One of the big national political stories last week was the grand jury indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry, charging him with abuse of power when he tried to pressure a local district attorney. Governor Perry has argued that he is innocent of the charges.
The case has centered on Governor Perry’s veto of funding for a public integrity unit in a local district attorney’s office. It was claimed that the Texas Governor used his veto power in an effort to get a local district attorney to resign after her arrest on a drunken-driving charge. The district attorney is the top prosecutor in Austin, Texas and oversees a powerful public corruption unit that investigates public officials. Its work led to the indictment of a former Republican congressman, Tom DeLay, on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Following the district attorney’s arrest, Governor Perry threatened to veto $7.5 million in state funding for the public corruption unit in her office unless she resigned. When the local DA refused, Governor Perry followed through on his threat, and vetoed the state funding. The DA remains in office.
However, the DA pled guilty to drinking and driving and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. At the time of Governor Perry’s veto last year, the DA’s prosecutors had been investigating a Texas state agency called the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The agency — created as the result of one of Governor Perry’s initiatives — came under scrutiny by state lawmakers after accusations of mismanagement and corruption; a former official there was indicted last year for his handling of an $11 million grant.
The media has reported that critics of Governor Perry accused him of using the DA’s arrest to try to dismantle the public corruption squad and to block the investigation into the cancer-research agency.
As mentioned earlier, Governor Perry denies any wrongdoing, but the indictment shows that messing around with public ethics investigations can lead to real problems.
One can only hope that that lesson is learned in New York State. It has been reported that the Cuomo Administration intervened in the actions of an ethics commission charged with investigating corruption in New York. The entity – the Moreland Commission Investigating Public Corruption – was created in the summer of 2013, issued a preliminary report in December, and was looking into allegations of corruption when it was disbanded.
As part of the budget earlier this year, the governor eliminated the commission as part of a deal with lawmakers. The deal enacted new penalties for ethical misbehaviors, new powers for local district attorneys, and public financing for elections option for candidates for state Comptroller.
The problem is that the members of the Commission were deputized as assistant attorneys general and have the power to investigate allegations of corruption. While the governor can create and disband these types of commissions, it is trickier when those individuals have powers granted to them by another separately-elected statewide official – in this case, the state Attorney General. Moreover, there have been press reports that the Commission wanted to look into the campaign financing activities of some of the governor’s allies, but were reportedly blocked by the governor’s top aides. The governor denies that any such inquiries were blocked.
While it is not clear which story is true, it is clear that the governor’s disbanding of the group is similar to shutting down an investigation in the state Attorney General office – it shouldn’t be done.
The governor has repeatedly stated that his administration did nothing wrong, but the way the Commission’s work was terminated drew the attention of federal prosecutors. Now the U.S. Attorney’s office is looking into whether laws were broken.
Despite the media coverage of the issue, no charges have been filed by the U.S. Attorney. However, the fact that the governor is now operating under an ethical cloud stems from the way he dealt with the New York ethics commission.
It’s worth repeating that Governor Cuomo has denied any misconduct on the part of his Administration. However, like the experiences in Texas, the problem the governor faces underscores the dangers of meddling in ethics inquiries.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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