These days, we’re hearing increasingly less from Gov. Rick Perry. It’s his last year in office, and he’s been taking it easy—having fun in the South Pacific while his would-be competitors in the 2016 presidential primary flame out in spectacular fashion.
He may not keep that low profile for that much longer, though. A little scandal from the doldrums of last summer is roaring back to life, and Perry faces the threat of criminal charges over accusations that he tried to force the Travis County district attorney to resign. There’s the added intrigue over the allegation that Perry’s aim was to kill an investigation into the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). It’s one little thread in the well-worn sweater of Gov. Perry’s long tenure in office, but it threatens to damage his presidential ambitions.
With stories like these, which build up and fade over long periods of time, it’s difficult to follow what’s really going on. Many people—including more than a few national reporters—seemed surprised to learn this week that the longest-serving governor in Texas history may be facing indictment. We hope this primer helps catch you up on the story so far.
So how’d all this start?
Like many schemes, it started with vodka. Rosemary Lehmberg had been serving as Travis County DA for a little more than four years when, late on the night of April 12, 2013, she was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin. Police found an open vodka bottle in the car and arrested her. She verbally berated the arresting officers, and she didn’t stop the verbal abuse when she got to jail. Lehmberg was strapped into a restraining chair. Hours after her arrest, she blew a .239, almost three times the legal limit.
Lehmberg’s jailers starting filming her, as they sometimes do with uncooperative detainees. That footage quickly found its way into the hands of media outlets. It’s incredibly embarrassing stuff—from Lehmberg’s thinly veiled threats against sheriff’s deputies, to her repeated requests to call Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton (“He’s not going to let me sit in jail all night”) to the placement of a hood, commonly known as a “spit mask,” on Lehmberg’s head. She ultimately pleaded guilty and served about half of a 45-day jail term. Calls for Lehmberg to resign started circulating immediately. She didn’t.
Why didn’t Lehmberg resign?
In a word, politics. Lehmberg is a Democrat, and if she stepped down, Rick Perry would be the one to appoint a replacement. Moreover, the Travis County DA—as the prosecutor in the state’s capital—has special responsibilities over a variety of statewide legal issues. Foremost among these powers is the DA’s control of the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates the ethical breaches of state politicians, among a number of other charges.
The Public Integrity Unit might be the most important office in state government run by a Democrat. Gov. Perry has been in office for 14 years—every nook and cranny of state government is filled with his appointees. The Public Integrity Unit is the rare piece that he doesn’t control. In 2005, the work of the Public Integrity Unit led to the indictment of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. So naturally, for years, Republicans in the state have tried to strip that power from the Travis County DA and fold it into Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office.
What’s more, the Public Integrity Unit was in the process of conducting an investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. CPRIT received a ton of money from the Legislature to award grants to high-level medical research projects. The problem: a lot of that money was going to people who shouldn’t have gotten it. And some of those folks had close ties to Perry. Just a few months ago, Lehmberg’s office indicted CPRIT’s former director over his allegedly improper disbursement of an $11 million grant. But when Lehmberg got pulled over with the potato juice in her car last spring, the investigation was just underway.
When Lehmberg’s DWI went public, Republicans saw a way to get rid of a pesky, entrenched foe. (Though they couched this in terms of their deep, abiding concern for the office’s integrity.) Meanwhile, Democrats who would have happily seen Lehmberg canned if the Travis County Commissioners Court could have appointed her replacement rallied around Lehmberg as if she was the last warrior for righteousness on Earth.
But what did Perry do, exactly?
He threatened, publicly, to use his line item-veto power to zero out the Public Integrity Unit’s budget. Since that part of the Travis DA’s office played a statewide role, it was funded by the state. This kind of threat isn’t unusual. Executives use veto threats all the time to get what they want. The difference this time was that Perry had the audacity to do it all publicly. It’s unusual for an elected official to bully another elected official into resigning. And when threats didn’t work, he followed through on it. At the end of last year’s legislative session, Perry eliminated the entirety of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding–some $8 million over two years. Money that was going to investigate, in small part, his own party’s mismanagement of state government agencies, including alleged corruption in CPRIT.
That seems pretty slimy.
It does. The Travis County Commissioners Court pitched in to restore about half of the Public Integrity Unit’s annual budget, which allowed the unit to continue operating at a reduced pace and continue the CPRIT investigation. Residents of the Austin metropolitan area remain very grateful that money didn’t go to road maintenance or a library or whatever.
Couldn’t this whole fight have been really easily avoided if Perry had offered to appoint another Democrat to replace Lehmberg, or ask Travis County to nominate possible successors?
Sure. But Perry really wanted his own person there. We even know, according to some media reports, who it would have been: former Republican state Rep. Terry Keel, someone with excellent ties to the state GOP’s political apparatus.
OK, but that’s how politics goes, right? It’s not beanbag, as they say. What’s illegal about this?
Some charge that Perry’s threat basically constituted blackmail—the state seeking to unduly interfere in local affairs. Lehmberg was elected by the voters, after all. In June of last year, Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, filed a complaint (PDF) against Perry in a Travis County court. He charged the guv with a number of criminal acts, including coercion of a public servant, bribery, and abuse of official capacity.
The judge appointed a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum. By most accounts, McCrum is tough and relatively nonpartisan. The investigation ambled along for a couple months until last week, when McCrum broke his silence. He told the Austin American-Statesman that the case had left him “concerned.”
Concerned? By what?
“I cannot elaborate on what exactly is concerning me,” he said to the Statesman. “But I can tell you I am very concerned about certain aspects of what happened here.” When asked if his concerns related to Perry’s actions, he said that they did.
With that, last year’s news came roaring back. The prospect of criminal charges suddenly seemed to become real. A few days ago, Perry hired a very expensive criminal defense lawyer to represent him to the ongoing inquiry. A Travis County grand jury began hearing evidence in the case this week.
Does this hurt Perry even if there’s ultimately no criminal charges?
Maybe. Perry sure looks like he intends to run in 2016. Thanks to Chris Christie, being a “bullying governor” isn’t exactly a hot stock right now. This is a sad little episode all around, and despite the length of this article, it’s relatively easy to explain—Perry blew up something called the “Public Integrity Unit” to undercut a DA he didn’t like. That’s the line Democratic groups are leading with, Lehmberg’s foibles be damned. It undercuts his friendly, down-home image.
But what dinged Christie so bad about Bridgegate was that his victims were innocent—people waiting in traffic, an ambulance delayed. When Christie’s scandal expanded to the even more shocking allegations of a Democratic mayor, there was strangely less outrage. If a conflict is between two political actors, a lot of people think it’s par for the course. One political scientist told The New York Times recently that the case represented an “attempt to criminalize politics.”
There’s an extra layer of irony in this. Perry’s gotten really comfortable with power over the last 14 years. He controls many of the levers of state government. He’s built up large slush funds inside the governor’s office, disbursing them at his discretion to attract businesses and other projects to the state. He’s been accused of cronyism and patronage numerous times, including perhaps corrupting an agency designed to fight cancer.
Yet it’s this Lehmberg thing—a relative afterthought—that’s tripping him up just nine months before he leaves office. He’s like the guy in a cop movie who gets pulled into a firefight on his last day on the job. Or, maybe, The Sopranos’ Silvio Dante, quoting yet another defender of public order and integrity: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”