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.

What I sent to The New York Times

Regarding the indictment of Governor Rick Perry, which has been covered remarkably well by the Texas press corps, a plethora of otherwise reasonable media outlets –The New York Times chief among them– were quick to lambast the indictment as nothing more than political theater. In doing so, they ignored the serious legal background and precedent underlying this case. I drafted up about 950 words on why I disagreed with their editorial positions, and why the indictments are not overly frivolous or litigious. The Times said that their reserve the right of exclusive publication, but to feel free to assume they would not publish after three days, so I waited. I have now sent the article to a couple of sites which do not demand exclusivity (The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Times and the Los Angeles Times). I’m aware that no one will publish it, so I decided to share my thoughts here.

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I’m big on Texas politics. I love it so much that I transferred from college at Brandeis University in Boston to the University of Texas at Austin so that I could return to my native State and follow the twists and turns of the full-contact sport known as our political process. And though I consider myself a left-of-center Democrat, I have a big problem with people who rag on Texas in general.

But more than my indignation at detractors of the Lone Star State, I maintain a pet peeve against the dilettante; he or she who feels entitled to write and judge what is going on south of the Red River, despite not being familiar with our laws, our traditions or our history. Sometimes the judgment happens without the author even visiting the State. I have seen this in action a disappointing number of times in the immediate aftermath of Governor Rick Perry’s indictment at the hands of a Travis County (Austin) grand jury.

Alan Dershowitz, David Alexrod, The Atlantic. A plethora of progressive mouthpieces have inexplicably defended Perry against what they foolishly call an unsubstantiated allegation, one that may be frivolous or overly litigious. Rather, the only thing frivolous is these parties’ understanding of the way Texas does business.

This is not about political blowback, it is not about any ongoing investigations into the Governor’s office and it is not even about any specific veto. It is about a threat. Perry threatened a public officeholder, the Travis County District Attorney, with leverage —the denial of funds for her office— unless she did a specific official act: resign.

The DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, has broad power over the entire State because her office, which maintains jurisdiction over the State Capitol and the Governor’s mansion, commands the Public Integrity Unit, best known for an unsuccessful trial against former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and a successful conviction against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (that one is still tied up in appeals). Lehmberg herself is no saint; she was caught driving drunk last year in a videotaped incident that recorded her belligerent and discourteous attitude toward law enforcement. For her part, she pleaded guilty and served about a month in jail, the toughest sentence for a first-offense DWI in Austin’s history.

But this simply is not about the actions committed by a District Attorney. A DWI is not a felony, nor is it a crime of moral turpitude that would necessitate removal from office. She has been no-billed by a grand jury looking into the matter, and a civil trial to determine if she should be removed from office for dereliction of duty ended with a resounding NO.

Perry is not the King of Texas; he is merely the State’s Chief Executive in a system with the separation of powers, not only between branches, but constituencies. The Governor is not the District Attorney’s boss. When Perry says that Lehmberg has “lost the public’s confidence,” where is he getting his information? She has been convincingly elected by her constituents twice, and remains somewhat popular—at least when the alternative is a Perry appointee. It is also worth noting that the Travis County District Attorney’s office only prosecutes felonies (the County Attorney handles misdemeanors), so Lehmberg’s office did not even control the process over her own crime, as many critics have falsely charged.

At the end of the day, however, what Lehmberg did is a complete red herring. It has absolutely no basis for justifying what Perry did or changing the pertinent law or precedent on the matter. This issue is not about her, it is not about the veto, it is about threat. That very simple fact bears repeating because it appears that no one in the ostensibly credible national press can remember that.

To better illustrate this point, the same principle of Perry’s illegal act should be taken to an absurd extreme. Take the ongoing spat between Perry and William Powers, the President of the University of Texas at Austin. What if Perry demanded Powers’ resignation, perhaps using the cover of the phony scandal embattled Regent Wallace Hall supposedly uncovered regarding law school admission, or else he would cut off funding? What would the State do then? Thankfully, there is a precedent.

Texas impeached one Governor nearly 100 years ago for eerily similar circumstances: James “Pa” Ferguson, a populist Democrat. Ferguson, who like the current Governor was a fervent opponent of the University of Texas, vetoed virtually all of the University’s appropriations after unsuccessfully trying to fire Regents and Professors at UT-Austin. Once again, it was not the veto so much as it was the threat. Ferguson used his power inappropriately in order to meddle in another public official’s business. This should sound familiar.

