Few sitting governors get indicted, so the indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) — a 2016 presidential hopeful — naturally has been the subject of discussion and controversy.
As you’d expect, Perry and his supporters immediately branded the charges as political. But perhaps more surprisingly, many commentators in Washington also have questioned the motives of the prosecution, insinuating a partisan bias or bemoaning the criminalization of politics — claiming the governor has unfairly been indicted for engaging in the legitimate use of his executive authority.
Prosecutors allege Perry abused his power by vetoing funding for the state’s Public Integrity Unit in an attempt to coerce the unit’s head, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, into resigning. Perry maintains he was right to hold up the funding after Lehmberg, a Democrat, was convicted of drunk driving last year.
It certainly serves Perry’s interest to frame the dispute as a referendum on Lehmberg’s poor conduct, but a governor drunk on his own power can break the law and violate the public trust all on his own.
Under Lehmberg, the Public Integrity Unit pursued a criminal probe into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), after a Dallas Morning News investigation revealed that CPRIT made many grants to companies connected to Perry’s campaign contributors. That probe resulted in an indictment of a former CPRIT official last year.
The troubled cancer fund is hardly an outlier in Perry’s administration. Two other funds created by Perry to lure jobs to Texas, the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund (TETF), collectively awarded tens of millions of dollars to companies that donated to Perry, all with his approval.
Perry has built a national reputation touting his ability to draw business to Texas and excoriating Washington cronyism. But in 2010 the Texas Observer found 20 of the 55 companies that received TEF grants donated directly to Perry or to the Republican Governors Association, which Perry chaired from 2008 to 2011. Texans for Public Justice examined 45 companies receiving TEF grants and found that only 13 fulfilled all the terms of their contracts.
The Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was created to prosecute official corruption in the state capital. Perry’s record of crony capitalism over the course of his nearly-14-year tenure, doling out millions of dollars in public funding in cases in which he has a clear conflict of interest, made him a legitimate subject of inquiry. Further, had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have appointed her replacement, allowing him to insert a friendly Republican to oversee any investigations of his administration.
The governor’s claim that his effort to oust Lehmberg was nothing more than a stand against drunk driving defies credulity given his inaction when two other district attorneys, both Republicans, faced similar charges — one of those charged with a second offense.
And notably, it is not Lehmberg, but a special prosecutor previously supported for a nomination as U.S. Attorney by Republican Sens. John CornynJohn CornynCongress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default Mental health: The power of connecting requires the power of investing Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE and Kay Bailey Hutchison and appointed by a Republican state judge, who is in charge of the investigation.
Nonetheless, disappointingly, many uninformed observers — including well-known Democrats like David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama — have turned a blind eye to the convincing evidence of corruption underlying Perry’s veto, taking at face value his claim to be the victim of a partisan prosecution.
In our polarized political climate, government officials in both parties routinely rely on the partisan persecution defense to deflect attention from their own misconduct. Like Perry, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker alleges Democrats have orchestrated an investigation in whether he illegally coordinated with outside groups to beat a recall campaign — never mind that a separate investigation into Walker’s first campaign in 2010 resulted in several convictions. Similarly, Democratic Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.), under a Justice Department investigation for performing favors on behalf of a wealthy donor, has dismissed the allegations as the work of his political enemies and — in an interesting new spin — the Cuban government.
Misconduct should be evaluated based on the facts and the law, not partisan politics. Regardless of their own political leanings, Americans still expect those who hold positions of public trust to behave ethically. Those concerned that Perry’s indictment represents the criminalization of politics have it exactly backward. The threat to democracy is the increasing politicization of criminality, and the creation of different standards of conduct based on who engages in it.
Perry’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the Texas justice system he has vociferously defended. Hopefully the jurors in his case will be more deliberative than the self-appointed ones among the Washington pundits.
Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.