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Paxton keeps finding new ways to be in trouble

The man has a talent.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Ethics experts on Wednesday were torn over whether Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s decision to accept $100,000 for his legal defense from a donor whose company was under investigation by his office violates the letter of the law or the spirit of it.

The attorney general’s office argued the donation is allowable because the embattled Paxton was not involved in the investigation that ended in a $3.5 million settlement of a federal whistleblower lawsuit.

State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight and generally bans gifts from anyone other than family and those with a relationship independent of the office holder’s position. The revelation that Paxton’s office was investigating his benefactor’s company raises questions about defining “oversight” and “personal relationship,” ethics advocates said.

“When you start talking about receiving money from somebody that you still have jurisdiction over in a lawsuit, you just can’t do that,” said Buck Wood, an Austin elections lawyer and Texas ethics expert.

Agency employees in the attorney general’s office “shall never” take gifts from an entity “the employee knows is being investigated” by the office, according to internal rules obtained by the Associated Press.

Last year, Paxton accepted the gift from Preferred Imaging founder James Webb, whose company was under investigation at the time for Medicaid fraud. The attorney general’s Texas Civil Medicaid Fraud Division and the U.S. Justice Department in June co-signed a $3.5 million settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the company of violating Medicaid billing rules.

[…]

“The ethics laws are fuzzy. It’s not clear this is a violation of the law,” said [Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice], who said he hopes lawmakers will address the state’s gift ban next legislative session. “Clearly, it’s a violation of judgement and it clearly, no doubt, poses a conflict of interest between the attorney general and Mr. Webb’s company.”

The good news for Ken Paxton is that this apparently doesn’t amount to an actual violation of law or regulation, so there’s no grounds for another complaint and investigation. It’s just another example of how his ethical failings have had a negative effect on his ability to do his job. One supposes he’s used to dealing with that by now. Ross Ramsey, the Associated Press, and the Current have more.

With friends like these

Who needs to worry about legal bills?

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, facing federal and state securities fraud charges, is getting more than a little help from his friends to foot his growing legal bill.

The Republican accepted more than $329,000 earmarked for his legal defense from donors and “family friends,” according to a newly released financial disclosure statement.

The document, which Paxton filed to the Texas Ethics Commission on Friday, shows gifts from more than two dozen people or couples labeled “family friends.”

That included a $100,000 gift from James Webb, a CEO of a medical imaging firm who lives in Frisco and is a major Paxton donor. He and his living trust have donated more than $355,000 to Paxton’s campaign.

[…]

Paxton has said he is not tapping campaign contributions or taxpayer dollars. Texas law bars such practices, because his case does not involve his official duties.

In his filing Friday, Paxton categorized the defense fund money as a “gift.”

State bribery laws prohibit elected officials from receiving gifts from people or entities subject to their authority, and as attorney general, Paxton’s could extend broadly. Seeking to circumvent those barriers, Paxton’s filing cited an “independent relationship” exception. That allows gifts from family members and those “independent” of an office holder’s “official status.”

You can see a copy of the disclosure form here. The key thing to note is that this is for activity through December 31, 2015, so however much it shows being given to Paxton for legal fees, it only covers last year. For sure, he has received plenty more such “gifts” since then. Which he surely needs, and will continue to need for the foreseeable future, since he’s spending boatloads on legal fees. Must be nice to have so many loaded and loyal friends.

The Chron notes another dimension to this.

Craig McDonald, executive director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said Paxton’s legal defense fundraising points out a weakness in the state’s ethics laws.

“It’s a huge loophole in the law that needs to be closed,” said McDonald whose group advocates for a gift ban for state officials. “Where does Paxton’s circle of independent relationships end?”

State law currently prohibits gifts for the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators —as well as members of their staffs — but that prohibition does not apply to the attorney general’s office. An employee at a regulatory agency like the attorney general’s office is forbidden from asking for, accepting or agreeing to accept a gift only if the official knows the giver is subject to the agency’s authority.

Yet, all of Texas’ elected state officials can accept “a gift or other benefit conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.”

The same exemption allowed for Rick Perry to amass a catalog of freebies during his time as Texas governor, ranging from Stetson hats to hunting trips. As the state’s former attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott also reported receiving a long list of gifts from donors and friends, including a new gun, football tickets and free travel and lodging for his family.

The Legislature allows that loophole, and the Legislature could plug it if it wanted to. I’m just saying.

Oh, Borris

Not good.

Borris Miles

Borris Miles

State Rep. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, repeatedly failed to disclose his business interests in three companies as state law requires.

The lawmaker did not report on state ethics forms for several years that he had an ownership stake in two hospice agencies or that he owned an entertainment company that operates a cigar bar in south Houston.

Miles rectified these omissions in recent days after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them. Through his attorney, he filed “corrected” ethics statements and “good-faith” affidavits in which he says, “I swear, or affirm, that any error or omission in the report as originally filed was made in good faith.”

On the new forms, Miles disclosed that he had business interests in Attentive Hospice from 2012 through 2015, in A-1 Hospice of Houston in 2009, and in Goodlife Management from 2009 through 2013.

Ethics watchdogs consider Texas’ ethics act weak but say its requirement that lawmakers, other public officials and candidates disclose business ownership can enable the public to determine whether they are engaged in conflicts of interest.

And when they don’t disclose? Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, said public officials rarely are punished sufficiently for failing to properly report.

“When the minimum disclosure standards that we have are violated, we need tougher and swifter penalties for it,” he said. “It’s a lack of enforcement. That comes from an unwillingness among legislators to regulate themselves with respect to transparency on their finances.”

The penalty for failing to file required items on the ethics statements ranges from $500 to $10,000 if the Texas Ethics Commission takes action under its rules. If a sworn complaint is filed alleging a violation, the commission can order a fine up to $5,000 or triple the amount at issue, whichever is more. A prosecutor also can pursue a misdemeanor charge.

The issue of whether Miles should be sanctioned for not initially disclosing three of his business interests highlights flaws with the ethics law, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group.

The state ethics commission doesn’t audit personal financial statements filed by public officials and candidates to track whether they disclose everything about their businesses, he said. “And we don’t prosecute them for their failure to fully disclose,” Smith added. “As a result, people can blatantly ignore the personal financial statement requirements and there’s really no consequence except for a fine that is less than the rounding error on the business income at question.”

I like Rep. Miles and I hate to have to write about this stuff, but our disclosure requirements are woefully inadequate enough as it is, and there’s no excuse for this. It would help if the Legislature got around to creating real penalties for failing to comply with these requirements – Greg Abbott has paid lip service to this, but failed quite miserably in the last session to achieve anything – but even in the absence of penalties that sting, compliance is not optional. If someone wants to file a complaint over this with the TEC and/or the Harris County DA, that’s their right, and Rep. Miles will need to face whatever consequences follow from that. In the meantime, I hope everyone else is reviewing their own disclosure statements and bringing them into compliance if they are not fully there. I also hope the Lege revisits the issue of penalties for non-compliance. In effect, the Legislature has the power to oversee itself, since they have the power to grant or rescind oversight authority to the TEC. Let’s take that job a bit more seriously, shall we?

TPJ files complaint against Cruz

Look out, Ted.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

In a formal complaint sent to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) today, Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) urged the agency to audit and investigate the Ted Cruz for Senate Committee’s failure to disclose to voters that Goldman Sachs and Citibank secretly financed his hotly contested 2012 U.S. Senate race.

Cruz campaign disclosures filed with the FEC during the 2012 election cycle reported that Ted Cruz loaned his campaign more than $1.4 million. Under federal election law, the Cruz campaign was legally obligated to promptly disclose the real source of these campaign funds: two large personal loans that mega-banks Citibank and Goldman Sachs made to Ted Cruz. Those bank loans would have been legal if the Cruz campaign disclosed them promptly. But Cruz ran in 2012 as a conservative populist who denounced the political power of the big banks that played lead roles in the 2008-2009 market collapse. Cruz broke federal law by not disclosing his huge Citibank and Goldman loans until well after the 2012 election was over. (Together Goldman and Citi have agreed to pay more than $12 billion to settle federal charges related to their roles in the mortgage-securities meltdown.)

As the New York Times recently reported, Ted Cruz first disclosed up to $1 million in Citibank and Goldman loans in a personal financial disclosure that he filed with the U.S. Senate on May 15, 2013. This belated disclosure came more than six months after Cruz’s election to the Senate. Meanwhile the Cruz campaign did not disclose this big-bank cover up to the FEC until January 14, 2016—more than three and a half years after he was legally required to disclose the loans to this agency.

“Ted Cruz lied to Texas voters to hide his campaign financiers on Wall Street,” said TPJ Director Craig McDonald. “Not wanting Tea Party voters to know that he was bankrolled by Citibank and Goldman Sachs, he concocted a fairy tale about his family liquidating its assets to finance his campaign. Politicians can lie to voters, but federal election law prohibits candidates from hiding the true source of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The FEC could impose civil penalties for Cruz’s non-disclosure violations in an amount up to 1,000 times the unreported loans. The FEC complaint process is detailed here.

Here’s the Chron story. A copy of the complaint is here. I hadn’t followed this story before – there’s plenty of linkage out there if you need a refresher – but it just got real now. I’m sure there’s no love for Ted Cruz in TPJ’s office, but as Ken Paxton and Rick Perry can attest, it’s no joke when they come after you. Maybe Goldman Sachs can spot you some money for attorney’s fees, Ted. Trail Blazers has more.

Turner’s public agency work

A lot of the attacks in the Mayoral campaign so far have been aimed at Adrian Garcia, in part to knock him out of second place where he is perceived to be, and in part because there’s some real material to use. There has been some sniping between Costello and King, as they fish in the same ponds for voters, and some other stuff here and there, but not much as yet against the perceived and poll-supported frontrunner Sylvester Turner. Until now, anyway.

