TIME Drugs

Stopping America’s Hidden Overdose Crisis

Pills Prescription
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Fatal overdoses of prescription drugs are on the rise, but patchwork laws make them tough to stop

The woman who showed up in the emergency room of Boston Medical Center with a life-threatening apparent overdose of painkillers was contrite. She promised to follow a plan to ease her pain with medications that did not contain opioids, the principal ingredient of prescription drugs including oxycodone and fentanyl whose vast increase in use has led to an epidemic of overdoses.

Then she went across town and got another doctor to prescribe them anyway.

This kind of “doctor-shopping” by patients addicted to opioids is one of the primary reasons drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury death in the Unites States. There were nearly 17,000 fatal overdoses of pain medications in 2011, the last year for which the figure is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control—more than from heroin and cocaine combined, and triple the number in 1990.

Yet 12 years after the launch of a federal program that encouraged states to share information about patients’ prescription histories, there remains no single national database to thwart doctor-shopping. Meanwhile, the various prescription drug monitoring programs in separate states follow a patchwork of different rules—including whether or not doctors are even required to check them before prescribing opioids to patients.

The safety net is even patchier for veterans, whose rates of opioid overdose are double the national average. The Veterans Administration medical system, the nation’s largest hospital network, serving nearly nine million people, only last year agreed to report its patients’ prescription histories to state registries or check prescriptions from outside providers. But the process is voluntary; VA doctors are not required to follow any of the safeguards.

“If you don’t use the system, you’re not going to detect misuse,” says Melissa Weimer, an assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and medical director at the substance-abuse treatment center CODA Inc.

Weimer is an advocate of sharing prescription information across state lines through so-called prescription drug monitoring programs, known as PDMPs. Many states have adopted PDMPs in the last few years in response to the overdose crisis and now every state except Missouri have or plan to develop a monitoring program. But the rules differ widely.

In many cases, registration by doctors is voluntary. Even among states that require doctors to sign-up and use the PDMPs, only a handful mandate that they check the prescription histories of every patient. Efforts to make that mandatory have largely failed after opposition from medical groups. In Oklahoma, which has the nation’s fifth-highest drug overdose mortality rate, a state House bill to require that doctors check the registry was defeated in late May after medical associations said it would be burdensome and legislators called it regulatory overreach.

“As soon as you start talking about databases and tracking people and tracking prescribers, there’s pushback,” says Daniel Alford, director of the Safe and Competent Opioid Prescribing Education program at the Boston University School of Medicine, who treated that woman in the emergency room. He says doctors ask themselves, “‘Do I want the feds monitoring my prescribing patterns?’”

The paperwork doctors are required to file under the current laws doesn’t have to be submitted by providers in most states for as long as seven days, and often takes another week or two to show up in the prescription monitoring system.

“If you’re an ER physician, that’s not going to do you any good if the patient you’re seeing has just been to another emergency room that day, getting more of the same drugs,” says Heather Gray, legislative attorney for the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, a federally-funded nonprofit research organization.

Then there is human error. Misspelled names or missing middle initials can make patients disappear in the shared databases.

“It starts to frustrate you to the point where you question whether you want to invest time in looking at this as opposed to doing other things,” says Alford.

But the biggest drawback is that many of the PDMPs don’t talk to each other, meaning that a doctor in Georgia, for example, may not know that a patient seeking a prescription for oxycodone received a similar one in Oklahoma the week before.

“It’s a huge problem that I don’t have access to data from doctors and pharmacies in other states,” says Joanna Starrels, an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center. Starrels published research in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showing that doctors are often lax in monitoring potentially addictive opioids. It’s a pressing concern: her own practice in the New York City borough of the Bronx is within easy reach of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Tired of waiting for a national prescription database, groups of states and a pharmacists’ association have created three of their own. But not all states are members, those that are don’t always border one another, and each PDMP works differently.

