by ELIZABETH KOH
The Travis County Commissioners Court agreed on Tuesday to restore some money to the Travis County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit after Gov. Rick Perry in June eliminated state funding for the office. The five-member commissioners court voted 4-1 on the proposal, which will cost Travis County taxpayers about $1.8 million next year.
The funding fight was the latest in a series of struggles for embattled Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who was arrested for and convicted of drunken driving in April. Despite pressure from lawmakers and Perry, Lehmberg refused to resign. Perry cut funding for the integrity unit — which investigates public corruption, insurance fraud and motor fuels tax fraud — for the next two years, arguing in his veto explanation that “the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
Lehmberg told the commissioners on Tuesday that continuing the unit’s work was vital and that it affects both Travis County and all of Texas.
She said the staff had already “scrubbed down our budget” to eliminate unnecessary costs.
The new budget will be substantially less than the unit’s previous annual operating budget of $3.7 million, which had been funded by the state. Its annual budget will now total $2.5 million, including $1.8 million from county tax funds and up to $734,422 from forfeited property controlled by the county.
The smaller budget will require the unit to reduce some of its responsibilities. At least 52 of its current 425 cases — primarily in insurance and tax fraud — will be returned to the referring state agencies, and the unit will no longer take statewide cases, Lehmberg said.
The plan will also reduce the number of employees from 34 to 24.
The proposed budget for the unit will take effect in October, when its new fiscal year begins.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who was the only vote against the proposal, argued forcefully against using taxpayer money to fund the unit.
“Is it fair to the taxpayers of Travis County to take [the unit’s budget] on?” he asked.
Though the other four commissioners acknowledged the difficulty of asking taxpayers to shoulder the burden, “we have to make some of the tough decisions here,” said Commissioner Margaret Gomez.
“We have a moral responsibility as well as the district attorney to prosecute crime,” said Commissioner Bruce Todd. “My fear is that some of that would be lost by simply saying, ‘no.’”
After the hearing, Lehmberg declined to answer questions about the personal fallout from her April conviction, but said she was working “steadfastly” to regain voters’ confidence.
“It is not Rick Perry’s job to fire me or to relieve me,” Lehmberg said. “He did not elect me, Travis County voters elected me, and I answer to them.”
ELIZABETH KOH reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print