This has always been —and is— what the scandal centers upon. The legal basis is sound and holds lengthy precedent. When prominent legal minds attempt to chime in on this issue without being familiar with the underlying case, it hurts everyone who is exposed to misinformation.

The Travis County DA’s office’s public integrity unit, it should be freely stipulated, can sometimes generously be described as partisan hacks. Lehmberg’s predecessor, Ronnie Earle, engaged in a witch hunt with very little proof against Hutchison, and the office has been a bit trigger-happy investigating every misstep taken by Perry. But since this controversy has revolved around the DA’s office which normally investigates these cases, Lehmberg and her office recused themselves from all proceedings.

A Republican Judge out of San Antonio, Bert Richardson, appointed a non-partisan Special Prosecutor, Michael McCrum, last year to investigate the complaints lodged against Perry. Call it what you will, this is not a partisan witch hunt. Indeed, it is far from it.

More on the Perry indictment

Pictured above is Governor Rick Perry’s mugshot. He was booked, fingerprinted and photographed today in Austin, though a warrant was never put out for his arrest and he never saw the inside of a jail cell. As anyone who has read the news recently could obviously recall, Perry was indicted last Friday over a controversy brewing from a threat to a DA, asking for her to resign or face a funding cut. The two charges were Abuse of Political Office and Coercion of a Public Servant. The former is a 1st Degree Felony and the latter is a 3rd Degree Felony. They carry a combined maximum penalty of 109 years in prison.

A number of things have occurred since the weekend, the most notable of which was Perry compiling an all-star legal team. The Texas Tribune reports that at the helm of this team is prominent trial attorney Tony Buzbee.  This, despite being the one-time Chairman of the Galveston County Democratic Party, a two-time Democrat nominee for the State Legislature and the once rumored Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. However, of late, Buzbee has been appointed to the Board of Regents of his alma matter, Texas A&M University, and become a key financial supporter of both Perry and Abbott.

Meanwhile, Perry is firing back by waging war in the court of public opinion. Also via the Texas Tribune, it has been reported that his new “Rick PAC” has put out a video defending the Governor. The video, which runs about 2 minutes in a length, has a nifty little selective timeline that touts how Perry vetoed funding for the Travis County DA’s office following DA Lehmberg’s refusal to resign as a result of her DWI. Inconspicuously absent from the timeline is the threat he made immediately prior to the veto. As I have said before, that is truly the most important part.

Think of it this way. If, as a result of the phony scandal drugged up against UT-Austin President Bill Powers by UT Regent Wallace Hall, Perry demanded Powers resignation or face the end of state appropriations to the flagship University, would the people stand for it? If we merely take history as a guide, the answer is a resounding no. The Governor about 97 years ago, James “Pa” Ferguson, was impeached and removed from office for making such threats. A notorious critic of higher education, he vetoed the vast majority of UT’s appropriations after unsuccessfully trying to intimidate Regents and Professors out of their jobs. Ferguson had some sort of reason for his vendetta (A tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny), and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram even notes that he castigated his accusers as liars. This is the main issue at play here, whether or not a Governor has the right to threaten unrelated officials, in an attempt to compel them to do things, with money or lack thereof.

While we’re on the subject, I have seen a disappointing number of Perry-foes approach this issue the wrong way. Some of my colleagues in Austin have taken to calling this scandal “Briberygate,” for example. I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose the claim is ostensibly rooted in the fact that bribery is merely giving money in order to do something, so Lehmberg would have her office receive appropriations in exchange for her resignation. Additionally, there is some evidence that Perry’s aides did offer Lehmberg a job elsewhere in exchange for resignation. But the word “bribery” has such a strong connotation, that its use in this way is just plain wrong. Bribery invokes images of a cigar-filled room where a duffel bag full of $20 bills is handed from one person to another; obviously, not whatever this cluster was. It appears irresponsible and hot-headed to equate the impropriety here with actual bribery.

Rather, the focus should be on Perry’s obsession with being a megalomaniac. As Jason Stanford opined in a column today, “Nobody died and made Rick Perry king.”