Sylvester Turner

Sylvester Turner

Two of Sylvester Turner’s mayoral rivals are criticizing the longtime lawmaker for reaping thousands of dollars in legal and land title work for public agencies, questioning the ethics of the sometimes lucrative arrangements while he holds elective office.

It is legal for Texas lawmakers, who serve part time and earn $7,200 a year plus $190 per day of legislative session, to do work for local government entities.

Two of Turner’s rivals in the race to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker – former City Attorney Ben Hall and former Congressman Chris Bell – said the practice appears improper when it involves fees earned from entities over which he may wield authority as a state legislator.

“It may not be illegal, but it sure has the appearance of impropriety, especially given the timing in some of the instances,” said Hall, who last week called for an end to “pay-to-play” politics.

Both Hall and Bell stand to gain votes from Turner, who has positioned himself as an establishment candidate and has led or tied for the lead in recent polls.

Turner defended his work, saying it is neither illegal nor unethical for lawmakers to receive public business while in office.

“I think my track record speaks for itself,” he said. “When I believe people have not been performing up to par, regardless of the relationship – business relationship – that they may have had with my firm, I have not been hesitant in holding people accountable and responsible.”

Hall and Bell have cited $144,000 that Turner’s land title company, American Title, earned in 2014 on a Houston Independent School District real estate deal. Hall also has questioned what he says was more than $3 million Turner’s companies received in payments from Houston’s housing department for professional services.

“We have certain ethical standards that we need to abide by, and first and foremost is staying away from conflicts of interest,” Bell said.

In 2012, Turner initially criticized HISD’s $1.9 billion bond plan, saying he was worried it would not do enough to encourage students to attend neighborhood campuses. He ultimately endorsed the issue, which passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Two years later, his title company earned $144,000 on an HISD real estate transaction.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith of the Austin-based advocacy group Public Citizen Texas said it is not uncommon for lawyer legislators to have contracts with one or more government agencies.

“A lot of the work – of legal work in this state – has to do with municipal or county or district governments of various kinds,” Smith said. “The gray area comes in the choice of that legislator’s law firm. Is it an open bidding process? Or is it just simply a gimme?”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, another Austin advocacy group, said the practice comes with potential conflicts.

“Are the local governments hiring a particular lawmaker because that lawmaker has jurisdiction over issues that concern the local government?” McDonald asked. “That’s the basic issue. That’s the basic conflict.”

Let’s get one thing cleared up right off: Any time Ben Hall makes an allegation about any other candidate, the first question he should be asked is “So, have you paid your property taxes yet?” With that out of the way, there’s not much to this story. One can certainly argue that this kind of paid advocacy ought to be illegal, or at least more tightly regulated, and I would not disagree. But given that it is legal, this story is basically about nothing. There’s no allegation of wrongdoing on Turner’s part – the activity is legal, the fees he charged were in the normal range, and he did the work he was paid to do. It was all properly disclosed. The two professional ethics watchdogs had only the perfunctory “could cause a conflict” admonishment for it. People may not know about it, though this was hardly a secret, and they may not care for it once they do know it, which is all fair. It’s well suited for a negative mailer, but unless there’s something else out there, it’s not going to generate more than one story.

Paxton’s cronies

This guy really is a piece of work.

Ken Paxton

When seeking a job at the Texas attorney general’s office, it’s less about what is on your résumé than who you know.

In Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first weeks in office, he filled his higher ranks with at least 14 people connected to him and other prominent Republicans — quiet “appointments” that his office defends in spite of state law, which requires that jobs be advertised when they’re filled from outside the agency.

An American-Statesman review of more than 1,800 pages of personnel files reveals that hiring procedures were relaxed or altogether ignored for those who had worked for Paxton, former Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Records show several were hired weeks before they had even applied for the jobs, if an application was completed at all.

Meanwhile, people whose résumés didn’t include political connections often faced months of red tape, interviews and vetting — just the sort of competition that state law envisions for coveted state jobs.

It is not uncommon for elected officials to ignore a decades-old law meant to prevent political patronage in Texas, but the number of Paxton’s so-called appointees is notable, and correspondence obtained under the Texas Public Information Act suggests Paxton was promising lucrative jobs to his political allies months before he took office.

[…]

The Statesman asked three state agencies how state law might allow for “high-level appointments,” as Paxton’s office called them. None would provide answers.

The Texas Workforce Commission, the designated arbiter for job postings, deferred to the attorney general’s office, which stopped answering questions from the Statesman for this story. The Texas Legislative Council, whose lawyer assists legislators in drafting laws, deferred first to the attorney general’s office, then back to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The commission’s spokeswoman, Lisa Givens, said her office provides no guidance or oversight to ensure state officials are following the law. They just take what other agencies send them and post it.

“We don’t enforce the rule,” she said. “We accept the postings. There’s no enforcement in this provision.”

Givens did note, however, the statute says “any agency, so that would be any agency.”

Because the law is 25 years old, wrapped into two omnibus revisions of chunks of state law, it has received little attention in recent years. But earlier this year the Senate Research Center, providing context for another bill, was succinct in its interpretation: “State agencies are required to list job openings with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

“The job posting requirement is black and white,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, the left-leaning watchdog group whose ethics complaint against Paxton spurred an ongoing grand jury investigation into possible securities violations.

“In Texas, cronyism is allowed,” McDonald said. “But you have to at least follow the rules.”

Still, an official determination on whether Paxton broke the law can only come from the attorney general himself.

Isn’t that special? Read the whole thing, it’s a nice piece of reporting. There’s not much else that can be done, though perhaps if he’s still claiming to caer about ethics, perhaps Greg Abbott could add this to the Lege’s to do list in 2017. Beyond that, if nothing else this serves as further evidence, as if it were needed, that Paxton has the ethical and moral compass of a Russian hacker. His downfall, when it finally happens, is going to be epic.

Abbott signs bill to remove Public Integrity Unit from Travis County DA office

As expected.

Ignoring calls for a veto, Gov. Greg Abbott signed controversial legislation this week that will allow elected and appointed state officials and state employees to bypass Austin prosecutors when they are accused of public corruption.

Abbott, a Republican, signed the bill Thursday without making a statement or staging a public signing ceremony. His press office did not respond to requests for comment left via email and over the phone.

The unique carve-out for politicians and state employees drew fire throughout the recently concluded session of the Texas Legislature. John Courage, state chairman of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, said he believes the bill is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court by various watchdog groups.

“They’ve set up a separate legal process for the legislators,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. A normal person would be tried in the location where they committed the offense and not the legislators. It’s just an unfair, unbalanced system.”

That’s the first I’ve heard of a potential lawsuit. I get the rationale – Texas lawmakers have created a separate system of justice for themselves, which is arguably unconstitutional. I wish the Trib had quoted a law professor to get an opinion on that. There are other issues with having the DPS in charge of these investigations, and empowering local prosecutors may not be a better deal for legislators than what they have now. I continue to believe that this is a scandal waiting to happen. We’ll see how long that takes.

DPS, investigate thyself

What could possibly go wrong?

Set to take over statewide corruption investigations, the Texas Department of Public Safety must decide whether it will investigate itself.

In April, DPS Director Steve McCraw demanded that the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit re-start a probe into a no-bid border-security contract issued by his agency.

The director had objected to media stories about the deal and wanted the probe brought to a conclusion. But the head of the Public Integrity Unit responded that his agency was so devastated by a funding veto by former Gov. Rick Perry that it couldn’t reopen the probe even with financial assistance.

Now, thanks to a bill that awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature, DPS on Sept. 1 will take charge of the integrity unit’s investigations.

On Friday, the agency declined to say whether a look at the border-security contract with Abrams Learning and Information Systems would be among the ones it would pursue.

“I confirmed that the bill has not been signed yet, so it (is) still considered pending legislation, which we do not discuss,” Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said in an email.

In an email Sunday, Abbott’s press secretary, Amelia Chasse, declined to comment when asked whether Abbott plans to sign or veto, House Bill 1690.

However, a left-leaning watchdog group said the conundrum McCraw faces with the Abrams investigation starkly illustrates problems that the Legislature ignored when it passed the bill.

“Having DPS investigate its own contract with Abrams illustrates how the legislature turned the Public Integrity Unit into the Keystone Kops,” Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, said in an email. “But why stop there? Why doesn’t McCraw hire Abrams to investigate the contract? Then if Abrams finds evidence of its own wrongdoing, McCraw can refer the case to Abrams’s homeboy prosecutors back in Virginia. The whole thing is a farce.”

See here for the background. It should be noted that Abbott hasn’t yet signed the bill to move the Public Integrity Unit to DPS yet, so there is a way to work this out in a non-ridiculous fashion. I can’t imagine that he won’t sign it, however, so good luck to DPS figuring out how to untangle that mess. And for a Governor that made “ethics reform” an emergency item this session, he sure got some crappy results from his legislators. You’d think he’d have more to say about that.

The cloud still hanging over Rick Perry’s head

Ain’t easy running for President when you’re under indictment.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

A corndog in every deep fat fryer

Yet for all the implications of seeking the White House as a criminal defendant, Thursday’s announcement brings another far less political reminder: The case, quite simply, is still ongoing, unaffected by months of legal bickering and bluster. For Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, the group whose complaint sparked the indictment, the judicial slog has been anything but surprising.

“We always thought it wouldn’t go away very quickly, and that still is the case,” said McDonald, who expects the case to continue for at least another year. “He’s not going to be able to remove this yoke from around his neck quickly.”

Perry predicted in February that the charges would be “put behind us, hopefully by the end of March-April timetable.” He also declared at the time the case is “never going to go to trial.”

So far, his lawyers have been successful in heading off a trial — but perhaps not in the ways for which they hoped.

“For nine months the parties have exchanged hundreds of pages of briefs on these issues,” special prosecutor Michael McCrum wrote in a court filing earlier this month. “We are no closer to a resolution.”

