Impropriety in another Perry fund

Photo: Gage Skidmore

The Dallas Morning News reports that, following an independent audit of the Texas Enterprise Fund, it has been revealed that $222 Million was given from the Governor-managed fund to entities that had not even submitted an application. The State Auditor, John Keel, released a tough report to legislators today that alleges the TEF has an inconsistent criteria they use to dole out the coveted money.

Most of these handouts occurred in the inaugural years of the fund, which was created in 2003 (for those of y’all playing at home, Perry has been the Governor since 2000). Perry’s office has defended the apparently capricious picks as kinks in the system that were quickly worked out as the fund got its start. Other revelations, however, were also released. Many of the reports on how money was spent and used provided incomplete summaries and details.  Other money fell through the cracks when the State evidently did not recoup all the money owed to it when contracts were terminated. Some reports just outright lied. Within the News story is a bombshell that one such report alleged that 66,000 jobs had been created by one beneficiary rather than 48,000. That’s a fairly significant number to fudge.

The audit reveals a culture of impropriety. One in which the desired conclusions influence data, not the other way around. The whole smell of it all is probably the most damaging portion of this report, rather than any of the individual details.

Obviously, the total lies in some of the reports present a problem. But staff can always be blamed for that, in ways that can not necessarily be pinned back on the Governor. In my opinion, the greatest issues that occur deal with the entities that received the money without applying for it. Now, when one looks at the specific entities that got the murky money, they are reputable firms such as the University of Texas at Dallas and MD Anderson. None of them appear to have any financial link to Perry or any of his lemmings. That being said, things could change in an instant.

The most important thing here is the appearance of impropriety. I suppose this could be a campaign tool for State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor. She did, in fact, first author the bill in the State Legislature that led to this office. And while Abbott supports many changes from the system described here, it could be a valuable campaign tool to continue the talking point that Republicans are too interested in picking winners and losers. Especially in light of the ongoing controversy involving CPRIT, this could very well end up being another piece of the puzzle, that inextricably ties Perry and other Republicans to possible impropriety/corruption.

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It’s the season for campaign ads, obviously. Just in the past few days, the campaigns of both State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate, have each released two new 30-second commercials, respectively. Both of Davis’ continue in her tradition of negativity, while Abbott’s stand at one positive and one negative.

In the succeeding paragraphs, I will attempt to briefly explain some of the recent commercials, what their immediate implications are and some of the deeper things to start thinking about with these airing on television. Now, I’m not a very prolific watcher of live TV, and all too often I merely stream programming from Houston on my television (Houston Astros games are hard to come by in Austin). Accordingly, I cannot say from firsthand experience how often these have been coming on the airwaves at, say, primetime as opposed to during weird hours.

In the first Abbott ad, the video cuts into him literally sitting on a large floor map of the United States, specifically over California. He then travels over to the Texas section, all the while narrating why companies are reportedly ditching the Golden State for the Lone Star State. Then, as the grind climax, the Texas section literally raises up as a podium. The entire thing is cheesier than Gouda. And while Abbott gives some specifics about low taxation and competitive regulation, the dialogue seems almost of second importance. The subliminal messaging is quite clear: what may originate in California will eventually end in Texas. It’s a tired phrase that has undoubtedly entered the political lexicon in Texas.

Additionally, and perhaps it’s just me, but I found Abbott’s wheelchair to be somewhat prominently featured in the ad. The camera is zoomed out far enough that you see all of him –not just his face– and then he very obviously rolls his chair across the mapped floor. I’m probably making too big a deal of it, but it stuck out to me. Abbott is obviously not averse to using his wheelchair/disability as a political tool to resonate with voters, given by the subject material of his first TV ad.

Second for the Abbott ads, in yet another 30-second spot that was released today, Abbott goes negative. He connects the dots about some broad shadow attacks that have been flung around at Davis for the past few weeks or so, regarding alleged conflicts of interest between a title company that she partially owned and contracts she voted on while serving on the Fort Worth City Council. The Dallas Morning News provided a pretty concise and fair summary of those issues rather recently, so I would suggest checking it out. The most important line from the report was that Davis never actually violated the ethics policy of the City of Fort Worth, nor engaged in any actual wrongdoing. The connections are supposedly just too close for comfort for some, I guess.

Obviously, it is a big deal that Abbott is going negative. He feels obliged to go down the road of more risk and more reward, rather than playing it safe with more of these sappy, positive shows of pathos. An argument could be made by someone more optimistic than me that this is a good sign of Davis closing the gap.

Davis’ fourth ad, entitled “Time Went By,” deals with the alleged gap between the uncovering of abuse at a juvenile detention center and the Attorney General’s (Abbott) response. The allegation has now received a “Mostly False” designation from PolitiFact.

The scandal occurred in 2005, when Texas Rangers began investigating abuse at the facility and, sensing delay from local prosecutors, one ranger appealed to the Attorney General’s office. What the Davis ad leaves out is that, under state law, the local prosecutor needs to ask the AG to step in. In 2007, after the scandal was leaked to the press, Abbott’s office indeed vigorously prosecutors the abusers.

Continuing in the tradition of negative ads with dark, ominous narration and no interaction on the part of Davis, this ad is yet another disappointment. Negative ads are an effective way to make an impact in a campaign, and I thought her first TV ad was a good way to do that, but dishonesty should never be tolerated in politics. It cheapens the process for all involved, on either side of the aisle. There are plenty of things to rightly knock Abbott on, but this is just not one of them. Obviously, the make takeaway here is that Davis’ ads are all about how Abbott merely uses his office to “cover” for insiders.

