Beyond Bizarre in Texas

by Deroy Murdock
Governor Rick Perry’s fiercest ally is his state constitution.

The abuse-of-power indictment against Governor Rick Perry (R., Texas) is beyond bizarre. Prosecuting a governor for threatening a veto is like charging a Labrador for retrieving a Frisbee. For both species, this penalizes innate behavior.

This controversy began on the evening of April l2, 2013. After observing Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg operating an automobile erratically in a bike lane and then proceeding southbound in a northbound traffic lane, Austin-area sheriff’s deputies arrested her for driving while intoxicated. Her blood alcohol level was 0.239 percent, damn near triple the 0.08 percent legal limit. En route to jail, Lehmberg told deputies, “You have just ruined my career.” 

Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg poses for police after her April 2013 drunk-driving arrest.

“Though a high-ranking public official, she was uncooperative and abusive as she was hauled in and charged,” noted Merrill Matthews of the Dallas-based Institute for Policy Innovation. “She pleaded guilty, paid a $4,000 fine, and served about half of her 45-day jail sentence. And her law license was suspended for 180 days.”

Call him old-fashioned: Perry decided to pressure a convicted drunk driver from the wheel of a government-ethics panel. So, when Lehmberg refused to resign as D.A., Perry kept his threat. On June 15, 2013, he vetoed $7.5 million in state funds for Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit (PIU).

For demanding accountability, Perry could get 99 years behind bars.

Perry’s fiercest ally is the Texas constitution. It is Windex-clear about the chief executive’s veto power.

“Every bill which shall have passed both houses of the Legislature shall be presented to the Governor for his approval,” reads Article 4, Section 12 of the supreme law of the Lone Star State. “If he approve he shall sign it; but if he disapprove it, he shall return it, with his objections, to the House in which it originated.”

The Texas constitution specifically grants an executive line-item veto: “If any bill presented to the Governor contains several items of appropriation he may object to one or more of such items, and approve the other portion of the bill.” Indeed, Perry’s rejection of the PIU’s appropriation is precisely such a line-item veto. Amazingly, Perry faces prison for employing a power that the Texas constitution explicitly enshrines.

Governor Rick Perry faces the long lens of the law on August 19.

Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) in its original complaint claims that “Governor Perry violated the Texas Penal Code by communicating offers and threats under which he would exercise his official discretion to veto the appropriation for the Public Integrity Unit unless District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg exercised her official discretion and resigned.”

Veto offers and threats might frighten TPJ. However, as these activists should know, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is the only American jurisdiction that operates in their absence. Executives from Austin to Washington routinely manage lawmakers through offers to sign and threats to veto legislation, often in exchange for those executives’ wishes.

The late and legendary Ann Richards, Texas’ last Democratic governor, killed a concealed-carry gun-permit measure merely by threatening to shoot it down.

“It’s done,” the late Bob Bullock, lieutenant governor, told the Brownsville Herald in April 1993. “I don’t believe in wasting the time and the talent of the Texas Senate on an issue the governor of Texas says is offensive to her, and will veto it.”

Biographer Jan Reid, author of Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, recalls how Richards lassoed the Texas Insurance Commission. “She came in and said, I want these commissioners to resign, because it’s a mess, and if you don’t, I’m going to put it in receivership,” Reid told Michael King in the Austin Chronicle (October 25, 2012). Richards targeted Jimmy Sexton, a popular commissioner and former football hero, “which was a pretty brave thing for her to do,” Reid thought. “He [Sexton] decided politics isn’t my game, so he left, and they did get some control of that commission.”

Democrat Ann Richards threatened a veto and targeted a star athlete turned public servant. Richards is considered a heroine and was lionized last year in a one-woman Broadway show, Ann.

Republican Rick Perry threatened a veto to stop a convicted drunk driver from prosecuting Texans. Perry got a mug shot and fingerprints on Tuesday.

Gubernatorial? This abuse of power is strictly prosecutorial.

— Deroy Murdock is a New York–based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

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