[…]

Backed by a high-powered legal team, Perry quickly sought to portray the two charges — abuse of power and coercion of a public servant — as a political witch hunt in the heart of Texas’ most liberal county. Fellow Republicans, including some potential 2016 opponents, rallied to his side, as did less likely supporters such as David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Obama, and Alan Dershowitz, the famed liberal law professor.

Nowadays, however, the indictment has become more of a headache for Perry than cause célèbre.

Visiting Judge Bert Richardson, a Republican, has done Perry few favors. In November, Richardson refused to dismiss the indictment on procedural grounds. Two months later, he again declined to toss out the case, that time on constitutional grounds. And in February, Richardson denied Perry’s request to see a pretrial list of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury.

At this point, Perry’s best bet is a breakthrough at the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, where his lawyers are seeking to reverse Richardson’s second refusal to throw out the case. A ruling is expected any day now, but even it could have an asterisk next to the outcome: One of the justices, Bob Pemberton, used to work for Perry and has so far resisted calls for recusal.

See here for the background. Guess that means Justice Pemberton isn’t going to recuse himself. If the Third Court refuses to come to Perry’s rescue, then I don’t see how anyone can make the “partisan witch hunt” claim with any credibility again. I mean, by that point a Republican judge and an all-Republican panel of appeals court judges will have allowed the charges to stand. It would also greatly undercut the arguments made during this legislative session by Republicans about moving the Public Integrity Unit out of the Travis County DA’s office, not that that would make any difference at this point. If they do let Perry off the hook, then he’ll do a victory dance until we’re all sick of it, and Tom DeLay will crawl out from under a rock to add to the festiveness of it all. One way or the other, it will dominate the news cycle.

To recuse or not to recuse

That is the question.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs are never conflicted

More than a week after a judge who once worked for Rick Perry was tapped to hear an appeal in the former governor’s indictment, it’s still unclear whether he’ll see the case through.

Legal experts say Justice Bob Pemberton’s connections to Perry could put him in the tough position of having to decide whether to recuse himself. Pemberton is one of three justices who could decide Perry’s fate at a crucial time; the former governor recently said he is within 30 days of announcing whether he will run for the presidency.

“You’re danged if you do, danged if you don’t,” said L. Wayne Scott, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “There’s not a right answer.”

Some court observers think it’s inevitable that Pemberton, who served as a deputy general counsel in Perry’s office before the former governor appointed him to the 3rd Court of Appeals, will step aside.

“I think it’s just a matter of time before Justice Pemberton recuses from the case,” said Lillian Hardwick, co-author of the Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics. “Even if a recusal motion has not yet been filed, it’s likely in the works.”

But Pemberton hasn’t made that move — and the court hasn’t said whether he will. The case is advancing, legal filings show, and Perry lawyer Tony Buzbee has called Pemberton’s appointment “not a conflict or a story.”

Meanwhile, Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor pursuing the charges against Perry, said Friday he was not planning to file a motion for recusal. Some legal experts say that is not entirely surprising: Lawyers do not want to risk getting on the bad side of a judge hearing their case unless they are 100 percent certain their motion will prevail.

Without a motion for recusal, the decision is largely up to Pemberton, who, in addition to working for Perry, donated to the former governor’s 2002 re-election campaign and clerked for Tom Phillips, the retired chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court who is now on Perry’s defense team.

See here and here for the background. I think it would be for the best if Justice Pemberton recused himself on “avoiding the appearance of impropriety” grounds, but unless Mike McCrum tries to make something of it that’s his call. I also think McCrum is wise to let things play out, at least for now. I’m glad to see that the Trib is staying on top of this.

Perry meets his appellate judges

He knows one of them very well.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs are great icebreakers

Rick Perry may be somewhat familiar with one of the judges picked to hear an appeal in the criminal case against him.

That’s because Justice Bob Pemberton has worked for the former governor, representing him in court as his deputy general counsel. After that job, Perry appointed him to the Third Court of Appeals, which is now considering a request from Perry’s lawyers to dismiss the abuse-of-power charges against him.

Pemberton also clerked for Tom Phillips, the retired chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court who is now on Perry’s defense team. Pemberton’s website features a photo of him being sworn in by Phillips — “his friend, supporter, and former boss.”

In addition to once working for Perry, being appointed by Perry and having clerked for one of Perry’s current lawyers, Pemberton has been a political supporter of the former governor. Pemberton chipped in $1,000 for Perry’s 2002 re-election campaign, according to state records.

The justice’s connections to Perry are unusual, even in a state under yearly scrutiny for a judicial system critics say is too tainted by politics. Judicial elections in Texas are partisan, and the Third Court of Appeals is controlled by Republicans.

Judges are bound to have some connection to Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, but Pemberton’s relation is beyond the pale, according to some good-government experts.

“That court has always acted in a partisan manner, but in this case, Justice Pemberton should definitely recuse himself,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning watchdog group responsible for the complaint that led to Perry’s indictment. “There should definitely be a recusal.”

According to the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, a judge must recuse himself or herself in any proceed in which “the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Yeah, I think that might reasonably be the case here. I don’t know if this is specifically what Team Perry was hoping for when they filed their latest appeal to this court, but I’m sure it wasn’t a disappointment to them. What happens from here I couldn’t say, but if one wants to take an optimistic view of things, one could say that if Perry’s motion is denied by these judges, it will be very hard to continue claiming he’s a victim of politics. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty thin, but it is what it is. One way or another, some number of judges friendly to Rick Perry were going to get involved. That’s the state we live in. PDiddie has more.

TPJ still wants Paxton investigated

At the very least, they don’t want the matter dropped due to blithe indifference.

Ken Paxton

The head of a public watchdog group said he again will urge law enforcement to launch a probe into Attorney General Ken Paxton’s admitted violation of state security laws after learning that the Collin County District Attorney’s Office, headed by a Paxton friend and business partner, has taken no action in the case.

“The Collin County district attorney is just stonewalling,” said Texans for Public Justice Executive Director Craig McDonald, who added that no one from District Attorney Greg Willis’ office had informed his group the case had stalled or told him how to proceed. “Within the week, I will do something in Collin County, once I find out what I have to do.”

Willis’ office last week said it was not investigating the allegations against Paxton, despite the case being referred to it by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office in late January.

“We are not an investigative agency. So a complainant should be directed to the Collin County law enforcement agency where the acts occurred so an investigation could take place,” Collin County First Assistant District Attorney Bill Dobiyanski told the Houston Chronicle on Friday. “If and when that occurs, a case may be filed with our office. Our position is anyone with knowledge of a crime occurring in Collin County should report that to the police department where the acts occurred.”

[…]

The Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit began investigating the matter after Texans for Public Justice complained that the violation constituted a third-degree felony under state law.

After punting the investigation until after the 2014 elections, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg in late January said Travis County was not the appropriate venue for the investigation and referred it to prosecutors in Collin County and Dallas County.

Dallas soon confirmed it would take no action, leaving Willis the sole remaining prosecutor considering Paxton’s case. Last week, however, Willis’ office said “we do not have a case from Travis County or anyone else.”

The statute of limitations for a third-degree felony is three years. With neither Collin County nor the Texas Department of Public Safety currently investigating the matter, Paxton could be on a path this year to be clear of any possible further punishment for the violations unless the case is revived.

McDonald said that while he was surprised his Austin-based group was not informed of the need to refile a complaint with law enforcement, he was not shocked that the case had stalled in Willis’ office.

“We’ve never been made aware by Collin County or any other authority that our complaint would sit in a filing cabinet unless we took further action,” McDonald said. “We were always skeptical that the district attorney would do anything but sit on this case because we believe there is a close relationship between Paxton and the Collin County DA. This whole system that sends cases back to the local DA is a system designed to give politicians a walk, especially if that politician happens now to be the attorney general.”

See here, here, and here for the background. TPJ has since confirmed that it will file a new complaint in Collin County. It’s one thing for a DA to investigate and then decline to bring charges. It’s another thing for a DA to go out of his way to avoid having to do an investigation, especially when the person who needs investigating is a crony. Surely the Collin County DA could have at least read over the report from the Travis County DA and maybe placed a courtesy call to TPJ to let them know what their procedures are. Better yet, maybe they should appoint a special prosecutor and get out of the way.

The matter gets tricky for Collin County, where District Attorney Greg Willis could determine whether to prosecute. Willis and Paxton are longtime friends. Both are listed on the most recent board of directors online filing of Plano-based Unity Resources LLC. They are limited partners together in three firms and co-investors in another.

Against that backdrop of multiple conflicts, Willis is hard-pressed to explain why he shouldn’t recuse himself and seek appointment of a special prosecutor who can objectively weigh the merits of the case. The public’s faith in the justice system requires that there be no hint of prosecutorial bias or that staffers under Willis’ direction might fail to pursue justice to protect their boss and his friend.

Willis’ office says there has been no prosecutorial action since the case was referred from Lehmberg’s office. Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

These are not nitpicky issues. State securities law imposes registration requirements to protect the public from victimization by investment frauds and scams.

The fact that Paxton violated the law repeatedly over several years suggests a troubling pattern unbecoming of the esteemed office he now holds. That’s why an independent prosecutor needs to assume control of this case.

Unfortunately, I doubt there will be any consequences for DA Willis if he chooses to continue to do nothing. As things are, he has sent a pretty clear message that he’s not interested. We’ll see if that remains the case after the new complaint is filed.

The odds never favor ethics reforms

Better to keep your hopes down and not suffer too much disappointment.

BagOfMoney

Gov. Greg Abbott pledged on the campaign trail to lead the charge to improve the state’s ethics laws, and now lawmakers and advocates pushing for reform are looking to the newly elected governor to help breathe life into proposals at the Legislature.

