Transparency and Ethics
Perry with his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, in 2003. (©Bob Daemmrich)
Rick Perry is probably not what Plato had in mind when he wrote that republics should be ruled by philosopher-kings. He has, as governor, been more honorable than many of his predecessors were and more ethical than many Texans would have insisted that their governor be. That’s not much of a compliment, though, considering his predecessors and the expectations in question. And so we can’t review the governor’s record on ethics and transparency without considering whether Texas is seriously committed to the same goals.
The good news first. Perry has taken an interest in transparency, at least as it relates to spending. He has signed a number of measures to make data about state and local finances available online, and the results have attracted national acclaim: Sunshine Week and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have both ranked Texas at or near the top of all states for government transparency.
Those have been worthwhile reforms, although Perry’s leadership on the subject should come with a couple of asterisks. It’s true that before he was governor, the state didn’t put much spending data online, but that’s partly because he became governor in 2000, well before most Americans had computers in their pockets. And in pursuing financial transparency, Perry has seemingly been more concerned about efficiency than ethics. When he has touted transparency as an ethical imperative, it has seemed political, as in 2009, when he issued an executive order commanding strict accounting standards for the federal funds that Texas was due to receive under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And then, at times, he has set transparency aside altogether, as last year, when he vetoed a “dark money” bill that would have required greater campaign finance disclosure.
Perry’s ethical lapses as governor mainly fall into two related categories: corruption and cronyism. He has packed state government with pals and asked them to do his bidding; he has disbursed billions of dollars in state money to private companies, some of which are owned by or affiliated with other pals. Complaints about these practices are reasonable. That is apparent from the disastrous executive order, which the Legislature overturned, requiring that young girls receive a new vaccine against cervical cancer; at the time, his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was working as a lobbyist for Merck, the pharmaceutical company that stood to benefit from the program. It’s also clear in the ongoing fallout over mismanagement at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), which was created after the state’s voters approved up to $3 billion in funds for that purpose in 2007 and which is under investigation for disbursing multimillion-dollar grants without proper review or oversight.
But Perry’s hands-on management style is legal enough, at least in Texas. The state constitution gives the governor fairly broad latitude to appoint people, in keeping with that document’s Reconstruction-era ambivalence about government itself: those jobs are supposed to be so easy that anyone can do them. And Perry’s so-called slush funds—the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund—were both authorized by the Legislature, which has subsequently appropriated billions of dollars for them. Governors can get away with that kind of thing if the voters don’t hold them accountable, which Texans haven’t, perhaps for a reason.
It’s significant, too, that the most high-profile ethical scandal of Perry’s administration may turn out to be one of his least controversial actions. Last year, he used his line-item veto power to remove state funding from Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit. He had warned he would do so unless Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney, resigned. Democrats argued that the governor’s motive was political, that because the unit in question is dedicated to prosecuting government corruption—it is currently investigating the troubled CPRIT—Perry must be trying to sabotage it.
But the governor had never tried to sabotage the PIU before Lehmberg was arrested, two months earlier, for drunk driving. Her blood alcohol content, hours after the arrest, was nearly three times as high as the legal limit. Grainy video footage of her staggering through the field sobriety test and lashing out later that night at the jail corroborated that finding. She was sentenced to 45 days in jail but was allowed to leave early to enter rehab. In his veto statement, Perry said that the district attorney had “lost the public’s confidence.” That seemed plausible, given the circumstances.
Lehmberg remains in office, and Travis County ponied up some money to offset the state cuts, as Perry had predicted they might. In April, however, a grand jury was seated to consider whether Perry ought to be indicted for coercion, bribery, or abuse of power. Democrats felt vindicated. They shouldn’t have. Their effort to turn this, of all things, into an ethical scandal suggests a resilient truth about Texas politics. Ethics may be valued, but they are rarely prioritized over more pragmatic concerns, like economic development or partisan jostling. Perry may not have led the state in a more enlightened direction. Did Texans want him to, though?
Quick stat: Estimated amount of questionable CPRIT grants: $56.3 million.