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Rick Stanford: Ethical clouds hangs over Texas Gov. Rick Perry

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Jason Stanford
May 1, 2014

When an ethics watchdog group filed a criminal complaint alleging that Texas Gov. Rick Perry committed bribery by threatening to veto anti-corruption funding unless the Travis County district attorney resigned, I had one thought:

We have ethics watchdogs in Texas? Dear lord, they must be tired. Sled dogs don't work that hard in Alaska.

In truth, the accusation seemed so ordinary for the Perry era. He has ruled unchallenged for so long it is as if he has rewritten the rules, which in many cases he has.

But he never got rid of the bribery law. In Texas, it is a crime for a public official (such as the governor) to coerce (as with a threat to veto funding) another public official (such as the Travis County DA) to do something (such as resign). I'm sure if I were a lawyer, this would be more complicated, but I'm not, and it isn't.

Here's where Republicans rightly claim Perry can veto all or part of any bill and fire any appointee or employee. What he can't do, says Craig McDonald, the aforementioned watchdog who filed the complaint, is explicitly make a veto threat conditional on the actions of a public official he does not control.

“He became more than a bully this time. He became a criminal,” said McDonald.

Still not sure this is bribery? What if Perry told Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County DA, to drop her investigation into irregularities with an $11 million public grant given by his cancer research institute to a company partly owned by a big donor to the governor? If Lehmberg didn't comply, Perry would veto her funding for that probe. We can all agree that would be wrong, right?

That's exactly what happened. When Perry made his veto threat, Lehmberg's Public Integrity Unit was looking into public grants made to Perry's donors by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, one of Perry's pet projects that, like most of his pet projects, devolved into ineffectiveness, cronyism and ethical gray areas. And by vetoing the funding, Perry would have shut down the CPRIT investigation as well as whatever else they were doing.

Let us pause to admire Texas' founding fathers for anticipating this moment. Investing the office of the Travis County DA with the power to investigate state government anticipated Attorney General Greg Abbott. His spirit animal must be an opossum because, when it comes to CPRIT, our state's top lawyer excels at playing dead.

Abbott might have a lot to add to the conversation. He sat on CPRIT's oversight board but never attended a single meeting. Meanwhile, donors who gave Abbott almost half a million dollars received $42.8 million from CPRIT, according to the Lone Star Project.

When CPRIT became a scandal, Abbott held his tongue. When Lehmberg's office started investigating CPRIT, Abbott stayed silent. When a Travis County grand jury indicted a CPRIT executive, Abbott didn't make a peep. If I ever have a secret worth keeping, I'm telling Abbott.

This is why corruption seems so normal in Texas. Republicans, who control everything in Texas but the weather and Rosemary Lehmberg, take the money but don't even have the decency to pretend they're shocked, shocked at all the gambling. Of course, when Republican donors always walk away with our money, it's not really gambling, now is it?

Perry followed through on his veto threat, but Travis County found enough money to keep the Public Integrity Unit working. Until we hire a better class of criminals to run this place, McDonald needs all the help he can get.

Maybe an ethical, transparent and accountable government is more an ideal than a real idea. When humans are playing Monopoly with tax dollars, maybe the best we can hope for is corruption where the rich get richer but the poor get something, too, such as paved roads.

What Perry and Abbott do is sadly normal, and sunshine isn't the best disinfectant. Otherwise, we wouldn't need the criminal justice system—or, for that matter, elections. But until Texas voters are willing to kick the bums out, we need prosecutors, judges and juries willing to hold our politicians accountable, as well as many more folks like McDonald.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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