Lawmakers of both parties at the state Capitol talk a big game when it comes to strengthening laws aimed at rooting out corruption or providing more transparency to the public. That mostly has amounted to lip service, advocates of open government say, as substantive ethics reform has continually been curbed.

This session, efforts again will include attempts to require disclosure of contracts elected officials and their families have with the public sector, to make lawmakers’ personal financial statements available online, and to slow down the revolving door of lawmakers leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. All have failed previously.

There also are plans to propose legislation addressing secret campaign donors.

And a package of ethics measures Abbott laid out on the campaign trail, from putting more teeth into conflicts-of-interest statutes to beefing up campaign finance reporting requirements, are expected to get serious attention this session.

“Gov. Abbott made this a large part of his campaign for a good reason,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a second-term Republican from Southlake. “People are afraid that somehow we’re working on things that could enrich other politicians.”

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith of watchdog group Public Citizen Texas said he remains cynical about what actually will come to fruition, noting Abbott’s plan did not include any mention of so-called “dark money” – political contributions in which the donor is not disclosed.

“Abbott has clearly signaled he wants to do some sort of ethics reform,” Smith said. “It’s more of a matter of, what is a reform?”

Bet the under, that’s my advice. It’s not even all on Abbott, to be honest, but more about the MQS mafia. Of course, they’re big backers of Abbott, who I expect will be honest enough to stay bought. Even if some form of ethics reform gets through, kneecapping the Public Integrity Unit and trimming funds for the Texas Ethics Commission will ensure that any new rules will be largely unenforceable anyway. So stay pessimistic, but hope for the best.

Paxton evades prosecution

In Travis County, anyway.

Ken Paxton

New Attorney General Ken Paxton, who in 2014 was found to have violated the Texas Securities Act, will not be prosecuted by the state’s office that investigates public corruption, officials said Thursday.

Paxton, a former state senator from McKinney, violated the Securities Act by soliciting investment clients without being registered, as required by law, according to a disciplinary order last year from the State Securities Board. Under the order, Paxton was “reprimanded” and fined $1,000. But Thursday’s announcement signals that the case may be closed.

“Our investigation did not find any additional criminal activity over which our office has venue, so we are concluding Travis County’s involvement in this matter,” said Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, whose office includes the state’s public integrity unit.

[…]

Lehmberg’s office said it had forwarded a portion of its investigation to prosecutors in Collin and Dallas counties, which could investigate the securities board’s findings further.

See here for the background. In addition to possible action in Collin and/or Dallas Counties, there’s also still the SEC complaint, the state bar grievance, and the lawsuit to get his records from the State Securities Board out there. Paxton may have dodged one bullet, but he shouldn’t feel lucky just yet. Trail Blazers and the Statesman have more.

Perry still under indictment

Oops.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

This corndog has done nothing wrong

A judge on Tuesday rejected former Gov. Rick Perry’s attempt to throw out a two-count indictment against him, saying it’s too early in the case to challenge the constitutionality of the charges.

Perry’s attorneys immediately filed notice that they will appeal the 21-page ruling, which was issued Tuesday afternoon by Bert Richardson, a Republican; the appeals process could take months. The appeal will be considered by the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals. All five justices elected to that court are Republican; a sixth justice, who has not yet run in a partisan race, was appointed by Perry before he left office.

[…]

Attorneys for the former governor have been trying to get the two-count felony indictment thrown out. Perry’s attorneys have argued that the indictments — one count of abusing official capacity and one count of illegally coercing a public servant — violate both the Texas and U.S. constitutions.

“Texas law clearly precludes a trial court from making a pretrial determination regarding the constitutionality of a state penal or criminal procedural statute as that statutes applies to a particular defendant,” Richardson wrote.

However, the judge agreed with Perry’s attorneys that the second count of the indictment – coercion of a public servant – did not “sufficiently” explain why Perry’s actions were not protected because he was acting in his official capacity as governor.

Rather than dismissing this count, the judge said state law allows prosecutors to amend that count, and he granted them permission to do so.

You can read Judge Richardson’s order here. It gets technical in places, but it’s worth your time to read it; it will make enough sense even if you don’t possess a law degree. Judge Richardson has clearly not foreclosed Perry’s claims about constitutionality, but unless the appeals courts grant him his wish – which my reading of the order suggests would be unusual – those would be questions to ponder after the trial concludes. Needless to say, Perry doesn’t want to wait that long; as this companion Trib story reminds us, that could take years to play out. My guess at this point is that we’re headed towards a trial. I welcome any feedback from the lawyers out there. The Statesman has more, and a statement from TPJ is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Expect to hear more about Perry vetos and no-bid contracts

Bring it on.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democratic lawmakers and government watchdog groups on Saturday called for the reopening of an investigation into no-bid state contracts that ended in 2013 after Gov. Rick Perry vetoed funding for the team conducting it.

The critics decried the millions of dollars in Department of Public Safety contracts and another set of similar deals given by the state health commission under Perry, who will step down Tuesday after 14 years in office and is considering a 2016 presidential run. They said a thorough evaluation of contracting is needed to assure taxpayers that their money is being spent responsibly.

“Hell, yes, we need to review everything,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has served in the upper chamber longer than any other member. “There seems to be an awful lot of no-bid this and no-bid that, and I just think we need to look at it all so we can tell where the problems are and what needs to be changed.”

[…]

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Armando Walle of Houston were among those calling Saturday for the investigation of no-bid contracts to be reopened.

“Using state resources to bolster a political career by fomenting a non-existent border crisis, then giving no-bid contracts to a company that has limited experience in border security seems like an issue the Public Integrity Unit should be investigating,” Walle said.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based government watchdog group whose complaint initiated the investigation that led to Perry’s indictment, agreed. He added that if the investigation had continued, it may have prevented some of the issues now surfacing with state health contracts.

Four high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials have so far resigned as a result of those issues, stemming from no-bid Medicaid fraud detection contracts with Austin technology company 21CT that got tentative approval to balloon to $110 million before being canceled.

The deal is now being investigated by the Public Integrity Unit.

Unit director Gregg Cox on Saturday cited that investigation as a reason why it was unlikely that his office could reopen the probe into DPS contracts.

“I just don’t have the horsepower right now to open new investigations, with everything else we have going,” said Cox, who added that he would review the option next week. He added that for now, he “would prefer to see other agencies investigate this, and then we can work with them.”

See here for the background. If nothing else, one hopes this is the fulcrum by which the Public integrity Unit gets its funding restored, which is something the House budget would do but not what Dan Patrick wants. Regardless, this is a giant turd that Rick Perry is leaving in Greg Abbott’s punch bowl, and I plan to enjoy watching the fallout.

Abbott’s actions in the Hecht ethics case belie his “just doing my job” evasion

More accurately, it’s his lack of action that speaks clearly about his priorities and discretion.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott, accused of favoritism in his handling of an ethics case involving a Texas Supreme Court justice, says it’s not his duty to press the case that has sat idle for two years.

That reasoning, however, doesn’t stand up, according to an American-Statesman review of state law.

The issue began in 2008, when the Texas Ethics Commission fined Chief Justice Nathan Hecht $29,000 for violating campaign finance rules by getting a $167,200 discount on legal fees. Hecht appealed to Travis County district court, arguing that the agency misinterpreted state law.

With Abbott’s office defending the Ethics Commission, several years of sporadic action followed — until all activity ceased two years ago.

Defending the inactivity, an Abbott spokesman last week said his office wasn’t motivated to press the case because the ruling against Hecht remained in force — placing the onus to act on the chief justice.

But state law says otherwise.

The moment Hecht filed his appeal, the Ethics Commission judgment against him was vacated — or rendered void — to allow a Travis County district judge to conduct an independent review of the charges against him.

Legally, there is no judgment in place against Hecht, placing the onus to act on lawyers with the attorney general’s office.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer specializing in election law — mainly representing Democrats — said appeals of Ethics Commission rulings are rare, but the result is the same in every case.

“Once they appeal it, no enforcement action can be taken because it does vacate the decision,” Wood said. “The ethics fine is basically put on hold, and if (Abbott) doesn’t prosecute it, it’ll never get prosecuted.”

The inactivity is even harder to explain because Abbott’s lawyers believe Hecht’s appeal was improperly filed and should be tossed out.

A motion to dismiss the appeal, filed by the attorney general’s office in June 2012, argued that Hecht lawyer Steve McConnico failed to ask the Ethics Commission to reconsider its judgment against Hecht — a necessary first step before an appeal can be pursued in district court.

McConnico filed a brief rebutting the claim, and the last activity in Hecht’s appeal came in October 2012, when both sides filed responses trying to poke legal holes in each other’s arguments.

See here for the background. The 2012 filings weren’t included in the timeline of events put together by Texans for Public Justice, who has filed suit to toss Abbott off the case and appoint a special prosecutor that will actually do something, but the overall point stands. Nothing can or will happen in this case until one side or the other takes action, and since Team Hecht has no incentive to do anything – he’s in the clear for the time being, after all – that means Abbott needs to quit jerking around and do his job. Keep that in mind the next time you hear Abbott piously muse about how pursuing endless appeals of same sex marriage rulings and the like are “just doing his job”.

TPJ files suit against Abbott over Hecht ethics case

Here we go again.

An Austin legal watchdog group filed suit Wednesday to force action on a $29,000 ethics fine, levied against Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in 2008, that has languished on appeal for 5½ years.

The motion from Texans for Public Justice seeks to remove Attorney General Greg Abbott from the case, saying Abbott has violated his legal duties by failing to pursue the case on behalf of the Texas Ethics Commission, which levied the fine.

“(Abbott) has helped his friend, former colleague and political ally by allowing the case to be inactive and dormant,” the motion said.

[…]

In Wednesday’s motion to intervene in Hecht’s appeal, Texans for Public Justice asked the court to disqualify Abbott, Republican candidate for governor, as the lawyer representing the ethics commission.

