AUSTIN (KXAN) - A judge ruled Tuesday that the lawsuit to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg out of office will move forward.
It stems from her April arrest involving an alleged drunk driving incident and her controversial behavior in the hours to follow. District Judge David Peeples set a July 22 trial date for the case.
But now some wonder whether Gov. Rick Perry will veto funding for the district attorney's office in the state budget, if Lehmberg does not step down. It could mean losing $7.5 million - crucial to the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for investigating cases anywhere in Texas involving public corruption, insurance and tax fraud.
"That raises questions about state government maybe exercising a little bit too much control over ethics," said David Chamberlain, an Austin resident who has been following the case.
The governor's office has not yet announced a veto but says he is "still going through each line in the budget... and does have deep concerns with the integrity of the unit." The deadline for him to sign or veto items from the regular session is Sunday.
But critics have their own concerns if the state does not fund that unit. Right now, it is investigating a criminal complaint filed by the political action committee Progress Texas into wrongdoing at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.
"Now, Perry is alone trying to do what a bipartisan legislature refused to do with its eye on good governtment and good ethical watchdog work," said Glenn Smith, the group's director. "For Perry himself to say, 'I want to zero out funding,' he's basically saying, 'I'm going to kill the investigation into me and my friends.'"
The Public Integrity Unit earned nationwide attention in 2005 when it indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for illegal campaign finance activities. DeLay ended up leaving Congress, and he was convicted five years later on money laundering charges.
During the past six years, the PIU has obtained more than 680 convictions and court orders for more than $11.8 million in restitution, which has gone to Texas residents, cities (including Austin), the State of Texas and the federal government. These persons and entities would feel the pain of an ineffective PIU.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe issued a statement say that more than 420 cases are pending in the unit.The cases fall into three categories: state government general law matters; insurance fraud; and motor fuels tax.
"Consequently, the work of the PIU is very important to untold persons and governmental entities at all levels." Biscoe said.
More recently, the unit investigated fraud accusations against a campaign consultant for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
If Lehmberg does step down, Perry – a Republican – appoints her replacement.
Currently, it is a Democratic post. His office said it has spoken with Sen. Kirk Watson – an Austin Democrat – about the matter. Some say Watson could have influence in that decision.
So far, Lehmberg has said she will not resign but she will not run again when her term is up in 2016.
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