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Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott drew heat for a Feb. 4 2014, speech in which he likened official corruption scandals in Texas-Mexico border counties to "third-world practices," a comment PolitiFact Texas unpacked in a Feb. 11 In Context article.
His comparison drew criticism from lawmakers, the McAllen newspaper and his main opponent in the governor’s race, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, who said, "Abbott even went as far as comparing the Texas border to a third-world country." (Abbott soon after won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the March 2014 primary.)
Responding to such criticism, Abbott said in a Feb. 10 opinion article in the McAllen Monitor that his concerns about corruption expressed in his speech "apply wherever corruption is found."
"Public service is a public trust," Abbott wrote. "As attorney general, I have prosecuted judges, district attorneys and other public officials across Texas who violated that trust, who have been corrupted."
We were curious about that because the attorney general’s office doesn’t focus on battling violent crime. That’s the purview of local prosecutors and police departments. As the Texas Constitution makes clear, the primary job of the attorney general is representing the state in civil matters.
Still, state law permits the attorney general to help prosecute a criminal case if a local prosecutor requests assistance. For such purposes, state lawmakers have allowed the attorney general to employ peace officers and lawyers with backgrounds in criminal prosecution to pitch in on occasion.
We asked Abbott’s office for information on the prosecutions he referred to in his commentary.
Spokeswoman Lauren Bean emailed us a list of 104 prosecutions handled by the agency since Abbott became attorney general in late 2002. The AG’s office was the lead prosecutor in the vast majority of the cases, she told us by phone.
The list included cases involving public officials from dog catcher (a child pornography case that ended in a guilty verdict) through higher city and county officials, tax assessors, sheriffs, justices of the peace, judges, assistant district attorneys and one former district attorney (who pleaded guilty to paying himself and others more than $2 million illegally while in office).
Crimes involving child pornography and taking public funds are certainly violations of the public trust, though we also wondered how many of Abbott’s cases involved corruption like the examples he presented in his "third-world" speech: a former state district judge sentenced to six years in prison for his role in a cash-for-favors scheme, a former sheriff’s captain who took bribes from drug traffickers; and law enforcement officials who stole drugs and resold them to dealers.
Abbott also noted in his Feb. 10 opinion piece that the Monitor had reported that "cases of public officials on the take have spiked." And, Abbott said, "there have been other stories about law enforcement officers in other Texas counties involved in money laundering, drug smuggling and accepting bribes to protect the cartels and their smuggling routes."
Texas Penal Code Chapter 1, Section 1.09, says the attorney general’s office can aid county or district attorneys in prosecuting certain criminal offenses including misuse of state property or funds and abuse of office, according to the office’s website.
Public corruption, bribery and abuse of office were specifically cited in some of Abbott’s prosecutions. We set aside those that did not immediately appear to relate to misusing a public office. Deleting DWI cases, child pornography or indecency, murder, assault/injury, sexual offenses and gambling left 61 prosecutions.
Eleven of those 61 prosecutions cited theft by a public servant. Others fell into criminal offense categories including bribery, (breach of) public integrity, official oppression, election violations, fraud and abuse of official capacity, as well as misappropriation or misallocation of public funds or property. The type of case in one prosecution involving an assistant county auditor was specifically given as "public corruption."
So certainly some of the prosecutions involved what ordinary citizens might regard as corruption.
We sought expert advice. Two attorneys suggested it’s not easy to decide when a criminal case involves corruption in office.
Director Gregg Cox of the Travis County district attorney’s special prosecutions division, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by public officials, told us by email, "There is no definition of ‘corruption’ in the Penal Code or Code of Criminal Procedure, and because the way that term is used can differ from office to office, I would just not be comfortable commenting on that."
George Dix, a criminal law expert and University of Texas law professor, said via email,
"I'm not sure what are 'corruption' cases. As far as I know, that is not a term of art. I suppose the term could mean a prosecution for a crime that requires proof of some official malfeasance."
Finally, we looked at whether the prosecutions occurred across Texas, as Abbott wrote, and at whether the prosecuted individuals included judges and district attorneys, as he said.
The 104 prosecutions occurred in about one-fourth of Texas’ 254 counties -- six on the border and 193 scattered elsewhere across the state.
Nine of Abbott’s public-official prosecutions involved a judge, assistant district attorney, county attorney and district attorney (at the time of his crimes). Four seemed not to be related to abuse of office: a child pornography case, two drunken-driving cases and one case involving misdemeanor offensive contact with an employee.
The remaining five prosecutions:
State v. David McCoy
A Feb. 21, 2008, Amarillo Globe-News news story said, "Suspended 100th District Court Judge David McCoy concluded an agreement with the state Attorney General's office Thursday afternoon that will prevent him from facing felony charges. … A Childress County Grand Jury indicted him on two felony indictments: abuse of official capacity and theft by a public servant." News reports provided no additional detail.
State v. Emil Karl Prohl
An April 29, 2010, Facebook post by the Kerrville Daily Times said, "Former 198th district judge Emil Karl Prohl has pled guilty to charges of misapplication of funds. He gets two years probation for taking double reimbursement for travel expenses out of several district and county accounts."
State vs. Joe Frank Garza
A May 9, 2011, Corpus Christi Caller-Times news story said, "Former 79th District Attorney Joe Frank Garza began serving a six-month stint behind bars on Monday for illegally paying himself and his employees more than $2 million from his office's drug forfeiture fund."
In re: Judge Christopher Dupuy
A Sept. 19, 2013, Houston Chronicle news story said, "A suspended Galveston judge pleaded guilty Thursday to two misdemeanors in exchange for two years of probation. County Court-at-Law Judge Christopher Dupuy pleaded guilty to abuse of office and perjury in exchange for two years of deferred adjudication. … The petition for removal accuses Dupuy of failing to obey an order from a state appeals court, abusing his authority by retaliating against attorneys and threatening the district clerk while attempting to interfere in his own divorce case."
State vs. Scott Tidwell
An Oct. 5, 2011, Associated Press news story said, "A former West Texas county attorney will spend four months in jail for retaliating against two nurses who made an anonymous complaint about a doctor to state medical regulators. … The nurses were fired from their jobs at a hospital in Kermit and charged with felonies."
Abbott said, "As attorney general, I have prosecuted judges, district attorneys and other public officials across Texas who violated that (public) trust, who have been corrupted."
During Abbott’s decade-plus as attorney general, his office has helped prosecute 104 cases against public officials across Texas -- 61 of them appearing to involve public corruption and five of those against judges, a county attorney and a DA.
We rate his statement as True.
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, speech, Dallas, Feb. 4, 2014
McAllen Monitor opinion article, "COMMENTARY BY GREG ABBOTT: Third-world comments not directed at RGV," Feb. 10, 2014
Email interview, excerpted, and telephone interview with Lauren Bean, deputy communications director, Texas Attorney General’s Office, Feb. 14-20, 2014
Office of the Attorney General list, "OAG Public Official Prosecutions," received by PolitiFact Texas on Feb. 14, 2014
Austin American-Statesman news story, "Laws complicate pursuit of youth agency charges," April 2, 2007
Email interview, excerpted, with George Dix, professor, University of Texas School of Law, Feb. 20 and March 5, 2014
Email interview, excerpted, with Gregg Cox, director, Special Prosecutions Division, Travis County District Attorney’s Office, Feb. 6, 2014
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