You know something stinks when even the folks at MSNBC are rejecting what looks like a politically motivated lawsuit against Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry. On Friday, August 15, Governor Perry was indicted by a Texas grand jury for vetoing funding for the state’s public integrity unit, unless the lead prosecutor resigned following her drunk driving arrest.
The indictment has received condemnation from public officials on both sides of the political spectrum, but now the ultra-liberal MSNBC has joined the ranks of those who see the partisan nature of the indictment. On August 17, Ari Melber, host of the MSNBC program The Cycle, penned an MSNBC.com article in which he admitted that there is a “weak case against Rick Perry.”
Melber, who is both a lawyer and a reliably liberal voice on MSNBC, opened his piece by maintaining that “the indictment announced Friday of Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry may sound explosive, but it looks very weak on paper.” The MSNBC host then went into great detail to detail what he cllaed the “fishy” nature of the indictment:
There are two felony counts, both stemming from Perry’s public battle to veto funds for a local prosecutor. Yet under the Texas Constitution, the governor has explicit authority for such vetos. And under the U.S. Constitution, politicians have wide authority to talk about their vetoes and votes – it’s a core example of protected political speech.
So before even wading into the details, the indictment already looks fishy. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine sending a governor to jail for talking about why he issued a veto.
Now under the indictment’s theory, Perry’s words crossed into illegal coercion of a public servant because he “threatened” an explicit trade at the prosecutor – basically resign or lose the funding.
Perry’s detractors can emphasize that abuse of office cases usually involve an official’s misuse of otherwise acceptable authority. For example, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich certainly had the authority to fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in 2008. He was convicted of misusing the authority because he tried to sell the seat.
Even if the logic of that analogy helps prosecutors, however, the facts still help Perry. Imagine a brazen, Blagojevich-style veto threat here – it would be something like demanding an illegal, personal bribe for the veto. That’s miles away from Perry, who was vetoing funds over a staffing dispute.
Melber continued to discredit the merit of the charges leveled against Perry:
Then there is the felony charge based on the veto itself. Prosecutors often pile up several charges based on related events and conduct, but the charge for the veto is especially odd and tendentious.
First, it charges that Perry’s June 14 veto amounted to a misuse of government property – of money “approved and authorized by the Legislature” to fund the prosecutors’ office. But that money was not legally available to the office unless the governor approved it. On its face, the indictment suggests that simply disagreeing with the legislature’s funding choice was itself a “misuse” of funds – a crime. That is absurd. The premise also gets Texas law backwards – it’s a line-item veto state – and seems to criminalize policy differences.
More broadly, corruption laws are not typically applied this way.
The MSNBC host concluded by reminding his liberal readers that the prospects of a successful conviction against Perry is bleak:
Finally, even if you stretch the law to include veto negotiations and find improper motives on Perry's part, Texas law would require that Perry had legal custody of the funds in order to misuse them. Since he rejected them with the veto, it’s hard to see how prosecutors could prove he ever had them in the first place. (This kind of technical shortcoming draws less attention, but it can reveal whether the prosecutor is especially careful and diligent.)
As always, a trial could also change everything. New evidence about Perry’s conduct might support the coercion charge more than the two-page indictment. (It’s hard to see the abuse of office charge prevailing at all.) So far, however, the grand jury has approved serious corruption charges with very little evidence of corruption.
Kudos to Ari Melber for seeing past the partisan nature of his "Lean Forward" network and honestly recognize the lack of evidence against Governor Perry. We can only hope that Melber's MSNBC colleagues will follow in his footsteps and reject the Perry lawsuit as nothing more than a political attack against a potential 2016 presidential candidate.