That’s because each state has different rules about what information is collected, how it’s organized, and who can see it. In some states, for example, law-enforcement agencies can have access to prescription information in cases that they’re actively investigating, while in others, such as Vermont, they need to get subpoenas.

The vast increase in the number of opioid overdoses, and its cost—estimated by the Centers for Disease Control at about $56 billion in healthcare and law-enforcement expenses and lost productivity—has started to create momentum for improvement.

Several states have tightened the rules about reporting prescriptions, including shortening the deadlines for doing it, and making registration by doctors mandatory.

The governors of five of the six New England states are collaborating on a regional interstate PMDP to foil doctor-shopping. (The sixth, Republican Paul LePage of Maine, has said he’d rather use law enforcement to confront the problem.)

And under a pilot project in Ohio, physicians can now check their patients’ prescription histories not just in their own state, but in neighboring Illinois and Indiana.

A new proposal, by the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Center of Excellence at Brandeis University, calls for also making prescription histories available to medical insurers, including prescriptions they now can’t see—the ones obtained outside of patients’ health plans for potentially unscrupulous purposes. This is likely to provoke privacy concerns, especially as states differ on whether sharing prescription information violates the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient records. Wisconsin, for example, has determined that healthcare providers can disclose prescription information without the patient’s consent if required by state law, while California says it cannot be divulged to anyone other than prescribers unless part of a criminal investigation. Oregon, meanwhile, requires that patients be informed about the process.

All of this potential for confusion is one reason that for many doctors on the front lines, the most effective measure would be a national registry.

“There should be one database that all providers report to,” Starrels says. “I understand there are privacy concerns with that, but you could get around some of those by allowing access to certain data only to local prescribers, or perhaps requiring patients’ permission. But if I’m seeing a patient who just moved here from California and reports being prescribed oxycontin for the past three years, I should be able to check that.”

Even if such a system existed, however, “and was miraculous and worked without any problems, and all the states talked to each other, it still wouldn’t solve the problem,” Weimer says. “Maybe you would detect the most egregious doctor-shoppers, which would be great, but then you’d have a lot of doctors who don’t know what to do with the information, or a lack of access to addiction services, or persistent pain that isn’t treated.”

On top of that, says Peter Kreiner, principal investigator at the Brandeis center, people who become dependent on opioids have proven extraordinarily resourceful.

“As some of the smarter people doing this behavior realize what’s being implemented,” Kreiner says, “they’d probably come up with new ways around it.”

TIME Texas

Wendy Davis: Abortion 17 Years Ago Left Me ‘Forever Changed’

Wendy Davis
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis presents her new education policy during a stop at Palo Alto College in San Antonio on Aug. 26, 2014. Davis reveals in a new campaign memoir called Forgetting to be Afraid that she terminated two pregnancies for medical reasons in the 1990s, including one where the fetus had developed a severe brain abnormality Eric Gay—AP

“An indescribable blackness followed,” she writes

Texas state senator Wendy Davis, the Democrat running for Texas governor against Republican attorney general Greg Abbott, tells in her upcoming memoir the story of a pregnancy she and her then husband decided to terminate 17 years ago.

In the book Forgetting to Be Afraid, slated for release next week, Davis says multiple doctors offered medical opinions that the fetus suffered from an acute brain abnormality that was likely incompatible with life, reports the San Antonio Express-News. During the procedure, Davis said she felt the baby, who they’d named Tate Elise, “tremble violently, as if someone were applying an electric shock to her.” A doctor stopped the unborn baby’s heart and the child was delivered by cesarean section.

“An indescribable blackness followed. It was a deep, dark despair and grief, a heavy wave that crushed me, that made me wonder if I would ever surface,” writes Davis. “And when I finally did come through it, I emerged a different person. Changed. Forever changed.”

The abortion debate has been front and center in the Texas governor race that pits Davis, a Democrat who rocketed to national prominence by filibustering passage of strict abortion restrictions in the state, against Abbott, a staunch abortion opponent.

