Rick Perry has a problem. And it may damage more than just his political career. A grand jury and a special prosecutor are investigating allegations that the governor of Texas may have bribed and threatened a key state official to force her out of office as part of an attempt to kill a criminal probe in which he might be implicated.
Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County District Attorney in Austin, runs the Public Integrity Unit (PIU) that investigates possible corruption in state government. Her office launched a probe of the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas (CPRIT) after eighteen scientists, including the Nobel laureate director, resigned in protest claiming that investment decisions were being made without proper scientific review, and that tens of millions of dollars were ending up in the hands of Perry supporters and donors.
Esteemed scientists had joined the organization after voters approved a $3 billion dollar budget for cancer research. The review team quit, however, after $20 million had been awarded to a proposal that did not undergo scientific scrutiny. Subsequently, a CPRIT executive was indicted for unlawfully securing an $11 million dollar grant for a Dallas biotech firm owned by Perry campaign contributors. The proposal was submitted to the CPRIT oversight committee without informing members it had not undergone scientific peer review. Gov. Perry had potential legal exposure in DA Lehmberg’s investigation of these transactions.
And then she was arrested for driving while intoxicated.
Republican Perry demanded that Lehmberg, a Democrat, resign after a video showed her behaving belligerently and asking for favoritism during booking. When she refused to step down, he threatened to withhold the $7.5 million dollar budget of the PIU, which was conducting the cancer institute investigation. Lehmberg would not accede to the governor’s demands and he followed through on this threat and vetoed funding of the investigative group that was doing work that might lead to revelations of misconduct by him and his office. Perry would have had the authority to name Lehmberg’s replacement, most likely a Republican, which then becomes a convenient way to avoid any potential charges or political harm.
A special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, was assigned to the case and after scrutinizing evidence has said he was “very concerned” about Perry’s behavior. A second grand jury has been impaneled to look at McCrum’s findings, and the governor has, consequently, hired a high-profile Austin criminal defense attorney at $450 an hour. Perry has not spoken publicly about the case but his office is arguing that he was constitutionally empowered with a line item veto, and he did nothing wrong.
Prosecutor McCrum’s task is hardly simple. He will have to prove that Perry used the veto threat to bribe Lehmberg into quitting, which could include felony violations of the state’s criminal code involving coercion of a public servant and abuse of official capacity. If there were any conversations subsequent to Lehmberg’s refusal and the formal veto, and Perry or his representatives attempted to negotiate her resignation in exchange for any other considerations, McCrum’s presentation to the grand jury becomes more compelling that this was not just Perry acting on behalf of the state. The Texas Constitution would not afford protection for such offers, which a court could see as bribes. County Judge Sam Biscoe has stated publicly that Perry’s representatives did continue to offer restoration of the DA’s PIU budget if she would resign even after the governor had already issued his veto. This seems the very definition of a bribe.
Because he claims to have been acting in his capacity as governor, Perry plans to have his lawyer paid out of taxpayer funds. However, the attorney general’s office has legal purview for state cases and is the most likely representation for Perry. To use tax money to pay for what may be millions in outside counsel, Perry probably has to seek an opinion and approval from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, which has not happened.
Getting counsel from the Texas AG’s office could be complicated. Abbott is running for Republican governor to replace Perry, and, more critically, he was a member of the CPRIT board, although he never attended even one of the twenty-three meetings. Abbott usually sent a representative to CPRIT, but on the day the $11 million dollar grant was awarded without review, Abbott’s office had no one present at the hearing. His Democratic opponent for governor, Wendy Davis, has accused Abbott of ignoring the responsibilities of his office and allowing scandal to unfold at the cancer agency.
Oddly, Abbott’s office also launched an official probe of CPRIT’s operations, thereby putting him in the position of investigating a board on which he sits. The AG may also have some discomfort over the fact that a few of his largest donors, who had given him more than a half million dollars, acquired $42 million in awards from CPRIT. In fact, Abbott’s office also investigated the company that got the un-scrutinized $11 million dollar grant, even though one of its major investors was a campaign contributor to the AG, and the law firm representing that company also served as legal counsel to Abbot’s campaign organization, and gave him $160,000 over the past 12 years.
The personal and political risks are great for Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, who both express grand political designs, and have risen to prominence in a state known for epic accomplishments that are overshadowed only by the grandest of historic failures.