On "Briberygate"
Mon April 28, 2014 4:19 pm

Apologies to all for the gap in posting. My HVAC unit conked out Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, the interior temperature of my condo had started to seem like the most critical problem in the state of Texas today, and it was certainly the issue that most compelled  my attention. While awaiting another repairman, though, I thought I'd take a moment to run through another development that readers may find equally interesting.

A grand jury is considering whether to bring criminal charges against Rick Perry for his actions in relation to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg's 2013 arrest (and subsequent conviction) for drunk driving. As you may recall, in June, Perry used his line-item veto to remove about $7.5million in state funding for the Public Integrity Unit, an anti-corruption project of the Travis County DA's office, from the 2014-15 budget. This was something he had threatened to do if she didn't resign, and the veto elicited a formal complaint from the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, who argued that the veto threat probably violated state laws against coercion and official abuse of power. That complaint led a San Antonio judge to appoint a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, who has been investigating the situation, and who has recently made it clear that he is "concerned" about what he's discovered. 

The seating of the grand jury apparently struck Democrats as a political opportunity, and for the past ten days or so they've been hammering Perry about corruption. The Public Integrity Unit, they've argued, is a threat to statewide Republican leaders who would rather no one investigate scandals such as CPRIT. In other word, according to his critics, Perry sought to remove Lehmberg because that would give him a chance to appoint her replacement--a Republican, presumably, who would be more sympathetic to the governor's priorities. 

Even for Texas Democrats, this strikes me as an inexplicable bungle.

The first reason is the context. On the night of the arrest, Lehmberg had been swerving badly enough that another driver had called in to report her. She had an open container of vodka in the car. She bombed the field sobriety test, and her blood alcohol level, when tested, turned out to be nearly three times the legal limit. Once the police brought her in, she was so belligerent, in the jail, that she had to be physically restrained. She was so uncooperative that night that police recorded her, meaning that videos of the aforementioned field sobriety tests, and the lashing out in prison, are readily available on YouTube. In the aftermath of the arrest, Lehmberg spent 20 days in jail (of a 45-day sentence) and later faced a civil suit that sought to remove her from office, where she prevailed, but only after her personal problems were extensively and publicly documented. She clearly should have resigned. Most Texans would agree with the governor on that. Even if he's eventually indicted for the tactics he used to try to make that happen, Perry's goal was clearly defensible.

Second, the Democrats clamoring about briberygate haven't been particularly clear about what they think Perry did wrong. At first, the implication was that the line-item veto itself was an attempt at coercion, because Perry had publicly said that he would only veto the funds if Lehmberg didn't resign. A few days later, they were focused on reports that Perry's staff had communicated to Lehmberg's, after the veto, that the governor was willing to restore funding if she resigned: that, they argued, was tantamount to bribery. Then, late last week, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Perry's people had actually offered a more concrete bribe: if Lehmberg resigned, he would offer her a job somewhere else in the Travis County DA's office, and he would appoint her replacement from among the Democrats already in the office.

These may be subtle distinctions, but the vagueness is giving the impression that the overarching goal is to indict Perry for something, rather than to defend a particular principle or law. If Perry is ultimately indicted for trying to bribe Lehmberg with a job offer, that would suggest that the veto itself wasn't illegal overreach on his part, despite the Democrats' high dudgeon over it. And if the San Antonio Express-News's reporting is correct, then Democrats may have made a serious tactical error. If Perry secretly promised to replace Lehmberg with a Democrat already working in her office, he may well have overstepped some ethical line, but he apparently wasn't trying to scuttle the CPRIT investigation by appointing a personal crony, which is what Democrats have been accusing him of since he first called on Lehmberg to resign.

As for the other ethics-scandal story of last week--Republican attorney-general candidate Ken Paxton's failure to disclose a number of personal and business relationships on his personal financial statements--I am glad that those omissions have been corrected, and am optimistic that all of this year's attorney-general candidates are aware that the job they're seeking requires them to defend Texas's laws, rather than flout them. It is, perhaps, a problem for Paxton's campaign that he's avoided public appearances since the omissions were first reported, but let's withhold judgment on that part; maybe he too is waiting for the HVAC repairman.   

( AP Image/Susan Walsh )

Tags: POLITICS

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