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Lehmberg lays out costs, duties of Public Integrity Unit for Commissioners

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

In two weeks, Travis County taxpayers could find out if they’ll end up footing the bill for high-dollar, white-collar crime investigations in Texas. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg appeared before the Travis County Commissioner’s Court Tuesday to lay out the duties and discuss alternative methods for funding her office’s Public Integrity Unit in response to Gov. Rick Perry’s vetoing the state-approved funding for the unit on Friday.

“Despite the otherwise good work (of) the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” Perry said.

Perry had earlier threatened to veto the item if Lehmberg didn’t resign. This was Lehmberg’s first official public appearance since serving a 20-day jail sentence for a widely-publicized DWI arrest in April.

The veto in effect shuts off the $7.5 million bipartisan legislative appropriation ($3.7 annually) on August 31, at which point Travis County will be expected to pick up the tab. The embattled Lehmberg and members of her office outlined for the court what the Public Integrity Unit does exactly and how the veto would affect that work. The unit of 35 employees generally handles investigations involving public corruption, state property theft, tax and insurance fraud, and the like. Currently, there are approximately 400 cases pending before the public integrity unit. Only 280 of those are Travis County cases.

The unit was created by former District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who served as the Travis County DA for three decades until his retirement in 2008. Earle captured national attention with investigations into U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and former House Majority Leader U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). It also became a symbol for what Republicans saw as the genesis of politically motivated prosecutions, despite the fact that Earle claimed he prosecuted far more Democrats than Republicans during his tenure.

With business-as-usual for the unit coming to an abrupt halt in less than two months, “we need to figure out an immediate plan,” Lehmberg told the court. “This is a relatively new occurrence for us to deal with. But I am absolutely open to working not only with you all, but with other county officials and certainly state officials on alternatives. People are coming up with new things every day. I just figured the most important thing I could do today is to give you information so that you can make an informed decision over the next month about whether or not you want to fund any or all of the Public Integrity Unit.”

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county taking over the $3.7 million funding for the year is “doable” considering the county has a $700 million budget. “It’s an unexpected development, but it’s part of government,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t sitting around waiting on the opportunity to spend another $3.5 million on something that historically the state has covered. At the same time, what you do is you roll with the punches.”

Lehmberg said while she does not view Perry’s veto as a personal attack, the move “feels partisan and is misguided.” When asked about resigning at this point, Lehmberg said “I’m not going to.”

The court plans to address the issue again on July 2 after looking at available options and alternative solutions. “I think it’s 50-50 that a majority of the Commissioners Court will want to do the right thing,” said Judge Biscoe. “And the right thing is us taking up a part of if not all of it.” However, “once we decide to pick it up, we probably are stuck with it indefinitely.”

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