Texas Politicians’ Protection Plan: Ethics Reform Gone Awry

TACUPDATE – HB 1690 passed 94 to 51 with 15 amendments adopted (3 of these were amendments to amendments) of the 24 offered on April 21.  It was still a bad bill in the end.

Despite Governor Abbott’s call for ethics reform, House Bill 1690 is actually an anti-ethics bill. Rather than restoring public confidence in government, it sets the stage for crony politics and political favoritism, and is another scandal in the making.

Like Senate Bill 10, HB 1690 creates a special legal system with special treatment reserved for Texas elected officials and state employees. This system is designed to stymie criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Prosecuting a corrupt official will require the approval of both the Texas Rangers and a local prosecuting attorney.  This will operate as a political filter and give a green light for cover ups and corruption.

In the vast majority of states, including Texas, public integrity cases—like all criminal cases—are handled by a local prosecutor in the county where the offense occurs. Only one state has the highly unusual and suspect “hometown venue with a hometown prosecutor” provision.

Under HB 1690, no matter where a crime is committed, a politician will be prosecuted by his or her hometown officials – essentially ‘home cookin.’ This raises the legitimate question of whether local prosecutors, judges or even juries could be truly independent when dealing with a prominent local political figure.

Under HB 1690, a politician will be prosecuted by his or her hometown officials— but the funding for these types of cases is inadequate. Half of a million dollars is not enough to prosecute these complex cases, which will require moving evidence and witnesses to the hometown county. Counties will bear the costs.

The current system works. The Travis County Public Integrity Unit has pursued public corruption cases in a non-partisan fashion. Of the 21 elected officials it has prosecuted since 1978, 15 were Democrats and 6 were Republicans. The simplest solution is to fund that entity. Failing that, Texas needs to find the toughest independent prosecutors in the state and put them to work cleaning up corruption at the Capitol.

As we see it, we have three options with this bill which goes before the House shortly for a vote:

Plan A: Fund the existing Public Integrity Unit

  • It creates revenue for the state
  • It goes after the worst offenders
  • Prosecutes them if the crime occurs in Travis county and refers them if it does not

Plan B: Amend the bill to create a new Public Integrity Unit

  • Have the Governor appoint the head of the PIU
  • To avoid charges of favoritism, have the appointment made from a list of the three toughest prosecutors in the state submitted by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association
  • Follow traditional venue rules and prosecute alleged miscreants where the crime occurs
  • Ensure that we have experienced and well-trained investigators and prosecutors

Plan C (Representative King’s plan): Protect political cronies

  • Send ethics violators to their home counties for prosecution
  • Overload local prosecutors
  • Cost the state and counties more money to prosecute each case to ship evidence and transport witnesses all over the state
  • Prepare for serious constitutional challenges— see you in court