Wednesday, August 7, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

County to spend $1.8 million to fund slimmed-down Public Integrity Unit

Travis County taxpayers will help breathe life into the state’s nearly defunct Public Integrity Unit after Commissioners Court Tuesday voted 4-1 to dedicate nearly $1.8 million in funding to the department.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty – the only Republican on the Court – was the lone dissenter.

The unit prosecutes state fraud, financial crimes and public corruption cases out of the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

The court’s move comes after months of debate between the county, the state and the District Attorney’s office about how the somewhat controversial unit should be funded.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Perry stripped the unit of its $3.7 million annual state appropriation when District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg failed to resign following her April drunk driving arrest.

Lehmberg maintains that the Governor’s action was questionable.

“In April, I made a huge mistake,” she said. “I have worked steadfastly to regain the confidence of the community and I’m going to continue to do that. But it was not Rick Perry’s job to fire me…it’s probably illegal to threaten the veto and then to do the veto.”

Commissioners Court had hoped Texas lawmakers, during the second called special session, might find a way to circumvent the Governor’s veto and replenish the unit’s funding, which didn’t happen.

The veto effectively put hundreds of pending cases and more than 35 employees’ jobs on the chopping block.

Tuesday, Lehmberg asked the court to fund the unit for the upcoming year considering the majority of cases handled by the unit – about 70 percent – belong to Travis County.

“We have really scrubbed our budget to get the operating expenses as low as possible,” Lehmberg said. “We will no longer be taking any statewide cases – just Travis County cases.”

Lehmberg said about 52 of the unit’s 425 total pending cases can be safely prosecuted out of other jurisdictions, leaving Travis County with 371 cases of which 293 are Travis County specific.

And, fewer employees will be left to handle those cases. Due to attrition since learning of the veto, the PIU now has 30.5 employees.

“We believe in order to effectively handle the caseload of Travis County cases plus those that are in active litigation, we need to maintain at least 22 full-time employees,” Lehmberg said.

In addition to moving some of the remaining employees salary under the county’s general fund, Lehmberg proposed that about nine employees be paid using $734,422 of the $900,000 in the DA’s forfeited property account.

“We are down to three positions that are in jeopardy,” Lehmberg said. “We’re talking with the Planning and Budget Office about how to provide them another 90 days.”

 

The solution did not sit well with Commissioner Daugherty.

 

“This is on the backs of the taxpayers,” he said. “This is not healthy for this community.”

 

The rest of the court agreed funding the unit was the best way to move forward.

“The issue here is to find justice for folks who have been wronged,” said Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez. “I just think we need to do the right thing.”

Commissioners plan to continue seeking full restoration of the unit’s funding at the state level.

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