Davis trails Abbott in the polls and faces long odds to win in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in two decades. Her abortion is not expected to hurt her political fortunes, since only a very small number of hard-liners who were unlikely to support her in any event oppose abortion in the case of fetal abnormality.

[San Antonio Express-News]

TIME States

Former Virginia Governor Guilty of Corruption

Bob McDonnell,  Eileen Reinaman
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, second left, talks to his sister Eileen Reinamanas they arrive at federal court for the third day of jury deliberations in his corruption trial in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Steve Helber&—AP

Bob McDonnell and Maureen had argued they were too estranged to conspire

A Virginia jury found former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen guilty of corruption, fraud and conspiracy on Thursday, capping a dramatic political fall for a man once considered a future presidential candidate.

McDonnell, a Republican, was found guilty on 11 of the 13 counts he faced, and Maureen on nine counts. The two were accused of conspiring to accept more than $177,000 in cash, loans and gifts—including a Rolex and designer clothes and handbags—from a local businessman in exchange for political favors. The two waged an unusual bad-marriage defense, arguing they were so estranged they couldn’t have conspired together.

Former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, the prosecution’s star witness, spent 15 hours on the stand detailing how he felt his relationship with the McDonnells was a business one and that he expected some kind of quid pro quo for his generosity. The defense argued that the couple, who did hold parties for and take photos with William’s products, did help Williams within the bounds of ethics rules and that Williams’ financial aid was considered more support from a friend, especially for Maureen McDonnell. Maureen, they argued, developed an “emotional relationship” with Williams as she struggled with the stress of being First Lady of Virginia. Both sides said that neither engaged in a sexual relationship.

McDonnell could have shielded his wife from the charges against her and pled to one felony count, but the former trial attorney wanted to avoid jail so badly he took the riskier option of fighting the 14-count corruption charges in court. McDonnell spent days detailing the collapse of his marriage, telling the court he struggled with loneliness and his wife’s rages, taking solace in her ever-closer relationship with Williams, which seemed to calm her. The former governor testified that his “soul mate” was so haranguing that the governor’s mansion staff unanimously signed a petition against her, and that he felt compelled to work late every day. “I want to be in love, not just watch movies about it,” McDonnell wrote his wife an e-mail that went unanswered.

Maureen McDonnell did not take the stand. The couple, both 60, remains married, though they are not living together. Bob McDonnell had been viewed as a possible running mate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and perhaps even a future presidential candidate himself.

Virginia has some of the most lax ethics laws of any state in the country. Government officials can take gifts as long as they are disclosed. Even in the wake of the case, the Virginia State Legislature has not passed any measures to tighten those ethics rules.

The McDonnells are scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 6. They could face up to 30 years in prison.

McDonnell’s Democratic successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said he was “deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government.”

TIME LGBT

Federal Judge Upholds Louisiana’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

Ruling ends a string of decisions in favor of same-sex marriage after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act

A federal judge in Louisiana ruled in favor of the state’s same-sex marriage ban Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said in his ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show the state’s ban violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law and a right to due process. He also held that Louisiana has the authority to set its own definition of marriage.

The plaintiffs in the case included same-sex couples who were married in states outside Louisiana and want their marriage to be recognized there, an unmarried couple who wanted to tie the knot in Louisiana and the advocacy group Forum for Equality Louisiana. That latter group plans to appeal Feldman’s decision, USA Today reports.

Feldman’s decision breaks a pattern of judges ruling in favor of same-sex marriage following the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, a 2013 ruling in which part of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down. Over 20 cases involving same-sex marriage have been decided in federal courts since the highest court’s decision in Windsor.

[USA Today]

TIME States

California Passes First-Ever Bill to Define Sexual Consent on College Campuses

Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence in Seattle on May 30, 2014.
Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence in Seattle on May 30, 2014. Alex Garland—Demotix/Corbis

A new definition of sexual consent

Correction: Appended, Sept. 2

The California Senate passed a first-in-the-nation bill Thursday to define what amounts to consensual sexual activity in colleges in the state, a milestone at a time when colleges across the country are under close scrutiny for how they handle campus sexual assault.

