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SPOTLIGHT
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It's the abuse of power, stupid

Published on -8/19/2014, 10:04 AM

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When it comes to political corruption, it's rarely as simple as taking a bribe on hidden camera. Political corruption usually is messy, such as the ongoing trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who took a king's ransom from a guy who had a crush on the first lady in exchange for using the governor's office to promote his nutritional supplement business. See? It gets complicated.

Political corruption usually isn't about a lust for money or sex, but for power. A governor's aides shut down a bridge to punish a mayor who wouldn't endorse him. Public employees use government computers to do political work for a boss under siege by labor unions. If it all seems so petty and small, it's because we're talking about politics. Sorry to disappoint.

What's happening in Texas has nothing to do with sex or illegal gifts or even politics, and because it's Texas the story takes a bit longer to tell and is cruel and absurd. A grand jury led by a Republican special prosecutor charged Gov. Rick Perry with abuse of power. That charge -- an abuse of power -- is the point of this story, not politics.

After "oops," it's easy to write Perry off as a joke as the press did on his most recent trip to Iowa when they gleefully quoted him as saying, "You're welcome. I'm awesome." But the secret to Perry is he is less an idiot and more of a savant when it comes to wielding power. He doesn't just appoint state government bureaucrats but many of the lobbyists, too, by suggesting to businesses which of his former staffers might best represent their interests before his office.

So when the legislature created a new agency and gave it $3 billion to fund cancer research, Perry thought he could call the shots because he always has. His friends got the research contracts, sometimes over the objections of the scientific review process, and of course his friends contributed to Perry's campaigns.

There was smoke, and a scandal of sorts broke out. A top aide resigned, and the prosecutor in charge of state government corruption started looking into it, but then she got arrested for drunk driving, and she wasn't just a little drunk. She was a hot mess. She thrashed, wailed, pleaded and threatened long enough her jailers had to shackle and muzzle her. It's painful to watch on YouTube, and many, including me, thought she should resign. It was that bad.

She pleaded guilty and asked for the max, but that wasn't good enough for Perry, who demanded she resign. Funny thing: If she resigned, he could appoint her replacement, which would be handy since she was investigating his shenanigans. So he vetoed her funding, and if that's where he had left it, he probably would be in the clear.

But then he said he would restore the funding if she resigned. The grand jurors and the Republican special prosecutor thought this constituted an abuse of his official capacity and coercion of a public servant. You can decide for yourself if using your office to replace a prosecutor who is investigating you meets the definitions of those felonies, but it seems pretty clear to me.

The guardians of the status quo -- Perry allies and much of the press -- see this through a political lens, though they only seem to ascribe partisan motives to Perry's accusers. In this telling, Perry was indicted because he stood up to a prosecutor who didn't have the decency to take a taxi home.

"Do I have this right: Gov. Perry has been indicted because he tried to force resignation of a DA who'd been arrested for drunk driving?" tweeted former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. (Fun fact: Frum's former boss appointed the special prosecutor who indicted Perry.)

This isn't about a prosecutor's alcoholism or the delight of local Democrats that Perry's reign of error might be coming to a scandalous close. This is about a politician who tested the limits of power for a generation and might have gotten caught on the wrong side of the law.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner.

stanford@oppresearch.com

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