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Friday, August 22, 2014

Rick Perry: Oops

(Chatanooga Free Press, 2014)

AUSTIN, Texas — A little over a year ago, in Travis County, Texas, Democratic District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving. Lehmberg ended up serving 20 days behind bars. With her debt to the state paid, she returned to her duties. In addition to other cases, DA Lemberg oversaw the Texas Public Integrity Unit responsible for investigating public corruption, insurance fraud, and motor fuels tax fraud in the great state of Texas. Why is the Public Integrity Unit (PIU) important?  Well, as we mentioned, the tax payer funded PIU division is part of the Travis County District Attorney's Office, and as Travis County DA, Ms. Lehmberg also holds the chief responsibility for enforcing the government and election code statewide.

Despite the fact that this was Lehmberg’s first offense, and that the district attorney’s apologized to the public, Gov. Perry called for her resignation claiming she had simply lost the public’s confidence. Lehmberg chose not to resign. Gov. Rick Perry lost no time, announcing publicly that if she did not resign, he would use his veto power to strip her office of its state funding. He was serious. When Lehmberg didn’t step down, the governor followed through, vetoed her funding, thereby scrapping resources for the Texas PIU. Gov. Perry's veto didn’t completely shut the unit down, but it did force Lehmberg’s office to lose about a third of its staff. Anyone who has had to interact with a DA's office knows that they are usually a year backlogged as it is. The Texas PIU reportedly scrambled to cover the work with the people they had left, but the cut in funding effectively cut the legs out from under the office.

As a bit of prologue, the unit was created under the leadership of Ronnie Earle, who served as the Travis County DA for three decades until his retirement in 2008. Earle captured national attention with his investigations into U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) and former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R), and became the poster child for what Republicans view as the unit’s politically motivated prosecutions. He told the Texas Tribune that he started the stand alone unit in the early ‘80s because “it made no sense to me to see an aggravated robbery case next to a case about a state employee cheating on travel vouchers.” At the time, Earle says the investigation of government crimes was “mostly left to the newspapers” because the Travis County DA spent most of its time fighting street crime.

According to Earle, between 1978 and when he retired, in 2008, he prosecuted 19 elected officials, and only five of whom were Republicans.  Despite that, ‘Ol Ronnie Earle managed to piss off a whole bunch of republicans so much that dismantling the unit became a perennial platform plank of the Texas Republican Party who claim the unit's prosecutions were mostly politically motivated.

According to the Dallas Morning News, although Rick Perry was outraged at the video and arrest of a drunken Lehmberg last year, he didn’t feel that strongly when two other district attorneys faced the same charges under similar circumstances. In fact, in those cases, he said and did nothing. This is no small detail. If Perry was convinced a DUI was a disqualifier for a district attorney, why did the governor apply this standard so selectively?

In 2009, a Kaufman County D.A. was convicted of drunk driving, his second offense. Perry’s office said nothing, dismissing it as a local issue.

Going farther back, in 2002, a Swisher County district attorney was found guilty of aggravated DWI, which came against the backdrop of a scandal involving the prosecutor and a sting operation gone wrong. Again, Perry said nothing.

Democratic strategist Jason Stanford put it this way: “The key difference was that one of the DAs was investigating his administration for corruption, and the other two DAs weren’t.”

Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Perry certainly set precedence by turning a blind eye in the past when the drunk was a Republican. Democratic strategist Jason Stanford, added that Perry treated Lehmberg differently “in a way that makes you question what his motives were".

Apparently, Perry had a real clear motive. Lehmberg has been investigating him for corruption in connection with a cancer-fund scandal.

What cancer fund scandal you ask? As it turns out, Perry’s veto came as the ethics unit was investigating a state cancer center. Specifically, Lehmberg’s staff was investigating alleged corruption of the $3 billion taxpayer-supported effort to find a cure for cancer. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, known as CPRIT, revealed that some lucrative contracts were awarded without proper scrutiny and oversight. The biggest was an $11 million award to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, which is backed by Perry donors. The cancer center was one of Gov. Perry's pet projects, and it would appear that the fund may have awarded research grants too freely to some of his political allies. Since then, Perry got himself in hotter water when he attempted to financially coerce Lehmberg into leaving office. If Perry is convicted, these charges could hold a maximum sentence of 109 years.

The governor said this week, “The actions I took were not only lawful and legal, but right.”  Texas Democrats claim it’s more complicated than that, while Perry and his supporters have insisted the charges are politically motivated. Perry was indicted for abuse of power and public coercion. The governor pleaded not guilty.

Luckily for Perry, his indictment actually seems to have brought a wave of positive attention. Perry's New Hampshire adviser, Mike Dennehy, said that since the indictment was handed down, the number of people who have signed up to attend Perry’s speaking events has "gone through the roof." That’s probably why Rick Perry looked a little too cheerful in his mug shot. For a politician facing two felony counts, the Texas governor looked kind of silly tweeting a selfie while eating ice cream at a local burger joint directly after being booked and fingerprinted.

Today, Perry said, "I refer to Travis County as the blueberry in the tomato soup. If you know what that means." Perry added, "I guess I've been charged with bribery. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't understand the details here..." New York Times Editorial Board said yesterday, “Perry is one of the least thoughtful and most damaging state leaders in America.”

Perry has rebuked the indictment as grandstanding politics, saying “we don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.” He said his detractors are trying to do in court what they could never do at the ballot box in his record 14 years as Texas governor.

Interestingly enough, the case against Perry wouldn’t have reached a grand jury had it not been for a republican, Judge Bert Richardson, who assigned a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, to investigate the original complaint. It’s McCrum — and not Lehmberg or anyone in Travis County — who is pursuing the case against Perry. McCrum has refused to discuss specifics of the case, but insists that it’s stronger than might outwardly appear.

What evidence investigators have against Perry remains the big question. McCrum interviewed more than 40 witnesses and called several top Perry aides to testify before the grand jury on the cancer center scandal, resulting in the decision to indict the Governor. Neither McCrum nor grand jurors have disclosed what was presented behind closed doors, but four grand jurors, in interviews with The Houston Chronicle this week, defended their decision to indict and denied politics played any role.

Yesterday, Rachel Maddow said, "Don’t be so quick to dismiss Rick Perry indictment." Wayne Slater, senior political writer for Perry's local Dallas Morning News adds, the "indictment of Texas governor Rick Perry is a bigger deal than many realize. It is not a partisan attack. It's about coercion, not vetoes." Maddow concludes, "It would seem locally, from multiple papers, multiple different outlets, and from multiple different perspectives, seems like Texas is taking this more seriously than any one else is."

Watch this space.

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