Wednesday, July 3, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Public Integrity Unit staffers face layoffs unless someone picks up tab

Layoffs are likely for the 31 employees of Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit, which operates out of the District Attorney’s office. That is, unless a resolution currently before the current Special Session of the Texas Legislature is approved, Travis County Commissioners decide to fund the unit out of their budget, or someone comes up with some other way to pay their salaries.

The Public Integrity Unit investigates state public corruption cases and high-dollar, white collar crime like insurance and tax fraud. It’s made up of lawyers, paralegals, legal secretaries, peace officers, accountants, a document analyst, a receptionist and administrative staff.

The impending layoffs stem from Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s widely-publicized drunk driving arrest in April. She pleaded guilty and served jail time. In what some critics claim was a blatant partisan move, Gov. Rick Perry then threatened to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit unless Lehmberg resigned. She did not, and Perry followed through with his threat and vetoed the unit’s $7.5 million ($3.7 annual) appropriation. Perry stated he could not in good conscience, “support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with the ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”

In this case, the tab to pay the unit’s bills falls to Travis County. State funding is available to cover July and August. After that, if no additional funding is secured, about 31 employees are expected to be let go.

Currently, some 425 cases are pending with 205 of those being active investigations. About 70 percent of the cases involve offenses that allegedly happened in Travis County.

Despite Travis County’s budget of hundreds of millions, some on the court have voiced concerns about taking on the unexpected expenditure.

“If we find a way to pay for it with Travis County taxpayer money, we will own it from now on,” said Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “And that is not right.”

 

Lehmberg, who did appear before County Commissioners two weeks ago to explain the importance of the Public Integrity Unit, was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting because of grand jury impaneling obligations. Gregg Cox, director of the unit, was there in her stead to answer commissioners’ questions. Afterward, Cox told a group of reporters he was not surprised by the court’s reduction in force motion.

 

“We were notified on Friday this was going to happen,” he said. “So I had a meeting with my staff and let them know so they could be prepared. It’s still disappointing.”

 

Since the governor’s veto, two Public Integrity Unit staffers have found other jobs and one is retiring.

 

All may not be completely lost as yet for the remaining employees. During the last Special Session, State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) filed a House Concurrent Resolution which failed to make any gains. Turner filed the same sort of bill on Monday. If passed, it could potentially override the Governor’s veto.

 

Each of the commissioners spoke on the item. Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez said one of her main concerns is the message Travis County would be sending would-be criminals if it does not fork over the funds.

 

“If we don’t do something, I think we’re advertising to folks that they can violate the laws,” she said. “They can defraud somebody and there won’t be any kind of action and that no one cares. I don’t think that’s what we want to do. I think we still have a lot of room for communication, considerations and we need to do the right thing.”

 

Daugherty spoke at length about Lehmberg’s role in the situation.

 

“I knew this was going to happen to us – that this thing was going to get wrapped around our axle,” he said. “I’m sick of the fact that there are 31-plus people over there living on pins and needles. I’m sorry (about) what has happened with Ms. Lehmberg. (But) I think that the District Attorney needs to really look herself in the mirror and say, ‘Is this worth what I am putting the Commissioners Court, the people of this community – much  less if you start talking about the people, that their jobs and their lives can get pretty upside down pretty quickly by not having a paying job.’ I do think that’s the first step of really getting any traction at all with the Legislature about looking at the Public Integrity Unit and its funding from this point forward.”

 

Ultimately, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe moved to begin reduction in force procedure giving impacted employees 90-day advance notice.

 

“The DA’s office is looking at this and trying to evaluate any and all options,” Biscoe said. “Some of the smoke will clear once the Legislature has done its work and leaves town. Then we’ll know exactly what we’re dealing with monetarily.”

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