Democrat vows to restore funding for Public Integrity Unit

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Houston Democrat signaled Monday that he and fellow Democrats would try to restore state funding to the Public Integrity Unit that was stripped by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, but it’s sure to be an uphill effort.

The Public Integrity Unit, which investigates politicians’ ethical breaches as well as tax and insurance fraud, has 400 active cases and needs continued funding, Rep. Sylvester Turner told his colleagues Monday.

Turner, D-Houston, said he would work to ensure that the unit gets the money it requires to operate, despite Perry’ veto Friday of the state’s $7.5 million appropriation to the office.

Turner has been fighting attempts for 10 years to move, de-fund and kill the Public Integrity Unit, which is based in the Travis County District Attorney’s office, he said. This year, the effort has been especially challenging since Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, has served time in jail for drunken driving. She returned to work last week.

Turner said it would be irresponsible to take away funding for the unit. “We’re going to push the issue,” he said. But Democrats, who number 55 in the 150-member House, cannot act without support from their Republican colleagues.

From the back microphone of the Texas House, Turner asked Republican Speaker Joe Straus if any options exist to fund the unit. Straus said his office would do some research for Turner.

“With the questions from Mr. Turner and others, it’s certainly something that we should explore with the governor and with the Public Integrity Unit personnel. I’m assuming that the governor’s office has considered this,” Straus said in an interview. “We just have to assess where we are, and what the implications are as we go forward.”

Turner also said he planned to file a resolution specifying that the House intends to override Perry’s veto, even though it is not clear if the Legislature has that authority. Perry controls the special session agenda, and he did not put the budget on lawmakers’ to-do list.

“The issue really hasn’t been addressed,” Turner said. “I think this is a good one to set precedent on.”

Perry spokesman Rich Parsons said the Legislature cannot override a veto from a previous session, including the regular session that ended May 27.

Also Monday, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, asked from the House floor if funding could be revived if Lehmberg resigns. House leaders didn’t have an immediate response.

But Dale Craymer, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, said it is possible to restore funding through budget execution action, which involves the governor and the Legislative Budget Board agreeing to move money from other parts of the budget.

Perry has suggested that Travis County pay for the unit if it is a high priority.

County commissioners will discuss Perry’s veto in a closed session Tuesday with their attorneys to discuss legislative matters, County Judge Sam Biscoe said. However, they would not be able to take action in a closed meeting to fund the unit with county taxpayer money.


Commissioners consider giving money to DA Public Integrity Unit

Monday, June 17, 2013

TRAVIS COUNTY — Friday evening Governor Rick Perry vetoed funding to the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. Now the office, as well as District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, are looking for alternate ways to get money.

Texans for Public Justice filed a criminal complaint against Gov. Perry for threatening to veto $7 million in funding for the PIU. They claim Perry is guilty of coercion of a public servant, abuse of official capacity and official oppression.

Perry warned he would exercise the veto if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg did not step down. Perry says Lehmberg lacks integrity and should have resigned immediately after her DWI arrest.

“Many of us have lost confidence in her ability to run that office given her extreme disrespect she shows,” said State Rep. Phil King (R- Weatherford).

Rep. King supports Perry’s line item veto. He says Lehmberg was warned in advance about the governor’s threat.

“I think it’s an incredible display of selfishness to put her own career interests above the unit and above the employees,” he said.

The PIU is currently investigating more than 400 cases, including one involving the alleged misuse of $56 million intended for cancer research that is suspected of going into companies with investors who support Gov. Perry.

The unit employs 35 people, including 10 assistant district attorneys, seven investigators, and six forensic accountants.

Democrat Sylvester Turner of Houston has filed a resolution, hoping to override Perry’s veto.

“No one should be fooled. The attention that’s being brought to this agency didn’t just start with the DWI. That started 10 years ago. That didn’t start with her. People may be using the DWI, that’s a subterfuge,” Rep. Turner said.

Now Lehmberg is looking for alternate ways to get money. They’ve asked Travis County commissioners if they can cover absorb the $4 million each year to keep the unit running.

Travis County commissioners will discuss the legislation and the governor’s actions on their agenda around 11 a.m. Tuesday.

“We likely will not take action tomorrow, rather just discuss this issue,” County Judge Sam Biscoe told KVUE. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. I have sent a list of questions to the county attorney to understand our authority and limitations on this matter. I also want to know whether the governor’s decision can be reversed by himself or the Legislature before September 1, 2013.”

Biscoe says the commissioners will address the item and then go into executive session. They will likely take action on June 25.

“From my understanding, the revenue from that unit goes to residents of Texas as well as the state and federal government. I personally don’t see the benefit of fully funding the unit if the money goes to outside agencies. We will explore the issue,” said Biscoe.

A spokesman from rosemary Lehmberg’s office said they had no comment Monday but will release one Tuesday after the commissioner’s court meeting.

Governor Perry’s Veto:

Article IV – The Judiciary

Judiciary Section, Comptroller’s Department

D.1.4 Strategy: PUBLIC INTEGRITY UNIT, $3,742,829 $3,830,597
Public Integrity Unit, 53rd Judicial District.

Despite the otherwise good work 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. This unit is in no other way held accountable to state taxpayers, except through the State budgetary process. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.