Perry indicted

In case you haven’t checked the internets in the last two days, it is worth repeating once again that Governor Rick Perry has been indicted by a Travis County Grand Jury for two felonies, abuse of politicaal office and coercion of a public servant. Two big questions come to mind immediately. First, how did we get here? Second, where do we go from here? I will attempt to briefly answer both below.

In April of last year, the Travis County District Attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving. She was nearly four times the legal limit, belligerent and tried to use her influence to get out of the charge. Normally, when an official screws up this publicly, a quiet resignation occurs and everyone will continue on their merry way. The problem with this, however, is that Perry would have appointed Lehmberg’s –a Democrat– replacement. The Travis County DA, additionally, is especially powerful because it oversees the Public Integrity Unit (PIU), which oversees alleged impropriety on the part of state officials.

Lehmberg was charged with a first-time misdemeanor, plead guilty and accepted a 45 day sentence in jail. The sentence was called by the Austin American-Statesman “without a doubt, the harshest sentence for a first-time drunken driving charge in the history of Travis County.” About a month later, she was back at work. Of note here is that the Travis County DA only prosecutes felonies, so her charged was not included. The Travis County Attorney prosecutes such misdemeanors.

But in June of that year, Perry stepped in around  veto time. He publicly threatened to cut off funding for the PIU unless Lehmberg resigned. The San Antonio Express-News recent reported last May that Lehmberg was offered a job in exchange for the resignation. When Lehmberg did not comply, he followed through and cut the funding.

This, in its simplest form, is the issue. Perry has attempted to frame it in a way that makes him look like a valiant moral crusader fighting against drunken DAs, but the controversially is completely separate. Perry had the unquestioned power to veto the PIU’s funds, but he did not have the power to publicly threaten to take or not take the action based on another person’s deed.

For what it’s worth, the PIU did not directly prosecute this case. A special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, was called in for this. I’ve even heard he is a Republican, but don’t care too much about that.

I think, when all is said and done, the only real affect of this issue is that it will sink whatever presidential prospects Perry may have had. He will have long left office before this goes to a trial. My inclination is that Perry will be convicted at least on the coercion of a public servant charge by a Travis County Jury, but the charges will be thrown out on appeal.

This case is all about the law, the grey. The facts are not in dispute. The only question is if Perry’s little diatribe to the media before line-item vetoing the funding constituted coercion.

In the past, I made comments suggesting that Lehmberg should not resign. Those were wrong, I should not have taken a hard position on this issue given that I am not one of Lehmberg’s constituents nor is she part of a deliberative body that directly affects me, such as the State Legislature. But whatever your position on Lehmberg and her drunkenness (to be fair, a trial designed to get her kicked out of office last year went nowhere quite expeditiously), it does not justify what Perry did. It does not make it any less illegal, nor less serious. It is a complete, 100% red herring.

No matter what Lehmberg could have been guilty of, it would not have justified what Perry did. He is not her boss, he just cannot micromanage like that while staying within the boundaries of the law.

I’ll likely have more when Perry gets his mug shot next week!

A Lehmberg-gate update

The Houston Chronicle infuses yet another detail into the ongoing saga about Rick Perry, Rosemary Lehmberg and the grand jury. If you are unfamiliar, you have come to the right place! Let me bring everyone up to speed in the next few paragraphs.

Rosemary Lehmberg is the District County of Travis County, where Austin (the State capital) is. By virtue of housing the seat of government, this specific DA’s office has unparalleled power to investigate State officials through an office known as the Public Integrity Unit. This group is funded both through local funds and state funds, thus making Lehmberg arguably the most powerful elected Democrat in the State of Texas. Needless to say, the PIU has always been a thorn in the side of the (all Republican) statewide officials.

Then, early last year, Lehmberg got a DWI. To answer your question, it was certainly as bad as you’re thinking. She was belligerent, had an open handle of vodka in the passenger seat, and blew twice the legal limit on an intoxalyzer. Needless to say, most people were pretty outraged and demanded her resignation. The partisan problem with this, however, is that Governor Perry would appoint Lehmberg’s replacement until a special election (her term is not up until January of 2017). Accordingly, a bit of a tense situation built up between the two officeholders.

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