other words, in any county where they would not face a hostile, partisan grand jury.
If you think I am exaggerating when I say this will lead to political corruption, then I will point you to the cases of former state Representative Ismael “Kino” Flores and former state Senator Carl Parker. Flores, a South Texas politician known as “Mr. Ten Percent,” was brought to the bar of justice for failing to fully comply with state financial disclosure laws. Parker was an innocent politician who had two sets of indictments brought against him by grand juries under the control of a vindictive local prosecutor.
Travis County prosecutors spent months investigating Flores, a Democrat from Palmview, on allegations that he took kickbacks on local contracts and unreported favors and gifts from lobbyists. In the end, the prosecutors had to settle for accusing Flores of not reporting $115,000 to $185,000 in income on his state financial disclosure statements between 2004 and 2009. Flores received five years probation and a $1,000 fine, but the investigation had prompted him to decline a re-election campaign.
Would a local district attorney have investigated Flores with the same zeal as the Travis County officials?
The prosecutor in Hidalgo County back then was long-time District Attorney Rene Guerra, who lost re-election in 2014. After the election, he dismissed a DWI prosecution against Thirteenth Court of Appeals Court Justice Nora Longora, later defending the decision by saying he had not seen police dashboard camera video of her field sobriety test. The new Hidalgo County district attorney, Ricardo Rodriguez, this year named Ismael “Kino” Flores Jr. as his lead misdemeanor prosecutor. One of the Travis County prosecutors’ original claims against the former state representative was that Flores had failed to “report law school tuition and fees, paid by ‘one or more individuals,’ at the University of Texas for his son.”
While we can admit that perhaps Guerra was not fully informed when he dropped the DWI charge or that Rodriguez was not going to allow the sins of the father to attach to the son, it also is easy to make the argument that the prosecution of state Representative Flores never would have occurred if local prosecutors had been in charge under HB 1690.
There also have been some bad apples to ruin the image of district attorneys in Texas.
Former Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos last year received a 13-year federal prison sentence as part of a racketeering enterprise in which he was “selling justice,” in the words of a prosecutor.
The State Bar of Texas in 2001 named Rockwall District Attorney Galen Ray Sumrow as prosecutor of the year. In 2006, a tipster told the sheriff’s office that Sumrow had stolen $68,000 in funds appropriated by the state for the operation of his office. The sheriff turned the investigation over to the Texas Rangers and the FBI, who brought it to the Travis County Public Integrity Unit to obtain an indictment. The prosecution was handled by two special prosecutors supplied by Collin County. Found guilty by a jury, Sumrow received a 15-year prison sentence.
In 2011, attorneys from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office prosecuted District Attorney Joe Frank Garza of Brooks and Jim Wells counties for paying himself and some of his employees $2 million from his office’s drug forfeiture fund. Garza received a 16-year prison sentence.
For six years ending in 2008, law enforcement officials eagerly and aggressively pulled over cars and received millions in forfeited property and cash. Garza spent the cash on bonuses for himself and three secretaries. The AG’s office says the bonuses were not approved, as mandated by law, by the commissioners court.
Oh, there were also plenty of Las Vegas trips for “seminars.”
Now, let’s step back to the Kino Flores conviction for a moment. His sentence was handed down by then-District Judge Bob Perkins, who said the Flores case was likely to prompt public officials to fully report their finances as required by law in the future.
“The defendant has lost the office he had, his reputation in the community,” Perkins said. “I am convinced that no public officials will hold the filling out of these forms lightly again.”
Perhaps, but just this week a State Democratic Executive Committee member filed a Texas Ethics Commission complaint against Senator Joan Huffman for not fully reporting her husband’s night club business on her personal financial statements. Huffman, sponsor of HB 1690, also slipped a provision into another ethics bill at the end of the session to exempt spousal income from disclosure.
An interesting hypothetical: In 2008, Houston political consultant Allen Blakemore ran a vicious campaign for his client against Huffman, including charges so over the top that Blakemore had to apologize. Blakemore last year was the political consultant for the campaign of current Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson. I feel certain that Blakemore and Anderson would not stoop to political payback. But consider the idea that a political consultant who helped a district attorney win office could use his or her position to whisper into the district attorney’s ear that a complaint such as the one filed with the ethics commission against Huffman was worthy of a criminal investigation. In that instance, a politician such as Huffman might see a case that Travis County would treat lightly turn into a political scandal.
If you don’t think that is a possibility, then look at the case of former state Senator Parker of Port Arthur.
A Jefferson County district attorney in 1984 won an indictment of Parker on charges of dealing in cocaine, and the promotion of prostitution and pornography. Parker was the half-owner with one of his criminal defense clients of a house in Port Arthur that the client used as an X-rated video store called Happy Times Video: “said material, which was obscene in that it depicts patently offensive representations of actual and simulated sexual intercourse and sodomy.”
Parker said he knew nothing of his client’s business and claimed innocence. Parker and his allies in Beaumont said the indictment was political payback by then-District Attorney James McGrath. They said the issue began when Parker defended a local school official against an indictment McGrath obtained on charges of perjury and misusing district travel money. Parker not only represented the school official but testified in his lawsuit when he won a $750,000 civil judgment against grand jury members for violating his civil rights. Parker claimed McGrath’s indictment against him was political payback.
After the first indictment was thrown out, McGrath obtained a second indictment, which also was thrown out. When a third grand jury met on the case, a lawyer with the Texas attorney general’s office sat in to make certain the proceeding was fair. That third grand jury declined to indict Parker again.
When a Travis County grand jury indicted Governor Rick Perry on allegations that he abused his office by vetoing funding for the Public Integrity Unity while trying to get District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign after her drunk driving arrest, many of my Democratic friends gloated. I thought the indictment was bad public policy.
When Governor Abbott threatened to veto the budget if it did not include franchise tax cuts, was he not inducing legislators to take official action? When lawmakers horse-trade on bills, are they not in essence bribing one another? So now with the bad public policy considerations of the Perry indictment, we are left facing the bad public policy responses of HB 1690 and SJR 52. There were many workable alternatives to having ethics cases just handled by a Democratic district attorney in a Democratic county, but they never were explored.
If these two pieces of legislation become law, Texas may face widespread political corruption—not all at once, but over a long period of time.