Lehmberg Visits Commissioners Court

D.A. and staff discuss possible responses to Perry’s PIU veto

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg offered testimony at Commissioners Court this morning, accompanied by TCDA staff members discussing the 2013-14 budget of the Public Integrity Unit, and whether the Court can find funding to replace the roughly $3.5 million vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

The Court was considering whether county monies could replace the money Perry line-item vetoed after he demanded Lehmberg’s resignation for having been convicted of a DWI – and she declined to step down. Lehmberg summarized for commissioners the PIU’s duties – which include prosecuting ethics violations and other crimes (e.g., environmental crimes) all over the state, and she noted that although Perry de-funded the office, its prosecutorial obligations remain the same.

The commissioners asked about the scale of the problem, whether there is any chance of a reversal of Perry’s decision, and whether any other sources of funds might be available. They were told the total annual budget of the D.A.’s office is about $21 million, with $3.5 million currently dedicated to the PIU. About 400 cases are currently pending, with slightly more than 280 based solely in Travis County; newly appointed Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd had asked if any of the costs might be underwritten by other counties. Lehmberg responded that might be theoretically possible, but that often local D.A.’s are disinclined to prosecute politically sensitive cases in the first place, or lack the resources to do so. (Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was absent.)

Lehmberg noted that while there are some efforts at the Legislature to overturn Perry’s veto, she was unable to say whether any of them might succeed. Even should there be sufficient support from Republican legislators for funding the office, Gov. Perry determines the agenda for special sessions; if it’s not on his call, presumably it cannot be considered. County Judge Sam Biscoe eventually summarized, “So the future of the Public Integrity Unit depends on Travis County.” The Court took no action and has some time to make a decision, since the FY2014 budget does not take effect until Sept. 1; Biscoe recommended that the matter return as a proposed action item in the next week or two.


Travis DA claims responsibility for state corruption cases

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In her first public statement since Gov. Rick Perry tried to force her to resign by vetoing funding for her office, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said that her office has jurisdiction over state corruption cases — whether the state provides financial support or not.

Lehmberg said she appeared Tuesday before the Travis County Commissioners’ Court so its members could “formulate a plan they deem appropriate to continue operation” of the Public Integrity Unit, responsible for prosecuting state corruption cases. The governor Friday vetoed the $7.5 million in the new state budget for the office in an attempt to force Lehmberg, convicted in April of driving while intoxicated, to resign. (See her booking photo at left.)

“The Public Integrity Unit is a division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office with 35 employees who handle the investigation and prosecution of fraud and corruption cases that must be prosecuted in Travis County,” she said. “It is important to note that these cases — theft of state property, the filing of false paperwork with state agencies, corruption by state officials — are the responsibility of the Travis County district attorney, whether the State provides funding or not, because the offenses occur in this county, just as they would be the responsibility of other district attorneys for crimes occurring in their county.”

While funding may have disappeared with the veto, Lehmberg noted, “the responsibility for these cases remains with the Travis County district attorney’s office.”

If Democrat Lehmberg resigned or is removed from office, Perry would get to appoint her replacement. Some Austin Democrats have accused Perry of stripping her office of funding in an effort to gain an appointment in Democratic Travis County. So the veto means that local taxpayers will bear the brunt of Perry’s veto.


To the citizens of Travis County:

I understand many have commented both in support of and against my returning to office. I would like to speak for myself and this is the only form of communication available to me at this time.

I apologize to all of you. There can be no anger directed at me – or disappointment in me – greater than my own. And, I neither believe nor expect that any words written or speech given can possibly convey the magnitude of the shame I feel for breaking the law and therefore, the trust with the people I serve and the community I love.

My sincere apologies to the arresting officers and to the entire law enforcement community with whom I have worked side-by-side for 37 years and for whom I have always had great respect. After my arrest, I failed to act properly and I failed to show the respect that those law enforcement professionals deserve. For my misbehavior and disrespect toward them, I am truly sorry. I appreciate greatly their patience, civility, and professionalism.

I also owe an apology to the staff at the Travis County Jail. Their jobs are always difficult, and some of my behavior that night made their jobs even more difficult. And, while I have received no special treatment while in jail, I have been treated with respect and courtesy.

My apologies to those who have supported me in the past and through this very difficult time. I have been fortunate to have the backing of both Republicans and Democrats. There is no room for partisanship in the District Attorney’s office.

And, most of all, my apologies to this community. My life, like yours, is full of victories and defeats, highs and lows, joy and sadness, shining moments and stunning mistakes. I think you know where this moment lies.

Last, my sincere apologies to the staff of the District Attorney’s office. I know this experience has created anxiety and concern, but I also know them to be dedicated public servants who consistently put their own needs aside to serve the greater good.

It was both my choice and responsibility to plead guilty and to accept the punishment meted out by the court before I took any other action. To do otherwise never occurred to me.

There are three things I want you to know.

First and foremost, I take the offense of driving while intoxicated seriously.

There are hundreds of reasons that lead up to a single event in our lives – but no excuse for driving while intoxicated.

Second, upon my release, I will continue to seek professional help and guidance.

I know that I need help understanding and treating the cause of this behavior. For that reason, I am making arrangements for further professional assessments and pledge to follow all recommended treatment as soon as I have served my jail term.

And, third, I must deal with the civil issues facing me.

Some of that situation is out of my hands. But I can assure you I will address the issues in a forthright and honest manner.

As others have stated, I have never planned to seek a third term and will not. It is my hope to complete my term in office to complete the work we (my dedicated professional staff and I) started four years ago. I am proud of the work we have done from this office over the last 37 years and I hope to have the opportunity to continue that service.

I offer my deepest regret and most sincere apology and seek forgiveness from the people of Travis County.


Rosemary Lehmberg


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