“Paid to Prosecute”
Jay Root and Tony Plohetski
September 13, 2015
When the Austin American-Statesman and Texas Tribune teamed up to look into a highly unusual contract between the local district attorney’s office and a private insurance company, our reporters immediately knew they had a bombshell on their hands.
The state’s largest and oldest provider of workers’ compensation coverage — Texas Mutual Insurance — had paid millions of dollars to the Travis County district attorney’s office to get public prosecutors to pursue alleged crimes against the company. This conflict of interest had flown under the radar for more than a decade — a private justice system that gave special treatment to one insurer and subjected many unsuspecting workers to criminal prosecution.
In one case uncovered by our reporters, the Texas Mutual-funded prosecutors went after an injured small-town oilfield worker, Roy Kyees, who was arrested for workers’ compensation fraud and dragged into his hometown jail in leg chains. After the fight of his life to clear his name, prosecutors dropped the charges against Kyees, who later sued for malicious prosecution and won a settlement.
Over the course of a six-month investigation, Statesman and Tribune reporters found virtually no safeguards in the public-private prosecution arrangement to prevent abuse and disregard for the contractual terms of the relationship.
Our investigation provoked immediate criticism from state and local officials: The Travis County Commissioners Court launched an inquiry and state legislators vowed to seek changes to the law authorizing the relationship. Competing news organizations editorialized against the public-private partnership, saying it was “time to end this folly.”
Less than three weeks after publication of the series — and one day before the lucrative contract with Texas Mutual was to automatically renew — the Travis County district attorney announced that her office would sever the deal and implement alternative funding mechanisms that don’t present a conflict of interest. And she turned over hundreds of emails to the Tribune and the Statesman that her office had been blocking the release of for months.
It’s fair to say that without our investigation, injured workers would still be targeted under a deeply unfair arrangement, and voters and taxpayers would have no idea what influence was at play in their public justice system. We think this important and impactful work is worthy of your consideration.
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Submitted by John Bridges.