“By permitting, aiding and abetting, and acquiescing in almost six years of delay, Attorney General Abbott has violated his fundamental constitutional and statutory duties to ‘defend the laws’ of Texas and ‘represent the state in litigation’ … and he has failed to collect the fine that should have been collected years ago for the benefit of Texas taxpayers,” the motion said.

See here for a bit of background. The TPJ press release fills in the details.

Hecht’s troubles date to the short-lived 2005 nomination of his ex-flame Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hecht’s promotion of Miers to conservative groups and the media drew a Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct rebuke for violating state prohibitions on political activism by jurists. Arguing that the First Amendment trumps judicial canons, Hecht attorney Chip Babcock overturned the admonishment in 2006.

Hecht’s victory spawned new ethical issues. The Texas Ethics Commission ruled that Babcock’s discounted legal fees amounted to an in-kind contribution to Hecht worth $100,000. Hecht failed to report this contribution, which exceeded judicial campaign limits. Following a rare formal public hearing, commissioners ordered Hecht to pay a $29,000 fine on December 11, 2008. Justice Hecht appealed to a Travis County court on January 27, 2009 and the Attorney General quickly filed a response on behalf of the Ethics Commission. Since those filings in early 2009, the case has languished. Setting a record for the longest appeal of a state ethics fine, the case runs the risk of being dismissed for lack of prosecution.

“Abbott has a duty to prosecute this cold case and collect from Justice Hecht,” said TPJ Director Craig McDonald. “Instead, he has sat on his hands for six years to protect a friend and political crony. Texas law recognizes no crony exception. It’s time for Abbott to act—or to find someone who will.”

TPJ’s motion asks the district court to remove Abbott from the case if necessary and to impose appropriate sanctions for “his extraordinary and egregious pattern of inaction and neglect in apparent deference and favoritism toward his friend and former colleague.”

TPJ’s filing argues that Abbott’s inaction violates provisions of the Texas Rules of Judicial Administration, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, Texas Lawyers Creed and statutory and constitutional obligations of the Attorney General to promote the timely administration of justice. Abbott’s office, which has absolute discretion to aggressively pursue such matters, claimed in 2014 that plaintiff Hecht alone is responsible for advancing the case. Were this true, any defendant could beat any Ethics Commission rap simply by filing an appeal and then ignoring it.

I noted the five-year anniversary of the case last December. I get that TPJ could have timed the filing of their complaint differently, but come on. Abbott has time to file a zillion lawsuits against the federal government while simultaneously defending losers like the same sex marriage ruling, the school finance ruling, and the voter ID ruling, but he can’t assign a junior attorney or two to push some paper on this? His priorities as AG have always been the interests of the Republican Party first, and everything else second. There’s really no excuse for this. You can see the complaint TPJ filed here, the Ethics Commission order against Hecht from 2008 here, and their timeline of events here.

DeLay gets off

Sure is nice to have friends in high places.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Siding with a decision made a year ago by a lower appeals court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday refused to reinstate money-laundering convictions against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In an 8-1 decision, the state’s highest criminal court backed a Texas 3rd Court of Appeals decision that reversed DeLay’s 2011 convictions on money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The court had ruled there was not enough evidence to prove that DeLay’s actions were criminal.

“We agree with the court of appeals that, as a matter of law, the State failed to prove facts to establish that the appellant committed either the object offense of money laundering or the inchoate offense of conspiracy to commit the same,” the criminal appeals court ruled.

[…]

Court of Criminal Appeals Judges Cheryl Johnson and Cathy Cochran wrote in a concurring opinion that although there was evidence DeLay knew — after the fact — of the transfer of the funds, there was no proof “he was directly involved.”

“Like some of Goldman Sachs’s dealings with a Spanish bank, the wheeling and dealing was a tad shady, but legal,” they wrote.

Judge Lawrence Meyers, the lone dissenter, says that the majority opinion “places a burden on the State that is impossible to overcome,” because an individual would have to be aware that his or her actions violates the Texas election code.

“In addition to placing this ridiculous burden on the State, which effectively repeals the statute, this holding also allows corporations who simply cannot be bothered to look up the law to get away with making illegal contributions,” Meyers said.

Here’s the decision. Given the way oral arguments went, this can’t be considered a surprise. Those of you looking for partisan angles, note that the one dissenter was the guy who decided to run for the Supreme Court as a Democrat. We’ve come an awfully long way to wind up here, but that’s the way it goes. I don’t really feel like thinking about this right now – too much else going on, and I always did think the case against DeLay was weaker than the cases against his henchmen. Whatever else, the world is a better place without Tom DeLay in a position of power, and at least we’ll always have that. Juanita has more.

Paxton investigation put off till after the election

I can’t really argue with this.

Sen. Ken Paxton

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office will not pursue legal action against attorney general candidate state Sen. Ken Paxton until after the election, if at all, because of an internal policy aimed at preventing politically motivated investigations in campaign season.

The postponed timeline could be problematic for Paxton, a Republican from McKinney, regarded as the race’s front-runner. If the district attorney launches criminal proceedings after November, Paxton potentially could face a grand jury investigation in his first few months as a statewide elected official.

Gregg Cox, head of the Travis County District Attorney Office’s Public Integrity Unit that investigates cases of public corruption, would not address Paxton’s case, but said the policy is long-standing.

“That’s been the policy for many, many years and we’ve always pretty much adhered to it,” Cox said. “We get so many complaints, especially around election time.”

[…]

On Wednesday, [Democratic AG candidate Sam] Houston called again for Paxton to address the issue with the public – either in a press conference or debate – before the election.

“I am not sure why there has been no action in investigating Mr. Paxton, but justice should never be delayed,” said Houston, a Houston lawyer and former candidate for the Texas Supreme Court. “He is running for office and refuses to answer all questions at all. How can we expect him to defend Texas if he can’t defend himself?”

Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald said he did not think the policy was applicable to Paxton’s case.

“In our mind, compelling circumstances means an election in this case. He’s running to be the top law enforcement officer of this state and if he’s broken the law, people need to know before November,” said McDonald, who added the TPJ does not align itself with Houston.

“We’re disappointed that the policy is working against a Ken Paxton investigation. But, we understand that the policy is appropriate in other circumstances.”

It would have been better to get an answer to this question before the election, but I can totally see where the Public Integrity Unit is coming from. They would rather not get caught in a political crossfire, and I can’t blame them for it. Ultimately, what matters is that we get an answer one way or another. Ken Paxton, if he has any capacity for self awareness, knows if he’s truly in trouble or not, and if he had any honor and knew he was headed for a fall he’d do the right thing and withdraw from the race. Needless to say, I don’t expect him to do that. The Trib has more.

More about TPJ

The Chron profiles Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to Rick Perry’s indictments.

[Craig] McDonald’s Texans for Public Justice, which operates out of a small office west of the University of Texas-Austin campus and currently has less than $1,000 in the bank, is known as the state’s preeminent group for analyzing campaign donations, building lobbyist databases and filing ethical complaints. It is at least partially responsible for the downfalls of former state Rep. Gabi Canales, former state Board of Education member Rene Nuñez and, most notably, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The only thing unusual about the two-page Perry complaint, McDonald said, was how long it took him and longtime colleague Andrew Wheat to put it together: just two days.

That, and the reaction.

Since the indictment was handed up Aug. 15, Texans for Public Justice has received dozens of interview requests and hundreds of expletive-filled letters, calls and emails, 10 times what followed DeLay’s 2005 indictment, McDonald said.

The group has played no role in the case since filing the complaint, but it nonetheless has become a part of the story as Perry has waged an aggressive campaign to cast the indictment as politically motivated.

[…]

Most of the group’s most high-profile targets have been Republicans, including DeLay, Perry and Ken Paxton, the current GOP nominee for attorney general, who last month became the subject of a TPJ complaint over his failure to register as an investment adviser as required by law.

Texans for Public Justice has gone after Democrats too.

One of the group’s earliest efforts targeted Canales, a Corpus Christi Democrat, for allegedly selling her power as a legislator to delay lawsuits. Canales lost her 2004 re-election bid, and the Legislature passed a law requiring all members to disclose when they used legislative continuances during legal proceedings.

Two other Democrats, Nuñez and fellow state Board of Education member Rick Agosto, were targeted in 2009 for not reporting gifts from a firm with business before the board. Nuñez was fined and lost his re-election bid.

National campaign-finance watchdog Ellen Miller said the group likely would target more Democrats if there were more of them in power.

“Texans for Public Justice has a national prominence and recognition for their very active state-based work around issues having to do with money, power and politics,” said Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which donated $1,200 to the Texas group in 2012.

So there you have it. Elect more Democrats, including some statewide, and you’ll see more of them get into trouble. It’s a lot harder to abuse power when you don’t have it.

Anyway. This story is a lot like the Trib story from last week, and undoubtedly like the others that have been written as well. I hope that in addition to all the attention they’re getting, a few people have also made contributions to TPJ so they can keep doing what they’re doing. If you want to be one of those people, see below the fold for the text of a fundraising email they sent out, with a donation link included. Someone has to do what TPJ does, and they’ve shown they’re pretty good at it.

(more…)

Possibly the last thing I’m going to say about the Perry indictment for now

Certainly not the last thing I’ll ever say, since there’s a vast amount of the story left to be told, and I reserve the right to change my mind. But for now, since the indictment came down on Friday there’s been very little actual news. There’s been the over-the-top response from Perry’s legal team, there’s been the predictable tribal responses, there’s been a crap-ton of woefully ignorant pontificating from mostly non-Texas writers, but not much else worth talking about. So, until there is a new development, I’m going to leave with these two thoughts.