The bill will head next to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. If enacted, it would make colleges adopt a student conduct policy requiring “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” as a condition for state funding. The bill defines consent to sex as the presence of a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no,” a cultural shift that victim’s groups have long advocated. In practice, colleges would be required to use the bill’s definition when they teach students about sexual assault during orientations, and when investigating claims of sexual assault. It would apply any public or private colleges that receive state financial aid funding.

California’s bill comes after more than a year of pressure from the federal government, Congress, and student activists for higher education institutions to do more to prevent the widespread sexual assault occurring on the nation’s campuses. Colleges and universities have been changing their policies for months in response to federal pressure. And after recent changes in the Violence Against Women Act that require colleges to explicitly report their prevention efforts, many colleges will be unveiling new policies and programs this fall where they never existed before.

The so-called “affirmative consent” standard that California’s legislature has introduced in the latest bill is not a new concept. Similar affirmative consent policies already exist at some 800 post-secondary institutions across the country, including the 10 campuses that make up the University of California system. Educators from the University of California collaborated on the bill with its author, State Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, and the system’s president, Janet Napolitano, has endorsed it. This would be the first time that a state has tried to put such a policy, usually confined to student conduct handbooks, into law.

There is some disagreement in higher education about whether the affirmative consent standard is the best practice. Though many colleges have adopted it, Harvard recently rewrote its sexual assault policy without adopting an affirmative consent standard, to the dismay of women’s advocates. Harvard’s Title IX Officer, Mia Karvonides, said the school rejected such a policy because there is no “standard definition of affirmative consent,” according to the student newspaper The Crimson. Critics of affirmative consent policies often point to an unrealistic set of standards set in 1991 by Antioch University in Ohio, which required verbal consent (excluding “moans”) for “each new level” of sexual activity—a standard that doesn’t reflect the real interactions between human beings during sex.

The California bill stops short of Antioch’s standard.The bill’s language clarifies the definition of consent by stating what it is not. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent,” it reads. “Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.”

The bill’s language does not require verbal consent, said Claire Conlon, a spokeswoman for de Leon, adding that it would allow for “verbal and non-verbal” consent. Conlon said the intent of the bill was to change the way school administrators approach their definition of sexual assault. Instead of asking: “Did she say no?” We are having them ask, did she consent?,” Conlon said. The bill does not require specific punishments for students found in violation of the policy.

Brett Sokolow, a higher education risk management consultant who supports affirmative consent policies and the bill in California, uses a traffic metaphor to describe the kind of behavior these policies are designed to prevent. “You go forward on a green light. You stop on a red light. But most people tend to run the yellows. They tend to increase their speed rather than slowing down to look both ways. Affirmative consent is telling you to slow down at the yellow light. You’ve been able to fondle, pet, kiss, if you assume those lead you to the next behavior without permission, then you are running a yellow light. You are putting your needs to get through the intersection above the needs for others’ safety.” Sokolow said the affirmative consent policy is preventative—it won’t stop predators, but it will coax some male students towards a healthier norm.

Those who oppose the bill are concerned that such a policy, combined with unavoidably murky sexual encounters, will deny college men due process and unfairly categorize them as rapists, causing potentially unfair suspensions and expulsions or reputational damage. Matthew Kaiser, a lawyer in Washington who represents college men accused of sexual assault, said the policy’s broad language could ensnare young men who acted in good faith. Even though the policy isn’t as explicit as Antioch’s, Kaiser sees a similar effect. “When people are having sex,” he said, they “don’t stop and say “can I do this now? It just sort of happens. If someone is sober and awake and not acting upon the other person, that looks like it would be prohibited under this [bill]. That strikes me as problematic, but its not clearly sexual assault. … When you look at the language of the bill, its not clear what counts as sexual assault and what doesn’t. It doesn’t give the school flexibility to be discerning.”

