Almost 90% of all corruption cases investigated by Texas Rangers are not prosecuted
Investigation summary: For decades, public corruption cases against state officials in the Texas capital have been investigated and prosecuted. But in 2015, after an uproar at the highest levels of state government, lawmakers instead shifted those responsibilities to the Texas Rangers and local prosecutors. A new analysis of cases over the past five years shows that few have been prosecuted and most ranger investigations have focused on lower-level officers. In an investigative partnership with the Texas Observer and other media outlets, KXAN takes a closer look at the flawed cases in central Texas and the legislative history that led to an allegation by system critics does little to hold your elected leaders accountable.
AUSTIN (KXAN) – On Memorial Day weekend in 2015, massive flooding tore through central Texas. Rivers poured over their banks and tore waterfront houses from their foundations. Cities were flooded.
While tragic deaths on the Blanco River and a dam break in Bastrop State Park made headlines, few noticed the damage caused by a low-water crossing on Wilbarger Creek Drive – a private cul-de-sac south of Elgin.
READ: Man loses his home after the leader of the Bastrop district placed a sign for “no trespassing”
Nobody knew then how this broken bridge would conjure up its own political storm. Two years later, Bastrop District Commissioner Gary “Bubba” Snowden was charged with three cases of abuse of office. Two of the charges were crimes of misusing public funds and county funds to renovate part of the road without the approval of county officials.
A new low water crossing is located at Wilbarger Creek in northeast Bastrop County. District officials approved funding for the bridge following the 2015 flood damage. The legality of the 0.8 mile renovation of the adjacent private road later became a focus in a public integrity indictment against District 4 Commissioner Gary “Bubba” Snowden. (KXAN Photo / Josh Hinkle)
Snowden’s case has been investigated as part of the state’s redesigned Public Integrity Unit. The former state-funded public integrity unit, housed in the Travis District Prosecutor’s Office, was disbanded in 2015 after alleging it politicized law enforcement. State lawmakers wanted to reform the system by shifting state corruption investigations to the Texas Rangers of the Department of Public Safety and prosecuting accused officials in their home counties rather than Travis County.
While the fundamental shift in law enforcement at the Public Integrity Unit did not fundamentally change how Snowden’s case was handled, the former Bastrop County Commissioner’s indictment and indictment exemplify most public corruption cases handled under the new system.
Now, six years later, an investigation by the Texas Observer and KXAN has found that there is almost no criminal prosecution of government officials for corruption. Since 2015, the Rangers have been investigating a handful of elected heads of state, but few have been charged.
From 2015 to 2020, the Texas Rangers completed more than 560 public investigations into corruption cases, but only 67 of those cases have been prosecuted, according to DPS data analyzed by the Observer. DPS said in an email to the Observer that there were hundreds of other inquiries and complaints beyond those investigated. No DPS or Texas Rangers officials would agree to speak to KXAN on this report.
The prosecutions carried out are mostly directed against subordinate local officials or government employees and usually end with light penalties. Several cases in central Texas followed this pattern.
In 2015, critics of Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit reform said a law revision would have the opposite effect. They said prosecuting public officials in their home area and being able to oversee local prosecutors – and drop charges – would encourage a new breed of corruption and reduce accountability.
Read the full investigation on KXAN.com to investigate high-profile cases in Central Texas and across the state, learn what led to the change in corruption detection, and what solution critics say will work better than the current one System.