The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit will shrink, but it will live another year. That’s after local funding kicked in on Oct. 1 to replace the expired state funding that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed in June.
Travis County commissioners on Sept. 24 voted 3-2 to approve a 2014 budget, including $1.81 million for the unit. Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg also contributed $734,422 from the DA’s office’s Forfeited Property Account. The commissioners voted unanimously to notify most of the unit’s employees that they are no longer subject to a “reduction in force.”
Just two forensic analysts will lose their jobs, which is fewer layoffs than first expected. Although state law gives the unit statewide venue to prosecute certain insurance and tax-fraud offenses, the leaner unit will no longer accept statewide cases, instead focusing on prosecuting offenses that occur in Travis County.
Lehmberg says she’s happy the county is funding the unit instead of the state.
“I will absolutely consider going back to the Legislature for funding of things that involve the loss of state property and the like. But I want to take a look at how many of those cases involve officials, because I would like to have a discussion about avoiding the political football,” she says — “[t]he political debate that we go through every two years, and have for as long as I remember, about who is getting investigated and who got prosecuted and what party they happened to belong to.”
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe says about the need for the county funding, “I regret that it happened. I wish it had not, but it did. I think we responded in the only reasonable manner we could. Those cases didn’t go away because funding did.”
No one at the Governor’s Press Office immediately returned a telephone call seeking comment.
The $2.55 million in local funding is much less than the state funding — of $3.74 million for 2014 and $3.83 million in 2015 — that Perry vetoed, noting he wouldn’t support the funding when the person in charge of the unit had “lost the public’s confidence.” Lehmberg was convicted of driving while intoxicated in April.
The state money would have allowed for 35.5 full-time-equivalent (FTE) employees for the unit, although some of those jobs were never filled, and other employees left or retired while the funding was uncertain.
The local 2014 funding would have provided for 23.5 FTEs — 15 jobs paid from the county appropriation and 8.5 through Lehmberg’s Forfeited Property Account.
But that account will be depleted in 2015, so Lehmberg says she’s transferring unit employees to other departments as positions become available. As of Sept. 30 there are just 20.5 FTEs working in the unit, says Gregg Cox, the Public Integrity Unit director. That includes seven assistant DAs, including Cox; that’s down from 10 lawyers before Perry’s veto.
About the unit’s workers, Lehmberg says, “I think they’re no longer uncertain and feel much more confident about the future of their jobs.”
She notes that she merged the Public Integrity Unit with her local White Collar Crime unit, because the arrangement gives extra resources to prosecute white-collar crime and it creates a uniform way to manage both types of cases.
Her office is creating “performance measures” so it can argue to commissioners next year about the importance of continuing county funding.
Going forward, the unit will only accept Travis County cases. However, it must finish out some statewide cases that are already progressing through the criminal justice system.
Lehmberg says her office has generated billing numbers for the leftover statewide cases, and employees who work on them must track their time. Lehmberg’s office plans to send invoices to the counties where those offenses occurred, although she says she’s unsure whether counties will pay the invoices.
“We worked really hard on reconfiguring and sort of reorganizing how we wanted to approach these cases and came up with, I think, some pretty good solutions,” says Lehmberg.