Politics & Policy

Keep Austin Corrupt?

Texas state capitol in Austin (Dreamstime)

A “Public Integrity Unit” with no integrity — so that’s what they mean by “Keep Austin Weird.”

Texas governor Rick Perry has been indicted on two felony charges and could, in theory, spend the rest of his life in prison — for the so-called crime of vetoing a piece of legislation.

The story is a sordid one: Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who is in charge of the state’s Public Integrity Unit, a governmental ethics enforcer, was arrested for, and subsequently convicted of, drunken driving. Video documentation of her booking showed her abusing the jail staff, making threats, and engaging in the worst sort of “Do you know who I am?” political muscle-flexing. The drunken driving was bad enough — and the ethics enforcer got an unusually stiff 45-day jail sentence, richly deserved — but the threats and attempted abuse of political clout were if anything worse. Governor Perry came to the reasonable conclusion that such a person should not be in charge of the Public Integrity Unit and demanded her resignation. She refused, and Democrats rallied around her, keenly aware that if she were to depart, then Governor Perry would appoint her successor. So the governor used the legal tool available to him and vetoed the funding for the Public Integrity Unit, and made it clear that he would keep doing so as long as Ms. Lehmberg was in charge.

This, Democratic prosecutors argued, was a criminal attempt to coerce a public official and a misuse of government power. The irony in that argument is simply tremendous.

Travis County prosecutors have long abused their power to pursue political vendettas, and the Democrat-controlled Public Integrity Unit is routinely deployed as a political weapon. This is the same gang that, under the cracked leadership of Ronnie Earle, destroyed Representative Tom DeLay’s political career using the inventive means of charging him with having broken a law that hadn’t even been passed at the time he was alleged to have broken it. That project ultimately ended in a scathing judicial rebuke, and DeLay was cleared of all charges – but convictions are not the point: Using the criminal-justice process to harass, defame, and bankrupt political enemies is the point. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was given similar treatment, though she was not driven from office.

Even liberal Democrats acknowledge that this stinks. David Axelrod called the indictment “sketchy,” and Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz likened the stratagem to the criminalization of political dissent seen under totalitarian regimes. “Everybody, liberal or conservative, should stand against this indictment,” he said. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine called the gambit “ridiculous” and argued that it would establish a precedent of using criminal law to punish almost any imaginable political disagreement: “The theory behind the indictment is flexible enough that almost any kind of political conflict could be defined as a ‘misuse’ of power or ‘coercion’ of one’s opponents. To describe the indictment as ‘frivolous’ gives it far more credence than it deserves.” As Chait notes, the law Governor Perry is alleged to have broken specifically exempts “official actions” of government officers — e.g., vetoing a bill.

Austin is a deeply, and perhaps irrecoverably, corrupt place. From the impeachment of University of Texas regent Wallace Hall in retaliation for his role in exposing political favoritism in law-school admissions to prosecutors’ throwing around felonies for partisan political ends, the malicious and dishonest deployment of official force against political rivals in the Texas capital is a reminder of just how illiberal liberals truly are. Austin’s hippie-dippy ethic is just New Age window dressing on old-fashioned, bare-knuckled, power-mad politics: Papa Doc Duvalier in Birkenstocks.

Governor Perry is standing by his veto, and he is right to do so. The Public Integrity Unit should be dissolved, and every responsible officer associated with it should be sent into retirement with extreme prejudice. Theirs is the real crime.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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