In addition to putting the schools at risk of losing federal funds, Kaiser said, the policy’s enshrinement in student conduct codes would also put schools at risk of breach of contract from a female student if she felt that the male student wasn’t punished adequately.

The notion of consent as part of a rape definition isn’t as controversial as some critics make it sound. In 2012, the federal government changed its definition of rape for the purposes of compiling statistics from “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” to “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Though the federal change is less specific than the California bill, the spirit of the changes is the same—changing the definition from one rooted in the woman’s refusal to requiring her active consent.

Administrators in California reached by TIME didn’t see the policy as overly broad. Any policy that attempts to design the ground rules in sex is inherently imperfect, they said, but the policies that don’t define consent are even less clear. (Harvard’s new definition for sexual assault, for example, prohibits “unwelcome” contact—an impossibly subjective and equally vague term). Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the University of California system, which has already adopted an affirmative consent policy, said it’s actually “a little less gray” than the previous policy that didn’t explicitly define consent.

“It makes it more clear. Is it crystal clear? Is it infallible? No. But that’s just the nature of sexual activity,” she said. No matter how the policy is written, colleges investigating sexual assault will come up against the same challenging he-said, she-said, confusion that any person investigating sex crimes must contend with. This policy at least gives students more information about the college’s expectations. Klein rejects the idea that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction with this policy. “Both parties don’t have to sign a contract before they unzip their pants” she said.

The bill is also helpful, administrators said, because it brings publicity to the sexual assault issue, making it easier for them to get students to understand why understanding the definition of consent is so important.

“The more people talk about it, the more women feel empowered to speak up when they are in bad situations,” said Jerry Price, the Dean of Students at Chapman University, a private university in Orange, Calif. “If men are predators, the more this is talked about, the more reluctant they are going to be to try to get away with things. All this fanfare is good for what we are trying to accomplish.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Dianne Klein. She is a spokeswoman for the University of California system.

TIME States

Woman Dies at Burning Man After Being Hit by Bus

This is a DigitalGlobe satellite image "overview" of the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City Nevada.
This is a DigitalGlobe satellite image "overview" of the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City Nevada. DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d—DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Some 60,000 people are in the Nevada desert for the festival.

A woman died at Nevada’s Burning Man Festival after she was run over by a bus early Thursday, event organizers said.

According to a statement posted to a website affiliated with the festival, local officials say the woman is believed to have died after falling under a bus carrying festival participants. The woman has not been identified, and the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident.

“This is a terrible accident,” Burning Man co-founder Marian Goodell said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and campmates. Black Rock Rangers and Emergency Services Department staff are providing support to those affected.”

Some 60,000 people are converging on the Nevada desert this week for the annual arts and culture festival.

TIME Guns

9-Year-Old Girl Accidentally Shoots, Kills Instructor at Gun Range

The operator says it allows supervised children age eight and up to handle weapons

A nine-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed a shooting range instructor in Arizona, police say.

Charles Vacca, 39, was instructing the girl on how to use an automatic Uzi on Monday when the girl, who was accompanied by her parents, pulled the trigger and then lost control of the weapon, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Tuesday. Vacca was shot in the head and died of his injuries.

Sam Scarmardo, the operator of the shooting range Last Stop where the accident occurred, said the range allows accompanied children age eight and older to handle weapons.

He said Vacca, a longtime military veteran, had been working at the range for roughly two years. Scarmardo also said the range had not had an accident since it was opened more than a decade ago.

The girl’s parents were recording the tutorial on their cell phones when the incident occurred and handed the footage over to authorities, according to Scarmardo.

TIME Crime

Ferguson Father Wants ‘Day of Silence’ for Michael Brown Funeral

From left: Michael Brown, Sr., Reverend Al Sharpton, and Lesley McSpadden during a news conference outside the Old Courthouse in St. Louis on Aug. 12, 2014.
From left: Michael Brown, Sr., Reverend Al Sharpton, and Lesley McSpadden during a news conference outside the Old Courthouse in St. Louis on Aug. 12, 2014. Jeff Roberson—AP

“Please, please take a day of silence so we can lay our son to rest. Please"

The father of the unarmed Missouri teenager whose shooting death at the hands of police sparked widespread protests called for peace Sunday as he and his family prepared to lay their son to rest Monday.

