The statehouse probes: Perry, Christie and Cuomo
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has given over his fingerprints and smiling mug shot, and his lawyer calls the case against him “an attempt to criminalize politics”—that is, Perry’s hardnosed style of politics, which involved cutting off funds to a prosecutor who investigated his administration.
Indeed, there is a school of thought that prosecutors have been criminalizing political maneuvering in many places. In New Jersey, the U.S. attorney has a grand jury investigation into whether Gov. Chris Christie knew about his aides’ “Bridgegate” tactics (among other things). And the U.S. attorney in Manhattan is taking a very skeptical look at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cynical manipulation of a commission he appointed with the stated aim of exposing political corruption. Other governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker have also received prosecutorial scrutiny.
Even The New York Times editorial board has bought into Perry’s defense: “Bad political judgment is not necessarily a felony, and the indictment handed up against him on Friday— given the facts so far — appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution."
Why are the political maneuvers of so many governors being investigated? I’ve seen various theories. One is that prosecutors have political motives. Another, advanced by Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post, is that with the demise of newspaper statehouse bureaus, governors are tempted to play their politics faster and looser.
My theory, based on some years of covering prosecutors up close, is a little different. Prosecutors have a lot of discretion about what to investigate and whom to prosecute. They are also quite attuned to the zeitgeist. In some sense, they have to be: They need to know what is going to play before a jury, and what will not.
So I think these prosecutors are picking up on how weary the public is with cynical, self-serving political manipulation in the nation’s statehouses. They’re scouring the law books for applicable statutes, and opening investigations.
Perry seems to have seized the public relations advantage in his battle with the special prosecutor, Michael McCrum. Political reporters are already moving onto the story of whether the indictment will actually help Perry in Republican presidential primaries. But when the cold, hard facts are adduced at trial, things might not look too good for him.
Perry is charged with coercion and abuse of office. The allegations stem from his veto of $7.5 million for a district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit on grounds that the DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, refused to resign after a messy arrest on drunken-driving charges. It may seem a stretch to indict a governor for this but, as the Dallas Morning News reports, Perry “didn’t feel that strongly when two other district attorneys faced the same charges under similar circumstances.”
Was Perry trying to coerce Lehmberg into stopping investigations of his administration? It’s a question worth exploring.
The special prosecutor, McCrum, was appointed by a Republican judge. He is no political hack. In response to Perry’s accusations, he simply says that he found out the facts and the relevant statutes, and brought the case.
How all these investigations will work out is anyone’s guess. Each matter has its own set of facts. But politicians should be aware that even a distracted public has a limit to how much it will overlook. Some prosecutors seem to have sensed that already.
About the Author
Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).