This Trib story about Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to the indictment, contains a little tidbit of information that even I hadn’t realized but which ought to be a required inclusion in everything anybody writes about this saga from here on out.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

TPJ didn’t plan to delve into the complex game of political chicken going on between Perry and Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg near the end of last year’s legislative session. Lehmberg had been immersed in a political scandal since April, when a video of her aggressive behavior during her drunken driving arrest drew national attention. TPJ had stayed out of the drama until June 10, when [TPJ Director Craig] McDonald read in the Austin-American Statesman that Perry was threatening to veto the state’s funding of the Public Integrity Unit, housed in the Travis County DA’s office, unless Lehmberg resigned. Perry has said he only acted within the authority he has under the state Constitution.

“We decided [to get involved] that Tuesday morning,” McDonald said. “I said to Andrew [Wheat, TPJ research director], ‘This has got to be illegal. The governor can’t threaten the district attorney to do something that is out of his power. She doesn’t work for him. Never has.’”

Soon after, TPJ filed its complaint against Perry, hours before Perry vetoed the PIU’s $7.5 million budget.

Perry and his legal team have made his right as governor to veto state funding, and Lehmberg’s behavior during her drunken driving arrest, as central to the indictment. Various national political reporters and pundits have dismissed the indictment as overreaching or politically motivated, often pointing, like Perry, to a governor’s right to use his veto power.

McDonald said those critics are missing a crucial point: TPJ’s original complaint was filed before Perry implemented his veto because the veto is irrelevant.

“The threats are the issue, and I think that’s what the grand jury listened to,” McDonald said. “The only role the veto played and the only reason it’s relevant is that’s the club he held over his head to try to get her to leave her job. The veto is a side player to this. It’s not the subject of the charges.”

Emphasis mine. Did we all catch that? The complaint was filed before the veto was made. Let me repeat that, with formatting and an active voice construction: TPJ filed their complaint before Rick Perry vetoed the Public Integrity Unit funds. It wasn’t about the veto, it was about the threat, the coercion, of a duly elected public official that did not answer to Rick Perry. Anyone who opines about this in any fashion and doesn’t grasp that fact has no frigging idea what they’re talking about and should be ignored.

Another test for ignorance by those who bloviate about this case, in particular those who go on about Rosemary Lehmberg’s DUI arrest and of course it was sensible for Rick Perry to want a drunk DA to step down: Rosemary Lehmberg was the third District Attorney in Texas to be arrested for drunk driving during Rick Perry’s time as Governor. She was the first such DA to come under any pressure from Rick Perry about it. She was also the first such DA to be a Democrat. And yet it’s Rick Perry who’s the victim of a partisan vendetta, by a non-partisan special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge who was appointed to hear the case by another Republican judge.

Oh, and one more thing, from Lisa Falkenberg:

In Harris County and other Texas jurisdictions where judges use the “pick-a-pal” system to empanel grand jurors, bias and corruption are natural byproducts. The judge picks a pal, called a “commissioner,” to go out and find some more pals to serve on a grand jury and supposedly mete out justice. The process, as I’ve written, has been outlawed in the federal system, and is still only used in Texas and California.

But it wasn’t used in this case.

[judge Bert] Richardson didn’t ask a buddy to empanel the grand jurors. The members were randomly selected from Travis County jurors who answered a summons – a similar process to the one used to select regular trial juries.

See this story as well. Grand juries are the prosecutors’ show, and we all know what they say about them. But still, a jury of ordinary citizens thought there was sufficient evidence of a crime to return two indictments. Mike McCrum didn’t indict Rick Perry, the grand jurors did.

Now it’s certainly possible for an informed observer to examine the indictments and think they’re a stretch. We really have never seen anything like this before, and generally speaking our laws about official misconduct have to do with money and/or influence in fairly direct ways. It’s fair to say that the laws Perry is accused of breaking weren’t really written with this situation in mind, probably because no one ever imagined this sort of situation might happen. That doesn’t mean that these laws don’t apply or that a fair jury couldn’t find Rick Perry guilty. It does mean that the appeals courts are someday going to perform fine surgery on some legal hairs, and one way or another we’ll have a clearer understanding of what these laws do mean, at least based on this experience.

But once we start down that path, we are – to borrow a legal phrase we all know from “Law and Order” – assuming facts not in evidence. We don’t know what Mike McCrum’s case is yet. We’ve heard plenty from Rick Perry and his high-priced legal team – the best lawyers the taxpayers can provide for him – and from his hackish sycophants in the national press. What have we heard from Mike McCrum, other than the indictment itself? Not much.

McCrum, asked in an interview earlier Monday about criticism that the case is weak, calmly defended it.

“The case is going to bear itself out in the long run, both from a legal standpoint and from a factual standpoint,” he said.

I’ll say it again: We just don’t know what cards Mike McCrum is holding. It’s certainly possible that he’s gone off on a wild hunt against Rick Perry for some reason. It’s possible he’s tendentiously misreading the law in an attempt for, I don’t know, fame and glory and a lifetime of being a legal expert on CNN or something. It’s possible he’s shooting from the hip and didn’t really think through how his actions would be scrutinized by criminal defense attorneys. There’s nothing in his history to suggest these things are true, but I don’t know Mike McCrum and I have no idea what’s in his head right now. What I do know is that we don’t know what his case will look like once it’s all been laid out in a courtroom. Maybe we’ll look back someday and say “Holy moly that was a load of crap, what in the world was Mike McCrum thinking?”, maybe we’ll say “That was a strong case but ultimately the jury/the Court of Criminal Appeals/SCOTUS didn’t buy it”, or maybe we’ll say “Where were you when Rick Perry was hauled off to the slammer?”. I for one am not making any predictions. And until there’s something new to talk about, I’m going to let it rest.

TPJ files criminal complaint against Ken Paxton

From the inbox:

TPJ Calls for Formal Investigation of AG Candidate Ken Paxton – Criminal Complaint Filed With Travis County DA’s Office

TPJ has filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney against State Senator and Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton. The complaint, filed on July 18, seeks a formal investigation into allegations that Paxton committed one or more felonies when, over several years, he failed to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the state securities law requires. Paxton previously admitted to state regulators that he solicited clients and was compensated for his services when he was not a registered agent. Paxton also admitted hiding the income he received on his state personal financial disclosures.

Here’s the letter they sent to DA Rosemary Lehmberg and Public Integrity Unit lead prosecutor Gregg Cox. It’s pretty straightforward so I’ll reproduce it here:

Dear Ms. Lehmberg and Mr. Cox,

I believe that Mr. Kenneth Warren Paxton, Jr. has committed one or more criminal felony offenses related to his activities as an investment advisor representative for Mowery Capital Management, LLC (MCM). I encourage your offices to investigate and, if warranted, appropriately prosecute Mr. Paxton for his felony criminal conduct.

The public record appears to be unambiguously clear that Mr. Paxton violated provisions of the Texas Securities Act in 2004, 2005 and 2012 by failing to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management as the law requires.

As widely reported in the media, on April 30, 2014, by sworn acknowledgement, Mr. Paxton admitted to conduct that violated the Texas Securities Act. His sworn acknowledgement resulted in Disciplinary Order No. IC14-CAF-03 entered against him on May 2, 2014 by Texas Securities Commissioner John Morgan.

By agreeing to the Disciplinary Order Mr. Paxton has acknowledged that he solicited clients for MCM and was compensated by MCM for each client he delivered. Mr. Paxton also acknowledged that he was not registered with the Texas Securities Board as a representative of MCM during 2004, 2005 and 2012 when he actively solicited clients and potential investors.

The Texas Securities Act prohibits a person from acting as an investment adviser representative for an investment firm in Texas unless the person is registered as a representative for that particular firm. The Texas Securities Act provides that any person who renders services as an investment advisor representative without being registered as required by
the Act is guilty of a felony of the third degree.

I therefore request that you fully investigate this matter and prosecute any violations if justified by the law and the facts.

Respectfully,

Craig McDonald
Director, Texans for Public Justice

See here and here for the background. That disciplinary order was little more than a slap on the wrist, unless this develops into something. There’s also an SEC complaint pending against Paxton. That’s an awful lot of baggage for a candidate to carry, and one imagines it will have to take a toll on him. I figure at least a few Dan Branch supporters are going to avoid voting for Paxton in November, though how many that may be is anyone’s guess. The one thing about all this that worries me is that once the Democratic District Attorney from Democratic Travis County gets involved, Paxton and his supporters can claim it’s all about partisan politics and that he’s the real victim here. He’s already traveling down that road. If there’s one thing that can overcome revulsion against an ethically-compromised candidate, it’s tribal identity. Still, the facts here are quite plain – Paxton signed legal documents stipulating to what he did – and for sure someone was going to file a complaint. Now we wait and see what Lehmberg and her staff make of it. The Statesman has more.

DeLay gets his day before the CCA

Looks like he might have had a pretty good day, too.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Oral arguments in Tom DeLay’s decadelong legal fight with the Travis County District Attorney’s office heated up Wednesday as Republican judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals questioned whether prosecutors could prove the former House majority leader illegally funneled corporate money to state candidates.

[…]

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, one of the panel’s eight Republicans, was outspokenly doubtful about prosecutors’ ability to prove DeLay and his associates illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate donations to seven GOP candidates for the state Legislature in 2002.

The money was donated to DeLay’s state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, and made its way into a Republican National Committee corporate donations account. Checks totaling the same amount then were distributed from a different RNC account to the state candidates.

[Travis County Assistant District Attorney Holly] Taylor said the scheme is illegal under state law, which bans corporate contributions to campaigns, but Keller and her colleagues were less sure.

“It seems like your theory of prosecution has some internal inconsistencies,” Keller said, referring to the money laundering argument. Judge Elsa Alcala also asked about the unprecedented nature of the state’s case, saying the original intent of the money laundering law was to target drug trafficking: “When I see this case, my first reaction is, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

“The first time something happens, it’s still a crime,” Taylor responded.