“Please, please take a day of silence so we can lay our son to rest. Please. That’s all I ask. And thank you,” Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown, said during a rally Sunday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The event, known as Peace Fest, is an annual festival held in a St. Louis park, but its message held particular resonance this year for a community still reeling from the death of Brown, 18, and its aftermath. Brown was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. Protests and sometimes violent clashes rocked the St. Louis suburb for days following the shooting.

Attention will again turn to Ferguson again on Monday for the funeral. Services are scheduled for 10 a.m., and three White House officials will attend, the Washington Post reports.

TIME 2016 Election

Perry Stops in Washington in Wake of Indictment

Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP

Texas Gov. Rick Perry called his Aug. 15 indictment on charges that he abused power an “attack on our system of government” during a speech on immigration at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Thursday.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry called his Aug. 15 indictment on charges that he abused power an “attack on our system of government” during a speech on immigration at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Thursday.

Gov.Perry stopped in Washington on his way to New Hampshire less than a week after being indicted by a grand jury in Texas on charges of abuse of power. He said Thursday he was confident in his case and that he aims to “defend our constitution and defend our rule of law in the state of Texas.”

The charges against Perry stem from his veto of $7.5 million worth of funding to the state entity that investigates political corruption, the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, after Travis County’s embattled District Attorney refused to resign in the wake of a drunk driving arrest.

Democrats in Texas have alleged Perry wanted funding cut to the public integrity unit to delay an investigation into mismanagement at the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, one of Perry’s signature programs. In an affidavit released by Perry’s lawyers on Thursday, a former criminal investigator at the Travis County Public Integrity Unit said neither Governor Perry nor anyone from his officer were ever a target in the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

“Any suggestion that Governor Rick Perry or anyone associated with him was being investigated is untrue; and, based on my investigation, there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever that suggests wrongdoing on the part of any individual other than the individual ultimately indicted by a grand jury,” the affidavit reads.

Perry has come across as calm, and at times cheeky, in the face of the charges. The governor presented a slight smile in his mugshot, released Tuesday. After being booked, Perry went out for ice cream. And now, Perry is hitting the road, with scheduled appearances in states that would be crucial if the governor were to run for President in 2016 as expected, including New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina.

Even during his brief remarks in Washington, Perry seemed to be focused mainly on the idea of one day serving as commander-in-chief: following a brief mention of the case against him in his home state, the Governor focused his attention on the crisis at the border, calling it a threat to national security. Perry said there should be no conversation about immigration reform, “until the border is secure.”

TIME States

Rick Perry Digs in for a Fight

Texas Governor Rick Perry acknowledges the crowd after being finger printed at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on Aug. 19, 2014 in Austin.
Texas Governor Rick Perry acknowledges the crowd after being finger printed at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on Aug. 19, 2014 in Austin. Stewart F. House—Getty Images

2016 presidential hopeful pleads not guilty in abuse-of-power case

Rick Perry isn’t going quietly. In fact, he says he’s not going anywhere at all.

The Texas governor pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the abuse-of-power case against him, waiving a formal arraignment that had been scheduled for Friday and signaling again his readiness to fight a prosecution that he has decried as a “farce.” This after Perry, who just days ago was barnstorming Iowa as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid, strode up to the Austin courthouse here on Tuesday to be booked and fingerprinted—and looking every bit the congenial, confident, quintessentially-Texan politician he has played with success for 30 years.

“I’m here today because I believe in the rule of law,” Perry said after having his mugshot taken Tuesday for booking.

“Like a true West Texan, in the face of adversity Rick Perry is doubling down and meeting his critics head on,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “Unlike most politicians facing indictments, Perry is reaching out to the media as opposed to running away from it.”