Last but not least, Davis’ most recent ad, which was also first released today. This story was described in somewhat vivid detail a few months ago by Texas Monthly, and –once again– I recommend checking it out. The surgeon involved, Christopher Dunstch, maimed and killed quite of few people before eventually being taken out of commission. In a lawsuit, restitution is obviously sought, but the constitutionality of a major tort reform law is also challenged.

The reason is that the current tort reform law currently has an absurdly high standard, “gross negligent,” for these types of holdings. Accordingly, before monsters like Duntsch can be removed from their capacity, quite a few atrocities sometimes must occur in order to prove the aforementioned gross negligence. The ad states that Abbott, after receiving $250,000 from the hospital’s chairman, intervened in the law to defend the hospital. This much is a tad bit misleading; he actually defended the constitutionality of the law.

Still, the apparent quid-pro-quo should be unsettling. And defending the bad law, for all intent and purp0ses, defends the hospital. I don’t know how Politifact will rate this one, but I am overall comfortable with its use. Hopefully, it is effective.

Once again, maybe I am over-analyzing this, but did anyone else notice the huge difference in aesthetic quality of the ads? The Abbott map ad looked to be poorly shot, and the attack ad was –in a word– cacophonous. I could be wrong, but it looks like the Davis campaign is putting more time and money into the production of the advertisements themselves.

Davis’ second TV ad

The Texas Tribune reports that State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County), the Democratic candidate for Governor, has released her second television ad, a real barnburner that seeks to connect her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, to the ongoing CPRIT scandal.

The ad, which I have embedded above, is a 30 second spot that interviews a gentleman named “Manuel,” who is a local cancer survivor. He lambasts Abbott for his role on the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. “But Greg Abbott did his best to keep my prayers from being answered,” the gentleman said after alleging Abbott’s complicity in the scandal.

For those unfamiliar with the CPRIT scandal, it is a rather nebulous political drama that is not easily explained. The board doles out grants and other moneys to outside firms for cancer research. Shortly after its formation in 2007, the Chief Commercialization Officer of CPRIT, Jerry Cobbs, went out of his way to secure an $11 Million grant to Peloton Therapeutics, without completing the necessary business or scientific reviews. Not coincidentally, one of Peloton’s biggest investors was Peter O’Donnell, whose political records show evidence of him donating nearly $250,000.00 to Governor Rick Perry. The Governor, for his part, appointed most of the heavy-hitters involved in CPRIT, along with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House.

Anyways, Cobber eventually got indicted by a grand jury following a long investigation by the Travis County District Attorney’s office’s Public Integrity Unit. CPRIT otherwise has a few other kinks of impropriety, including (but not limited to) the saga of Charles Tate, as well a high-level scientist on the board who blew the whistle a couple years back about how politics was trumping science when it came to grant considerations.

Now, the reference to the Public Integrity Unit should sound familiar, since its attempted defunding is at the center of the Rick Perry indictment. The more conspiracy-minded Democrats I know swear that the two are inexplicably mixed, and Perry’s attempted ouster of Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg was merely a veiled attempt to stymie the progress of prosecutors closing in on his corruption, making the funding veto a Texas-sized “Saturday Night Massacre,” if you will.

The only problem with this is that the facts simply do not support this view. An affidavit released by Perry’s legal team to the public on Thursday shows that the PIU investigation into CPRIT did not target Perry. Still, the whole issue feels a little dirty, which is why its use as the subject material of a television ad is not surprising. But why is it an ad against Abbott?

Abbott, in his official capacity as Attorney General, was an ex-officio member of CPRIT’s oversight board. Considering how much good the “oversight” did, in addition to the fact that Abbott did not attend any meetings of the organization, the Davis campaign has been frothing at the mouth for months for an opportunity to hit him. The Austin American-Statesman compiled a writeup of this line of reasoning back in May.

Once again, the issue with this is that Abbott always made it clear that he disagreed with the ethics of him holding a spot on the oversight board. He protested the appointment, and boycotted the meetings in defiance. The rationale used was that, if allegations of impropriety ever arose on the board, his office should be the primary investigators, something he would not feel comfortable doing if he had been a part of the process.

I don’t know how I feel about this ad, given the liberties it takes with the whole truth. It claims that Abbott was “charged with overseeing” CPRIT, which is a very far cry from the limited position he was ostensibly put in, before deciding to eschew that responsibility as well. I’m curious what the good people at PolitifactTexas will say about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the impropriety that occurred at CPRIT is objectionable, and I still think that it is an open question as to whether or not Perry knew of the bad stuff going on over there. But it’s only appropriate to push the sins of an incumbent onto his prospective successor if you are open about it (E.g., “Rick Perry did all this bad stuff. Haven’t we had enough Republican governors?”). There are plenty of skeletons in Abbott’s closets ripe for the picking, the subject material of Davis’ first ad to name one. But this attack just doesn’t pass the smell test.

A few things I missed

Like I said, I had two finals and an 18 page page paper due today, so I did very little blogging over the weekend. That being said, I would like to examine the big things I missed. Sophia is going to be at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters this evening to follow the drama of last-minute filings and the like, and we’ll work on a somewhat comprehensive article on that topic either tonight or tomorrow morning. Also, I realize that Justice Larry Meyers of the Court of Criminal Appeals switched parties today, but I will be discussing that in greater detail in another post.

First and foremost, the Texas Tribune reports that the long-plagued CPRIT (Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas) is back in the news as one of its officialls has been indicted on charges of impropriety. This investigation, spurred by the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit, is focused on Jerry Cobbs. He is accused of doling out contracts to his friends unlawfully, a first-degree felony, possibly punishable by life in prison. Sophia beat me to the punch on this story, as did Brains & Eggs, Burnt Orange Report, Off the Kuff and South Texas Chisme.

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