There’s no way to sugar coat it—the roots of public corruption run deep in Texas soil.
From LBJ’s 1948 Box 13 scandal to the undoing of the Crystal City government in 2016, insidious behavior from elected officials is a pervasive problem that erodes the public’s trust between skyscraper and t-post.
And what is the state doing about it? Is it doing enough?
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) couldn’t answer. Spokesperson Kayleigh Lawson stated in an email that the OAG could not provide an interview on this subject and referred us to the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The answers are not much, and no, according to Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
“I think that there [are] some fundamental things very wrong with the Texas political system which results in corruption and even things that are legal that most citizens would think corrupt,” McDonald said.
He cited Texas’ loose restrictions on campaign spending and donations and the state’s “very few restrictions, if any, on revolving door from business to government back to business.”
“Those instances don’t get prosecuted because they’re written in Texas statutes as the legal way we do business here,” McDonald said.
Texas gets an F in transparency
The Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Investigation (updated in 2018) gave Texas an “F” grade in political financing, lobbying disclosure, executive accountability, electoral oversight and public access to information.
These statistics seem like the perfect ingredients for widespread public corruption.
According to Special Agent Michelle Lee, a public affairs officer at the FBI-San Antonio office, the number of cases opened in their office doubled from 2012 through 2013 and tripled in 2014.
In 2015, they opened up cases of significant proportions requiring an array of personnel resources. She also noted that 75 percent of their cases are concentrated along the border.
The border has been a hotbed of corrupt activity. From the Rio Grande Valley to Val Verde County the integrity of public officials has been compromised on a massive scale.
Two widely publicized cases in 2013 involved a former Hidalgo County sheriff and his son, a former police officer. In 2016, another highly reported case included five former officials of Crystal City that reportedly left the rural city $3 million in debt.
Continuing up the Rio Grande, four Maverick County commissioners and one justice of the peace were arrested in 2015 on bribery charges and involvement in a bid-rigging scheme. And in 2015, a Val Verde county commissioner was arrested on charges that included bribery, false statements on tax returns and wire fraud.
More recently and away from the border, former state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio was convicted of 11 felonies in 2018, including fraud and money laundering. He was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in federal prison. Uresti was also charged and sentenced in a Reeves County Correctional Center inmate medical services contract case involving the division of bribery payments with former Reeves County Judge Jimmy Galindo.
Gov. Perry cut $7 million in anti-corruption funding
While some of the violations in these investigations overlap, it seems the FBI does most of the heavy lifting in these local and state-level cases, whether federal or state laws were broken.
There are some investigatory resources available to the state regarding public corruption. Yet in 2013, former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed more than $7 million in funding for the state Public Integrity Unit, located in the Travis County District Attorney’s office and charged with investigating public corruption. The veto essentially ended the life of the unit.
However, it was resurrected through legislation a couple of years later and came under the purview of the Texas Rangers. The iconic law enforcement division of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) operates two units.
Their Public Corruption Unit was established by the 81st Legislature and is mandated to investigate public corruption as it pertains to public officials, officers of the law and any other person who holds a position of trust. The new or incipient Public Integrity Unit is responsible for investigating offenses committed by state officers and employees removing that authority from the Travis County District Attorney’s office.
The DPS had not definitively responded to a request for an interview and data prior to the submission of this article.
Ty Clevenger, a former justice department attorney and Texas lawyer who filed a federal lawsuit in 2018 against several employees of the DPS on behalf of a former special agent with the DPS criminal investigation division, believes the state isn’t committed to battling the scourge of public corruption.
“I have no confidence in the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, or the legislature,” he wrote via email. “Most elected Republicans in Texas point to D.C. and complain about how corrupt it is — and the federal government is pervasively corrupt — but that has become a distraction from how bad things are in Austin. Texas has never been serious about fighting corruption, and that was true when the state was run by Democrats.”
McDonald doesn’t believe the state possesses a bona fide oversight or enforcement agency to combat public misconduct.
Ethics commission effectiveness questioned
“I don’t think there’s much of an enforcement agency out there,” McDonald said. “The attorney general’s office is certainly not a watchdog for political corruption.”
He added that the Attorney General’s office “ will take a case or two but only when called in.”
“The AG doesn’t have any direct statutory authority to investigate or prosecute political corruption per se,” McDonald said. “It only happens when it comes to their attention through other sources. So there’s not really a regime of investigation on the lookout for political corruption.”
Texas does possess an ethics commission, but its effectiveness is questionable. According to the agency it is authorized to “undertake civil enforcement actions on its own motion or in response to a sworn complaint, hold enforcement hearings, issue orders, and impose civil penalties…The Commission may ultimately resolve a sworn complaint by dismissal, referral for criminal prosecution, or imposition of a civil penalty.”
”It doesn’t discourage, if you will, bad behavior because of the leniency of the fines and penalties,” McDonald said. Instead, McDonald said regulatory authority comes from the citizens and much of what is brought forth is done by third parties. Yet, he added that most people don’t have the capacity for sifting through laws and conducting the necessary research to file a formal complaint.
“Most of the enforcement that comes is third party triggered by the citizen[s] with complaints…so the political institutions, be they local or statewide, don’t play much of a role in ferreting out or prosecuting corruption,” he said.
McDonald believes the powers that be don’t want to inhibit corruption.
“I mean, it’s clear the legislature has tried to limit the power of the ethics commission,” he said. “They tried to make it easier for corrupt state officials to escape prosecution. It’s their job…Circle the wagons and protect the powerful.”
He said they have been working on reforms and restrictions for more than 20 years but have mostly spun their wheels.
“It’s almost a hopeless grind,” he remarked.
Through votes or watchdog actions, the state’s citizens will ultimately decide how to hold public officials accountable.