Seriously, when was the last time Sharon effing Keller expressed that kind of skepticism in any prosecutor’s case? It’s like Dave Wilson not being a flaming homophobe – it’s just not in her nature. I have never bought into the idea that the CCA would be pro-Republican on DeLay’s behalf, but if this is how they actually go it will be hard to dismiss that idea. We won’t know till 2015 on that, so we’ll see. What do you think, am I reading too much into this? Texas Politics and Texas Public Radio have more.

Today’s the day for Tom DeLay at the CCA

Apologies for the excessive alliteration. I got on a roll and couldn’t stop.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

DeLay’s appellate lawyer, Brian Wice of Houston, and Travis County prosecutor Holly Taylor will argue Wednesday before the state’s highest criminal court in Austin over whether the jury’s verdict should be reinstated or if DeLay will be exonerated.

A victory by DeLay ends the marathon case, but if prosecutors prevail with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Wice says he has another point to appeal — that the $190,000 transaction for which he was convicted could not have been money laundering because a check, not cash, was used. The 3rd Court panel did not address that point in its opinion last fall.

[…]

In her appeal, Taylor argued for the state that the two Republican judges used “selected” evidence to second-guess the jury improperly. Wice, meanwhile, countered that “the state’s unprecedented gambit (to create a criminal offense) was correctly unmasked by the court of appeals.”

Over the years, both sides have taken turns complaining about the partisanship surrounding the case, often getting judges removed on allegations of political bias. DeLay also objected to being tried in Travis County, citing its Democratic leanings.

Given that backdrop, DeLay’s lawyers would now seem to have the advantage of arguing before a court with eight Republican judges and one Democrat, who was elected as a Republican before switching parties.

But the state’s highest criminal court also ordered DeLay’s trail, criticizing a 3rd Court panel for trying to short-circuit the legal process several years ago by ruling prematurely on DeLay’s cash vs. check defense during pre-trial arguments.

In their briefs for Wednesday’s oral arguments, Taylor recounted evidence she thought the 3rd Court ignored and Wice criticized prosecutors’ handling of the case, including a last-minute indictment rushed through a grand jury in one day after three years of investigation.

See here and here for the most recent entries in this long-running saga. I’ve said before that to whatever extent there’s a pro-Republican lean on the CCA, I think their pro-prosecution urge outweighs it. Be that as it may, if the CCA rules against DeLay I don’t think he’s going to get much joy re-litigating the “checks aren’t cash” argument. The CCA addressed that before, though apparently not in a “that’s all there is, there ain’t no more” fashion. One way or the other, we are approaching closure on this.

TPJ files amicus brief in DeLay appeal

It’s almost time for Tom DeLay to go to court again.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

A government-watchdog group on Tuesday petitioned the state’s highest criminal court to reinstate the money-laundering and conspiracy convictions of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, moving to join a brewing legal fight before a scheduled June 18 court hearing in the case.

DeLay, a former Sugar Land Republican, was convicted in November 2010 by a Travis County jury of raising almost $700,000 in corporate contributions through Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee, and using those funds to help Republicans win a majority in the Texas House in 2003.

Corporate contributions to Texas politicans have been barred since 1903, and prosecutors alleged that DeLay directed a criminal conspiracy to illegally launder corporate funds into Texas House races, an argument that watchdog group Texans for Public Justice said is correct and should result in reinstatement of DeLay’s conviction. The group filed an amicus brief Tuesday with the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

[…]

Calling the dismissal of DeLay’s conviction a “partisan, result-oriented ruling” by the appeals court, Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group. “Facts show that DeLay and his co-conspirators knowingly broke Texas election laws.”

The amicus brief is here, and TPJ’s press release is here. It should be noted that DeLay’s legal team succeeded in getting one of the Democratic judges removed from the panel; the remaining Democratic judge dissented on the opinion to overturn DeLay’s convictions. As I’ve noted before, it will be interesting to see if the CCA’s notoriously pro-prosecution biases overwhelm any partisan sympathy they may have for DeLay. I will also note that it was eleven months between arguments before the Third Court of Appeals and their ruling, so I wouldn’t expect a final decision any time soon.

Special prosecutor appointed in Perry/Lehmberg veto threat case

Meet Mike McCrum.

Mike McCrum

District Judge Robert Richardson named Mike McCrum to look into a complaint filed by Texans for Public Justice against the governor. The watchdog group alleges that Perry abused his power by threatening to cut funding to the Public Integrity Unit if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg didn’t resign. The Democrat pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, served time in jail but pledged to remain in office for the rest of her term, which ends in 2016.

Perry subsequently used his line-item veto power to cut off state funding to the part of her office responsible for investigating state elected officials. Perry said he’d lost faith in Lehmberg’s ability to perform her duties. If Lehmberg had resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor. Perry has denied any wrongdoing

“As he has done following every session he’s been governor, Gov. Perry has exercised his constitutional veto authority through line item vetoes in the budget,” said Josh Havens, a spokesman for Perry.

[…]

McCrum is a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, who said in that role he has investigated public officials in the past. His role is to act as the acting district attorney in the case, determining if there is evidence of wrongdoing and prosecuting the case if necessary.

“I think the first steps are for me are to go and get a preliminary analysis as to what is really necessary (to complete an investigation),” McCrum said. “This matter requires that no rash judgment be made, that there be some careful consideration of all options.”

As noted before, the legal issue is not the veto itself but the “resign or else” demand that preceded it. Had Perry not shot his mouth off before issuing the veto, there would be no complaint. I look forward to seeing how McCrum proceeds. Trail Blazers and the Trib have more.

Special prosecutor to be appointed in Perry/Lehmberg veto case

Moving forward.

Rosemary Lehmberg

A San Antonio senior state district judge confirmed Thursday that he will name a special prosecutor to investigate possible charges of coercion and abuse of official capacity against Gov. Rick Perry.

Judge Robert “Bert” Richardson said he expected to name someone early next week, at which time “an order will be prepared and filed with the court.”

The investigation stems from the governor’s veto of $3.7 million annual funding of Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit.

Perry acknowledged that he let it be known that if Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, did not resign her office following a DWI conviction, that he would cut off funding for the integrity unity.

Perry, a Republican, would name Lehmberg’s replacement.

Lehmberg did not resign and Perry subsequently vetoed funding for the unit, which prosecutes corruption and public malefeasance. Among other cases, the unit has been investigating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas — one of Perry’s landmark accomplishments. CPRIT is facing allegations of favoritism and mismanagement of public funding.

After the Austin American-Statesman reported Perry’s challenge to Lehmberg, Texans for Public Justice filed a criminal complaint against Perry. The complaint cited state laws that prohibit public officials from abusing their office in coercing or bribing others.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. Note that the issue is not the actual veto, but the demand Perry made for Lehmberg to resign under the threat of his veto, that is the basis of the complaint. It’s the “resign or else” statement that the TPJ alleges is coercion. Had Perry simply issued the veto, there’d be no allegation of wrongdoing. It’s certainly open to debate whether Perry’s actions really did rise to the level of lawbreaking – that will be a question for the special prosecutor, and possibly a judge and jury, to decide – but let’s be clear that it was the demand for Lehmberg to resign and not the veto itself that is at issue. Texas Politics, Juanita, and Texpatriate have more.

Judge assigned in complaint about Perry veto of Public Integrity Unit

Moving along slowly.

Rosemary Lehmberg

A San Antonio judge on Tuesday was assigned to hear a complaint that alleges Gov. Rick Perry committed coercion, bribery and official oppression by vetoing funding for the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit.

Senior Judge Robert Richardson of the 379th District Court will hear the complaint, which was filed byTexans for Public Justice after the Austin American-Statesman reported that Perry threatened to veto funding for the unit unless embattledTravis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned.

[…]

Lehmberg recused herself from hearing the complaint in late June, and it was assigned to Judge Julie Kocurekof the 390th District Court in Travis County. Kocurek then also recused herself, and on Tuesday, 3rd Circuit Presiding Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield assigned the case to Richardson, who was defeated in 2008.

See here for more on the complaint. I thought at first that the first sentence in that last paragraph above contained an error, then I realized that the complaint had been filed with the Travis County DA’s office, so of course Lehmberg had to recuse herself, and her office, from deciding whether or not it merited further investigation. I presume handing such things off to a judge is the standard procedure in this kind of situation. I have no idea what kind of hearing there will be, whenever one is set. Who actually presents the case for the complaint, and is there some kind of defense representative? If the judge decides there’s something actionable here, who would then handle the case? My guess would be the Travis County Attorney, but I have no idea about the other questions. I’d love to hear from the lawyers about that. Texas Vox has more.

No override of Public Integrity Unit funding veto

Alas.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

A legislative move to restore state funding for the ethics-enforcing Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office died Friday afternoon.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said no vote is expected on House Concurrent Resolution 6 — the attempt by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to override Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of more than $7 million in state funding to the unit over two years.

[…]

Turner insisted that he had the votes for the committee to approve the resolution, but he said members were eager to leave Austin on Friday and did not want to stick around and vote.

He told reporters he won’t ask for a vote before the special legislative session ends Tuesday.

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t really think this was possible – Rep. Turner may have had the tacit support of Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts and Speaker Straus, but getting to a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override seems like a pretty big stretch. The legality of this unprecedented move – normally, veto overrides happen in the same session as the vetoes themselves – was not established, either. It would have been a fascinating exercise in government theory to pursue it, but it’s hardly a surprise that it went nowhere. Attention now turns back to Travis County Commissioners Court, which will likely consider the matter of filling in the funding gap in the next couple of weeks, and to the TPJ complaint against Rick Perry for the veto threat, for which I have not seen any updates as yet.

