Five Changes to How Politicians Are Prosecuted

Greg Abbott called on the 2015 Legislature to reform itself with new ethics laws, and reform it did: It created one set of procedures for politicians and another for everybody else. This story is part of our 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

 Bob Daemmrich

Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.

Gov. Greg Abbott called on the 2015 Texas Legislature to reform itself with new ethics laws, and reform it did — at least when it came to creating one set of procedures for politicians and bureaucrats and another one for everybody else.

The reforms are contained in a new law changing the way state public corruption cases will be handled in the criminal justice system.

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Known as House Bill 1690, it takes effect Sept. 1 and will radically modify the way Texas elected officials and state employees are investigated and prosecuted for corruption stemming from their government jobs, such as bribery, misuse of campaign funds and public coercion.

Here are five key changes under HB 1690 — and the corresponding provisions in the Texas state budget: 

Carve-out:

The law specifically creates a new category of defendant — “state officers” and “state employees” — and carves out new procedures for investigating and prosecuting them when they allegedly misuse their government position or commit so-called “offenses against public administration,” such as influence peddling and abuse of power.

Included in the new class of defendant are employees of state agencies, the statewide courts and courts of appeals, legislative officers, gubernatorial appointees and, of course, any state elected official. 

Venue:

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In nearly every criminal case in Texas, venue — the place where an investigation and trial takes place — is established in the county where the crime allegedly occurred. In fact, the law says that if there’s confusion about proper venue, it goes to the county “in which the offense was committed.”

The new law changes that concept for elected officials and state employees. Now, when there are alleged crimes involving public corruption among this special class of defendant, the case will be transferred to the person’s county of residence, defined as the place where he or she claims a homestead.

Public Integrity Unit:

Before HB 1690, the Travis County public integrity unit handled investigations and prosecutions of public corruption committed in the state capital. Under the new law, pushed by Republican leaders who criticized the Democrat-controlled unit as poorly run and overly partisan, the initial investigations will be handled by a newly established public integrity unit under the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

When the new white-collar crimes unit finds credible allegations of public corruption, the Rangers will refer the case to the appropriate prosecutor in the county of residence of the politicians and bureaucrats under investigation.

Budget:

The Legislature wiped out the funding that used to go to the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office to pursue corruption prosecutions. Lawmakers did not specifically appropriate funds for a separate corruption investigations unit inside the Texas Rangers, but they did provide $500,000 over the next two years to handle certain travel costs and other expenses related to investigating and prosecuting the cases.

Recusal:

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The new law envisions the scenario in which a prosecuting attorney — say, a friend or close ally of the accused politician — might have a conflict of interest and need to step aside. In the case that a prosecutor presents a recusal notice, the presiding judge in the particular region, as designated by the state judiciary, appoints a special prosecutor from another county to handle the case.