Politics is not inherently a criminal enterprise, but you’d never know it by the headlines. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s indictment in Texas is another example of a political prosecution that seeks to criminalize common political behavior.
Perry has been charged with “abuse of official capacity” (maximum sentence 99 years) and “coercion of a public servant” (maximum sentence 10 years) for publicly promising to veto $7.5 million in funds for the state’s Public Integrity Unit, tasked with investigating public corruption and run out of the office of Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg. Perry threatened the funds-cutoff unless Lehmberg–a Democrat–resigned her post, in the wake of her 2013 conviction for drunken driving. Lehmberg refused to leave office and Perry followed through with his veto, leading a Texas government watchdog group to file the complaint that led to Perry’s indictment
Oddly enough, it is the openness and transparency of Governor Perry’s actions in this case that have provided the basis for the criminal charges. Perry never hid his demands or brandished his blue pencil behind closed doors.
Well, Governor Perry may be guilty of hubris, arrogance and bullying, but has he done anything that rises to the level of a felony? It says something when left of center voices like David Axelrod, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times question the propriety of the charges.
Perry is not the only politician enmeshed in ethics jams. His fellow GOP Governor, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, is still embroiled in state and federal investigations relating to the infamous George Washington Bridge closing—touted by some Christie adversaries as part of a vendetta against his opponents.
New York’s Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is under the ethics microscope after abruptly disbanding a NY State Ethics Commission, established by Cuomo himself to fulfill his campaign promise to root out public corruption in Albany. According to The New York Times, the paper’s ” three-month examination found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.” Now federal prosecutors are investigating the roles played by Cuomo and his office in the shutdown.
Clearly, Governors Perry, Christie and Cuomo are all guilty of playing political hardball, but if that is a felony, we ought to retrofit all our states ‘capital buildings as prisons.
Here in California, two officeholders, both Democrats—State Senator Roderick Wright and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon–have been convicted on multiple felony counts for fudging their home addresses in order to establish residency in their districts.
Not the sort of transgression that should put anybody on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. And—one could argue—it’s an offense so common that singling out two elected officials for prosecution hardly seems kosher.
None of this should be confused with blatant corruption of the kind alleged in the cases of CA State Senators Leland Yee and Ron Calderon or in the Virginia soap opera involving former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. There’s no question that trading votes and favors for money and gifts clearly crosses legal and ethical boundaries and should be subject to heavy duty criminal penalties.
The current public environment, characterized by ideological polarization, hyper-partisanship and “anti-social media” has soured Americans on institutions across the board, particularly those associated with government and politics. The President’s approval ratings are in the tank, but so are the Republican Party’s. And Congress is less popular than just about anybody—except, maybe, serial killers.
Tossing alleged technical violations into the criminal justice system at the whims of prosecutors with an axe to grind and/or their own political ambitions makes no sense. Our courts and law enforcement have enough to do without jousting in the political arena, and patently political prosecutions divert time, money and attention from the real issues that confront government at every level.
It was Mr. Dooley, author Peter Finley Dunne’s acute and cynical observer, who said “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Those who are guilty of real political corruption—stealing, bribery and selling votes—should have the book thrown at them. Those who simply engage in the rough and tumble of everyday political life should be judged at the ballot box.