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Crimewatch: Perry veto puts Public Integrity jobs in jeopardy

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Some criminal cases are at risk of getting dropped if money isn't found soon to fund Travis County's Public Integrity Unit.

The governor slashed the unit's budget after the Travis County District Attorney refused to resign following her DWI arrest and conviction.

There are two attorneys working in the White Collar Crime Unit within the Travis County District Attorney's office -Bill Bishop and Laurie Drymalla.

Between them they have 150 active cases.

"It's overwhelmingly," Bishop said.

Assistant District Attorney, Bill Bishop, says in 2009, the unit had 60 active cases. The case load has more than doubled in four years. But staffing hasn't increased. To make a tough situation worse, White Collar Crimes may be getting even more cases soon.

"My biggest concern would be that cases would go uninvestigated or unprosecuted because of money which is not a good reason to not prosecute crime," Bishop said. "I would need more people."

The possible quagmire comes from whether or not the public integrity unit will still exist past August 30. That's when it runs out of money.

Governor Rick Perry line item vetoed its funding, $7.5 million in June because District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down.

Perry wants her resignation because of her April DWI arrest and conviction. He would be able to appoint her successor.

In early July, the Travis County Commissioners voted to lay off everyone in the Public Integrity Unit but agreed to pay them until September 30.

The court is also looking for additional funding but hopes that Representative Sylvester Turner's resolution to restore the unit's funding will get a hearing and pass. Until then, it's a state of limbo for the 31 employees. Susan Oswalt is head of the general state division.

"We are absolutely in a state of limbo. If you could imagine, I have 30 people that come through this office and ask me daily, am I going to have a job? Are we going to be ok? It is heart breaking at the end of the day to go home, people live day to day, check to check and I don't know what to tell them," Oswalt said.

"Everyone's nervous," Head of the Public Integrity Unity, Gregg Cox.

It's made up of 10 prosecutors, seven certified peace officer investigators, six forensic accountants, and support staff. There are currently 425 active cases the department is working on.

"On cases that have not yet been indicted, we'll have to go case by case basis and make decisions on whether it can be sent off to another county, or whether we need to keep moving forward with it, or should it just be declined," Bishop said.

Seventy percent of the cases happened in Travis County so they have to be prosecuted in Travis County.

Cox says there is nothing certain if the worst case scenario happens and the White Collar Crimes Unit has to pick up the extra cases.

"I don't know how they'll handle that," Cox said.

Cox says the White Collar Crime Unit will have to consider increasing the minimum financial threshold of a case or ask the trial division for help.

"It's difficult to ask a lawyer that has a sexual assault and an aggravated robbery those kinds of cases pending for trial to set everything aside and work on a white collar case that involves $20,000 worth of loss," Cox said.

A comparison with other county's white collar crime units highlights just how understaffed Travis County is.

Tarrant County works 300 cases. It has seven prosecutors and nine investigators. Bexar County has 600 cases. It has seven prosecutors, three forfeiture attorneys, and seven investigators. And El Paso County has 240 cases with five assistant district attorneys and three investigators who work those cases.

"It's a stressful experience," Bishop said.

The White Collar Crimes Unit is asking for more money for staffing again. This time, though, commissioners also have to consider funding the Public Integrity unit as well.

The White Collar Crimes unit also investigates all officer-involved shootings.

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