Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stop the fighting

C'mon guys get on the same page here.

We are all on the same side.

Of course the dispute involves what happens to the seized money.

Crime initiative threatened
By Janet Elliott - Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — It's the latest crime-fighting tool lawmakers want to wield against gangs that traffic in drugs, weapons and humans — go after the lucrative proceeds with civil lawsuits to freeze and seize assets.

But because the authority to file those actions would go to the state attorney general instead of local prosecutors, a rare rift between the district attorneys and Attorney General Greg Abbott's office threatens the legislation.

Prosecutors are worried that a judge would freeze a suspected gang leaders' bank account, tipping off the suspect that authorities are closing in and possibly jeopardizing a local criminal investigation.

They also are concerned that most of the money from seized bank accounts would go into a state victims' compensation fund instead of being used locally for law enforcement.

“This is cast as a crime-fighting bill, but the folks who do the crime fighting in Texas aren't in the bill,” said Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association, which is working to kill it.

The fight is delaying Senate floor debate on the proposed Texas Racketeering and Corruption Act.

The bill's author, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said much of the prosecutors' opposition is unwarranted. He has modified the bill to require the attorney general to halt a civil action if it would compromise a criminal probe.

Also, Williams said, Abbott's office cannot step in unless there's a pattern of criminal activity that crosses more than one county line.

Gangs such as MS-13 and the Texas Mexican Mafia need to be “hit where they hurt — in the pocketbook,” Williams said. He believes the program could generate significant money.

“I think we are talking tens of millions of dollars once the program's up and running,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, drug smuggling, arms smuggling, human trafficking — it's big business.”

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and prosecutors from Bexar County and El Paso spoke out against the Senate version of the bill last month.

“What is so egregious is that the attorney general wants to take 80 percent of the money and give only 20 percent to law enforcement,” said Lykos, a former judge and police officer. “Our office gives 70 percent to law enforcement.”

Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott, said the legislation creates an entirely new mechanism for pursuing more criminal proceeds that are beyond the reach of a single-county district attorney.

“Ultimately, Lykos' remarks miss the point. The law is not about a money grab or turf; this measure is about making Texas safer,” Strickland said.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio and co-author of the bill, said local prosecutors often prosecute individual gang members but don't go after those at the top.

“In human trafficking, the person who does the transport, that's a little minnow in the organization,” she said. “Does it behoove us to go after the criminal there? Yes, but only if you can get to the huge ringleaders. That's what this does. It allows us to get to those profits.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO also have opposed the bill because they believe it gives too much power to the attorney general that could be used against political or labor groups.

A similar House bill was filed by Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg. It was left pending in a Criminal Jurisprudence subcommittee after a public hearing last month.