FINANCE CONSIDERS PUBLIC INTEGRITY UNIT
|The Senate Finance Committee began public budget hearings Monday, starting with issues related to Article IV, the judiciary.|
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Finance Committee began hearings Monday on the budget, beginning with Article Four, the state judiciary and other judicial agencies. Among the issues considered were the budgets of state appeals courts and the state Supreme Court, but the most controversial program was not in the budget at all. Senate Finance Chair Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound did not include the Public Integrity Unit in the initial budget, saying that the Legislature needs to weigh in on the scope and location of the agency before it is funded. "I certainly believe that the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important," said Nelson. "I know there is going to be a discussion this session…about where the function should be placed and at what level they should be funded, and so I didn't put anything in [the budget] until we know where we're going with this"
The PIU is a state funded office, located in Travis County and overseen by the county district attorney, charged with prosecuting cases of fraud against the government as well as investigating allegations of public corruption by state employees and officials. Funding for the PIU was vetoed last session by then-Governor Rick Perry after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg pled guilty to drunk driving in April 2013. Perry said that funding for the PIU would not go forward until Lehmberg stepped down, and after she refused, Perry used his line item veto power to remove PIU funding from the state budget. Travis County appropriated limited funds to keep the PIU operating.
PIU Director Gregg Cox said that the vast majority of the PIU's operations dealt with fraud against the state, rather than public corruption, which comprised about eight percent of the agency's caseload. Since the loss of funding, he said, the obligation of prosecuting insurance and state motor fuels tax fraud cases have been sent back to the counties in which the crimes were alleged to have occurred. Martin Cano of the Comptroller's Office testified this amounted to 44 cases, of which only a handful are awaiting disposition. Cano added that his office had to spend some time and money up front to educate prosecutors on the complexities of tax fraud cases, but since that time has not had to lay out additional resources.
In the area of public corruption, Cox said that the vast majority of those cases are prosecutions of public employees, and that there is only one case of alleged misconduct by a public official being investigated by his agency. When asked by Southside Place Senator Joan Huffman about their staffing needs to meet their duties to investigate corruption, Cox estimated that the agency needs two prosecutors, one investigator and one forensic analyst to meet their needs.
Nelson told reporters two weeks ago that the Senate version of the state budget would not include funding for the PIU. "The purpose of that is to give us the opportunity to decide where it does belong," she said at the January press conference. She said that the unit would be funded where ever the legislature decided, but she does not believe it should stay in Austin. "I personally don't believe it belongs in Travis County," said Nelson. "I think it's too political."
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 3 at 11 a.m.