That approach led Perry’s lawyers to hold a briefing on Monday at an Austin hotel, unveiling a stellar team of star lawyers, and advising the media well in advance Tuesday that the governor would be turning himself in for the obligatory mugshot. After the booking, like the good Texan that he is, Perry made a point to thank the Travis County sheriff’s deputies who booked him—evoking a contrast with the torrent of abuse an intoxicated Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unleashed on deputies and jail guards when she was booked on a DUI charge in April, 2013.

Perry’s response to a video of Lehmberg’s tirade, which prompted calls for her resignation from both Democrats and Republicans, is at the heart of the indictment against him last week. Prosecutors say he abused his power by threatening to veto funds for the Public Intergrity Unit she heads if she didn’t resign, an assertion that Perry and even some liberals have warned constitutes prosecutorial overreach into policing even the most basic posturing in modern politics. But Lehmberg is also at the center of Perry’s public relations strategy so far.

“If I had to do so, I would veto funding for the public integrity unit again,” Perry told a cheering crowd of supporters Tuesday. “I’m going to fight this injustice with every fiber of my being. And we will prevail.”

For Perry, this is a black hat-white hat YouTube range war, with a vodka-guzzling, out-of-control, drunken Democratic prosecutor on one side and a self-styled champion of the people and the rule of law on the other. Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, unveiled a new ad Tuesday featuring, of course, the Lehmberg video.

“Governor Perry’s public relations strategy is to present this indictment as one blow, low and foul, in an ongoing fight between a disgraced, partisan, Democratic, district attorney and a Republican governor fighting for common decency, the rule of law, and the sanctity of the Texas Constitution,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University and longtime observer of Texas politics. “This framing is working pretty well, especially among Republican leaders and activists, but it is at best a short term strategy that will be of no use at all if the case goes to trial.”

Perry’s only hope of remaining a viable presidential candidate for 2016 is to get the charges dismissed before trial, Jillson said. “But if he goes to trial, there will be weeks of testimony from Austin insiders describing in most unappetizing terms precisely how the political sausage was made,” Jillson said. “If that happens, it will make Chris Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ troubles look like a walk in the park.”

Some Democrats have pressed the argument that Perry’s attempt to dethrone Lehmberg was aimed at derailing an investigation into connections between Perry campaign contributors and the Cancer Prevention and Research Insitute of Texas (CPRIT). But other Democrats see the indictment as baseless, including David Botsford, a prominent Travis County Democrat and a member of Perry’s legal team. He was the first to greet Perry at the podium with a handshake and an embrace Tuesday.

Perry’s legal team is a mix of colorful, political, heavyweight and well-connected lawyers. Botsford is regarded as a top criminal lawyer in Texas, but also someone who knows the inner workings and politics of the Travis County courthouse. Lead lawyer Tony Buzbee, who said the Perry prosecution is an example of “banana republic politics,” is a charismatic Houston plaintiff’s attorney. Also on the team are two star Washington attorneys—Ben Ginsberg, who represented President George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida recount, and Bobby Burchfield who has led the Republican National Committee’s successful legal fight against a key campaign finance law. The goal is likely to get the indictment thrown out as quickly as possible, and to get the case moved out of Travis County, where the judges and the majority of jurors are Democrats

While Perry’s stellar legal team plots the maneuvers ahead, Perry needs to focus on a different jury, political analysts say. “The principal problem for Perry is not so much how the indictment is being viewed by Republican caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere, but rather the doubts it is creating about Perry’s political future among major donors as well as political elites whose endorsements Perry needs to be viable, especially in the early caucus and primary states,” Jones said.

“Both the donors and elites are thinking far more about the long game of winning not only the GOP primary, but especially the general election, and are quite likely to view the indictment, regardless of merit, as a significant political liability,” Jones said. “If Perry cannot get the charged dismissed, the indictment will be a dark cloud following any Perry 2016 presidential campaign.”

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