“I’m here today because I believe in the rule of law,” Texas Governor Rick Perry told reporters on Aug. 19. “And I’m here today because I did the right thing.”
Really, Perry was at a Travis County courthouse in Austin because he had been indicted on two felony counts of abuse of power, so he needed to get booked, fingerprinted and photographed. And he was there because the line between playing politics and committing crimes has gotten increasingly fuzzy.
What did the Republican governor do to end up with one of history’s most impeccable mug shots? He threatened to veto state funding for Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit unless Democratic district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned–and when she refused to quit, he followed through on his threat. Perry says Lehmberg’s guilty plea after a humiliating 2013 drunk-driving arrest disqualified her for the job. Perry’s critics claim he wanted to shut down the unit’s investigation into a state-funded cancer-research institute that allegedly steered grants to his political cronies.
There are a lot of intricacies in Texas law, but threatening vetoes and bullying enemies are standard fare in Texas politics. Republicans–including Perry’s potential opponents in the 2016 presidential campaign, which he has been gearing up to join–raced to denounce his indictment as a criminalization of political differences. More telling, so have many liberal voices, including the New York Times and Washington Post editorial pages. Even President Obama’s longtime adviser David Axelrod tweeted that the charges sounded “pretty sketchy.”
These days, Perry has plenty of company. In Wisconsin, prosecutors are investigating Republican Governor Scott Walker’s role in a “criminal scheme” to evade the inscrutable laws barring coordination between campaigns and outside groups. Whether or not it turns out that Walker violated the letter of the law, he has now been linked to a “criminal scheme” in an election year, just as Perry is now an indicted politician.
In New Jersey, investigators remain obsessed with Republican Governor Chris Christie and that infamous traffic jam. Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could face a federal investigation after shutting down an anticorruption commission that started poking his own allies. And congressional Republicans still use the language of criminality, without evidence of criminality, in their endless probes of Benghazi and other purported Obama Administration scandals.
Prosecutors haven’t provided much evidence of criminality by Perry either. Granted, it’s still early, and his detractors point out that he never tried to oust two Republican district attorneys who got busted for DUIs. But if hypocrisy were a crime, what politician wouldn’t be a criminal?
This appears in the September 01, 2014 issue of TIME.
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