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Democratic DA pick talks cross-party maneuver

Friday, August 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Democratic nominee for Travis County district attorney is vigorously defending her decision to offer a Republican judge potential control of the office’s embattled Public Integrity Unit.

Margaret Moore told the Austin Monitor that she is convinced that 450th District Court Judge Don Clemmer, regardless of his party affiliation, “is an outstanding person” and a qualified candidate to head the Special Prosecutions Division, which includes the PIU.

She also said that Clemmer, a former deputy attorney general under Gov. Greg Abbott, would be an asset when it comes to dealing with the Legislature.

“I do think it helps for the Legislature to see that the Travis County district attorney will be making an effort to demonstrate a lack of partisanship,” Moore said. “I think that’s important because the reality is it’s a Republican-heavy Legislature.”

The PIU has been a political football inside the state Capitol almost since the day former DA Ronnie Earle created it in the early 1980s. Throughout its history, the unit has largely investigated insurance and gas tax fraud cases, but it drew political heat for its ability to pursue statewide public corruption cases.

Republicans long charged that an elected prosecutor in a safely Democratic county with powers to probe alleged malfeasance could instigate partisan witch hunts. That anxiety reached a fever pitch with Earle’s case against former Rep. Tom DeLay, which ended the latter’s political career.

In 2013, after incumbent DA Rosemary Lehmberg’s high-profile drunken driving arrest, the Republican Gov. Rick Perry cut state funding for the PIU, sending Travis County taxpayers to foot the bill for the unit’s statewide operations. In 2015, the Republican-dominated Legislature administered another stinging blow by transferring to the Texas Rangers the jurisdiction to investigate public corruption claims.

Moore told the Monitor that it “is of interest to me to go back to the Legislature and discuss with them restoring enough of the Public Integrity Unit to prosecute fraud cases.” She also said she has spoken with Abbott’s office about asking Clemmer to take the job, but she insisted there was “absolutely” no talk of a quid pro quo deal.

“The nature of the conversation was, ‘If Judge Clemmer wants to take this job and withdraw from the ballot, the Governor’s Office supports his decision,’” Moore said.

Clemmer did indeed file paperwork earlier this month with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to drop out of his race for re-election. Abbott had originally appointed him to the newly created 450th District Court last October. Clemmer’s exit from the race leaves it wide open for the Democratic candidate, lawyer Brad Urrutia.

Two activist groups that the Monitor spoke to largely shrugged at the thought of a Republican being in charge of the PIU. Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice said that the unit’s public corruptions investigations were, “to our minds, the highest function of the PIU.”

“But that role was totally eviscerated by the Legislature and turned over to the hometown posses,” said McDonald. He added that while he doesn’t believe state lawmakers will ever restore that function, they might be persuaded to return the funding.

To that end, Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the watchdog group Public Citizen, labeled Moore’s move as “politically savvy.”

That praise comes even as one local newspaper knocked Moore for “handing out jobs prematurely” months before her Election Day showdown with Republican candidate Maura Phelan. However, Democrats have held the DA’s Office since time immemorial, going back at least to 1976, when voters first elected Earle.

Whoever wins the race in November, of course, will feel the pressure to try to tap back into the state’s well to fund the PIU. The proposed 2017 county budget sets aside $1.64 million for the unit.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Monitor that it’s the state’s duty to pick up the PIU’s tab.

“The taxpayers of Travis County should not be bearing the full burden of integrity for the whole state,” Eckhardt said.

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