SXSW buzz and abolishing the PIU

SXSW buzz and abolishing the PIU

The South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) is underway in Austin through March 22. Thousands attend the overlapping film, interactive and music festivals that make up SXSW which has been held each March since 1987. The festival attracts a wide range of musicians, filmmakers, designers, developers, investors, entrepreneurs and politicians for panels, discussions, screenings and concerts.  In addition to pumping millions of dollars into the Austin economy it provides a platform for leaders to deliver their own particular messages.

Gov. Greg Abbott hosted a reception at the Governor’s Mansion for dozens of tech executives in town for SXSW where he extolled the virtues of the Texas’ business climate.

“Texas is the quintessential entrepreneurial state,” Abbott said.  “The reason is because the state of Texas understands that we are on your side, not against you, not hostile to you, not putting up obstacles or barriers.”

The SXSW courtship continues next week when Abbott is planning to hold a reception for music industry executives, also  at the mansion with a similar ”Texas is pro-business” theme.

The ghost of politics past also appeared at SXSW as former vice  president Al Gore made his third visit in recent years as founder and chairman of the Climate Reality Project.

“We need to put a price on carbon to accelerate these market trends,” said Gore. “And in order to do that, we need to put a price on denial in politics.” The Chicago Tribune said Gore focused on the need to “punish climate-change deniers, saying politicians should pay a price for rejecting ‘accepted science.’” 

Also in town for SXSW was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, widely expected to enter the GOP presidential derby despite the fact his senate seat is up in 2016.  Paul’s campaign would likely seek to enlist younger, technologically-savvy voters like many of the SXSW attendees. The son of former Texas congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, the younger Paul was raised in Lake Jackson, Texas, attending Brazoswood High School and Baylor University . He quickly attracted national attention when he was elected to the Senate in his first try for elective office in 2010. 

Paul stopped by SXSW for an on-stage interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith that touched on the potential of campaigning with Snapchat and the changing media landscape.

“You look at Snapchat’s audience, it’s like an 18- to 24-year-old audience,” he said. “These are new voters. I’m worried about the next generation having jobs, having a robust economy, having privacy, having a bill of rights. I think a lot of kids are interested in that, but if you don’t go to a platform where they are, you won’t find them.”

Amidst the politics, technology and entrepreneurs at SXSW are over a thousand bands and dozens of films in the other venues as Austin becomes a media mecca during festival time each year.

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This week, the State Affairs Committee approved and sent to the full Senate a bill to strip the Public Integrity Unit from Travis County and move it to the Attorney General’s office in an attempt to make it “less political,” even though the AG is an elected official. 

The PIU has long been a thorn in the side of state officials from both parties, operating on the theory that since Travis County is the seat of government, crimes committed in Austin should be prosecuted there. The most recent flashpoint came when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was convicted of DWI in 2013. Then-Gov. Rick Perry demanded that she resign. Lehmberg, a veteran prosecutor and herself an elected official, refused and in fact Perry had no legal standing to remove her from office. Perry responded by vetoing the funding of the PIU, causing the grand jury to indict him for abuse of power and coercion of a public official. Those indictments against Perry are still being litigated and Lehmberg continues to serve as DA.

Under the new bill, the PIU would be disbanded and its functions moved to the Attorney General’s office for investigation. If any potential wrongdoing was found, the case would be sent to the elected official’s home county for prosecution. What could go wrong?

The idea that elected prosecutors and judges from a lawmaker’s home county will decide how – or if – allegations of criminal wrongdoing are handled seems problematic at best – and even then it would only go forward if it first survived the AG’s review process.

It is unclear how the proposed changes might have impacted a state senator who was “reprimanded” and fined $1,000 for violation of the Texas Securities Act. The PIU announced in January of this year that it would not prosecute Ken Paxton who had been sworn in a couple of weeks before – as Attorney General.

 

James Shannon covers politics and government for The Examiner. Contact him at james [at] theexaminer [dot] com.

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