Perry goes on a veto spree

NO

Here’s the full list. Among the victims are the omnibus ethics bill HB217, thus giving Allen Blakemore his fondest wish; two bills aimed at reducing the number of standardized tests some students must take, one of which will make William McKenzie happy; SB15, which would have placed new limits on the power of the University of Texas System Board of Regents to fire campus presidents; a Dan Patrick gun bill (!); the Lilly Ledbetter bill as previously noted; a bill that would have allowed voters to pick an interpreter of their choice, within certain limits, while voting, a bill that Perry either misread or misrepresented; and quite a few others, not to mention the funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

Here are some reactions to the vetoes from the Chron:

Friday, the Austin-based Texans for Public Justice filed a legal complaint that Perry’s threat amounted to official coercion so he could win an appointment and short-circuit the unit’s investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

“No surprise Perry would act to de-fang the state’s corruption watchdog. It’s a watchdog that might bite him and his cronies,” said Craig McDonald, TPJ director. “Our legal complaint against his bullying tactics remains in play, however.”

McDonald and Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, also faulted Perry’s veto of a bill reforming the Texas Ethics Commission. “Perry’s office is an ethical black hole,” said McDonald. “Reforms go in. Nothing comes out.”

Smith pointed out that the bill would have required Railroad Commission Barry Smitherman, a Perry appointee, to resign his office before running for attorney general. “It is stunning that the governor is so intent on protecting one ambitious politician that he would veto a bill that drastically improved enforcement at the Texas Ethics Commission.”
Whether any of this represents Perry reasserting himself (again) in preparation for his next election or just a last middle finger to the rest of us before he rides off into the sunset on the wingnut welfare wagon I couldn’t say. Texas Vox bemoans the veto of the omnibus ethics bill, and I’m sure there will be plenty of other reactions, just in time for Perry to gallivant off to New York. What bills on the veto list – or not on the veto list – surprised you, one way or the other?

[…]

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, filed Senate Bill 15 after a February dust-up over whether University of Texas System regents had micromanaged or maligned the character of UT Austin President Bill Powers. UT Regents Chairman Gene Powell has denied those allegations.

“Limiting oversight authority of a board of regents … is a step in the wrong direction,” Perry wrote in his veto. “History has taught us that the lack of board oversight in both the corporate and university settings diminishes accountability and provides fertile ground for organizational malfeasance.”

Seliger expressed frustration that Perry vetoed the bill, saying he had accepted all changes suggested by the governor’s staff.

“It is duplicitous,” he said.

In vetoing the Lilly Ledbetter Act, Perry wrote that “Texas’ commitment to smart regulations and fair courts is a large part of why we continue to lead the nation in job creation. House Bill 950 duplicates federal law, which already allows employees who feel that have been discriminated against through compensation to file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

“I thought Gov. Perry always wanted us to do things the Texas way and not the federal way, but apparently not in this case,” Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said in a statement. “Now, Texas women will have no choice but to rely on the federal government to protect their rights. The governor took office at the dawn of the 21st Century, but you wouldn’t know it from his actions today.”

Rick Perry does what is best for Rick Perry. There are no other considerations. Whether all this is a sign of him asserting his power in preparation for his next campaign or just a parting middle finger to the rest of us as he prepares to ride off into the sunset on the wingnut welfare wagon, I couldn’t say.

Other reactions to Friday: Texas Vox bemoans the veto of the omnibus ethics bill. Grits is bewildered by the veto of one de-incarceration bill, and games out the ploy to defund the Public Integrity Unit. Burka is relieved that things weren’t any worse. Texas Watch applauds the signing of three bills designed to improve transparency for Texas home and auto insurance customers. Juanita is spitting mad at the veto of the Lilly Ledbetter bill. Texpatriate summarizes the whole day’s activity. Egberto Willies talks to Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the author of the Lilly Ledbetter bill, about Perry’s veto. She vows to bring the bill back next session. What vetoes and signatures surprised or didn’t surprise you?

TPJ alleges Perry broke the law when he threatened to veto Public Integrity funds

Well, now isn’t this a nice little can of worms.

Rosemary Lehmberg

In a complaint sent to prosecutors today, Texans for Public Justice alleges that Governor Rick Perry potentially committed several criminal offenses related to his recent threat to use his discretionary power to withhold money from the Travis County District Attorney’s office unless DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigns. TPJ believes the governor’s actions violate the Texas Penal Code, Title 8, Offenses Against Public Administration.

“Governor Perry has no legal authority to remove the Travis Country District Attorney from her job. Threatening to take an official action against her office unless she voluntarily resigns is likely illegal,” said Craig McDonald, TPJ Director.

“The governor overstepped his authority by sticking his nose in Travis County’s business. A legal process is currently underway. That process is alone should determine the fate of the District Attorney.

“Governor Perry’s official threats attempt to obtain two things that he can’t achieve through legal democratic means. First, to remove an elected Democrat and replace her with an appointed Republican DA. Second, to wipe out the state’s public corruption watchdog, which is currently investigating corruption in at least one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.

TPJ sent its complaint letter to both the Travis County District Attorney and to the Travis County Attorney’s office. TPJ believes the Governor’s actions violate Penal Code Section 36.03 Coercion of a Public Servant, Section 39.02 Abuse of Official Capacity, Section 39.03 Official Oppression and potentially the Bribery Section 39.02. The offenses range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class 2 felony.

BOR voiced this argument a couple of days ago. Here’s the complaint, and here is my blog post about Perry’s veto threat. And late Friday afternoon, Perry followed through on his threat by zeroing out the PIU budget. The game is well and truly afoot.

The “signature corporate subsidy program” is presumably the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, the investigation into which Dems had previously argued would be shut down by Perry defunding the Public Integrity Unit. In response to a question related to this on Thursday, Perry suggested that Travis County could simply re-prioritize its own spending to keep the PIU and its investigations going. Perhaps that will be an argument for a grand jury; in any event, we’ll see how Travis County responds. The idea of Lehmberg’s office possibly pursuing an indictment against Perry for issuing that veto threat boggles the mind, but it sure as hell will be fun to watch. Any lawyers want to take a crack at this? Texas Politics, TRail Blazers, EoW, and BOR have more.

Again with judicial elections

Here we go again.

Texas is one of seven states that holds partisan elections for judges, a practice that one watchdog group says can lead to conflicts of interest.

“We have a judiciary at the highest level, the Texas Supreme Court, that gets 40 to 50 percent of its campaign money from the very people who are practicing before that court,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a follow-the-money political watchdog.

He thinks a fix is pretty easy: Move to an appointed judiciary. And he’s not alone. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Wallace said as much in his State of the Judiciary speech before the Legislature in 2011.

“A justice system built on some notion of Democratic judging or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Wallace told lawmakers.

He argued that appointing the judiciary would keep judges from bending to political winds.

“I would eliminate straight-ticket voting that allows judges to be swept from the bench, not for poor work, not for bad ethics, not for bad temperament, not even for controversial but courageous decisions — but purely because of party affiliation,” he said.

McDonald said the biggest problem with party affiliation is that it can draw judges into the same ideological battles fought by candidates seeking legislative office.

“Our judges act as if they’re politicians,” he said. “They run on partisan ballots, they raise money, they get elected on partisan ballots. They’re more politicians then they are judges in many respects.”

I’ve said this multiple times, so I’ll try to keep this brief. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that you can de-politicize the process of selecting judges. If you go to a gubernatorial appointment system, it means that judicial wannabees will spend their time sucking up to whoever is Governor. Under this Governor, that would mean every judge would be a federal-government-hating Republican. Even with a more even-handed Governor, if the appointment system comes along with “nonpartisan” retention elections, do you really believe that players like Texans for Lawsuit Reform will sit idly by? Of course they won’t. About the only difference I can see is that fewer people would be casting the ballots. How exactly is this an improvement?

I’m not saying the current system we have is best, just that every time another one of these stories about how appointing judges would lead to a golden era of puppies and sunshine appears no one ever bothers to bring these points up. To me, this debate is roughly equivalent to the debate over term limits. Both are presented as solutions to the problem of how money influences elections, but to me they’re at best workarounds and at worst admissions of defeat. If the problem is with the influence of money on elections, then the solution is to reform how elections are financed. How we get there in the era of Citizens United is, I freely admit, a daunting challenge. Maybe a kludgey workaround is the best approximation of a solution we can achieve. If that’s the case, then let’s at least be honest about it.

TPJ files complaint against King Street Patriots

From the inbox:

TPJ today filed a formal complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that the King Street Patriots and KSP/True the Vote have violated the state’s prohibition on corporate contributions to political parties and candidates. The complaint says the groups appear to have made repeated in-kind corporate contributions to the Harris County Republican Party and a slate of Republican candidates for legislative, judicial and county offices.

Good for them. This group, which has provided all of the fodder Leo Vasquez has used against Houston Votes, has been claiming to be a non-profit but as The American Independent pointed out last week, they sure haven’t acted like one:

The King Street Patriots (KSP), which representatives say is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation, has hosted regular forums for GOP candidates at its Hempstead Highway headquarters without extending invitations to their Democratic opponents. KSP president Catherine Engelbrecht said her group is abiding by the law, but legal experts said the forums, if partisan in nature, flout state prohibitions against corporate campaign contributions.

“You can’t operate a candidate forum where you bring in only one side of the spectrum. If you do you’re a political committee,” said Austin attorney Buck Wood, a Texas elections expert. “If a nonprofit takes money to pay for candidate forums and is expending that money to expose candidates for public office to audiences on a regular basis, then I have no doubt you’re a political committee under Texas law.”

When told about experts’ observations that KSP may be breaking laws, Engelbrecht disagreed.

“Well, we’re not,” she said.

Boy, you can’t argue with logic like that. See more from the Independent here, the full TPJ press release here, and the ethics complaint here. The Trib has a response from the teabaggers, who in typical fashion accuse everyone else of being the bullies.

Finally, on a related note, the TDP announced that it is adding the KSPers to their lawsuit against the Harris County Tax Assessor over voter registration issues. Click on to see their press release, and click here to see the accompanying media kit. Stace and PDiddie have more.

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