Rick Perry's Ethics: Pay-To-Play Government And "Junk" Justice

August 15, 2011 4:27 pm ET

Now that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is officially running for president, his record as a chief executive deserves national scrutiny. Non-partisan watchdog Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington named Perry one of the most unethical governors in the country, in part because of Perry's brand of graft is particularly efficient: One of every five dollars his campaign raised through 2010 came from political appointees. The rest of the picture is even uglier. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham — where Perry allowed a man to be executed despite being given scientific evidence may have exonerated him, and then sought to derail an investigation into the episode years later — may prove more damaging to Perry's candidacy.

Perry's Radioactive Ethics Record

CREW: Perry Among "The Nation's Most Incompetent And Unethical Governors." As reported by the Houston Chronicle: "Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the nonpartisan watchdog group that has hounded politicians from both parties, this morning chose Perry as one of 'the nation's most incompetent and unethical governors.' [...] The 'winning' list of 11 governors - including nine Republicans and two Democrats - is composed of elected officials 'who have pushed their states' best interests aside in favor of their supporters, families, political parties and bank accounts,' CREW said in its announcement. CREW singled out six Perry controversies. Among them, the group said that the governor 'allegedly disregarded campaign finance laws and aided a business that was especially generous to his campaign' and 'accepted travel and campaign donations from a business that received benefits from his official actions.'" [Houston Chronicle, 4/21/10]

Texas Environmental Commission Filled With Perry Appointees Allowed Company Owned By Top Perry Donor To Dispose Of Other States' Radioactive Waste In Texas. As reported by the Austin American-Statesman: "Texas can import low-level radioactive waste from 36 other states, a commission run jointly by Texas and Vermont decided Tuesday in Andrews County. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission vote was a decisive victory for Waste Control Specialists, a company owned by a politically connected billionaire that has shaken off a series of permitting and court challenges by environmental activists. [...] But the disposal of the waste became a story as much about money and connections as about radioactive syringes and beakers. Waste Control is a subsidiary of Valhi, whose board chairman is Harold Simmons , a Dallas investor who has given at least $1.12 million to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaigns since 2001, making him the second-highest individual donor during that period. He gave Perry's campaign $500,000 in 2010. That year the company spent as much as $430,000 on lobbyists, according to a review of campaign records. All the commissioners were appointed by Perry." [Austin American-Statesman, 2/4/11, emphasis added]

Perry Has Gotten $17 Million In Political Contributions From People He Appointed To Public Office. From a 2010 report by Texans for Public Justice: "Texas Governor Rick Perry tapped 3,995 appointees 5,662 times to serve on hundreds of state agencies, boards and commissions between January 2001 and February 23, 2010 (some appointees were appointed multiple times). From 2001 through June 2010 Perry's campaign received $17,115,865 from 921 of these appointees or their spouses." [Texans for Public Justice, September 2010, emphasis added]

  • One Of Every Five Dollars Perry's Campaign Has Raised Since 2001 Came From Political Appointees (21 Percent). From a 2010 report by Texans for Public Justice: "Gubernatorial appointees accounted for an impressive 21 percent of the $83.2 million that Perry's campaign has raised since 2001." [Texans for Public Justice, September 2010]

Fmr. Sen. Phil Gramm's Campaign Gave Perry $610,000 After Perry Appointed Gramm's Wife To A Public Position. From a 2010 report by Texans for Public Justice: "Perry's most-lucrative appointee is Wendy Lee Gramm, whom he appointed to the A&M Board of Regents and the Texas Tax Reform Commission. The U.S. Senate campaign of Gramm's husband transferred $610,000 to Perry's campaign in 2002. It was the largest same-day contribution of the governor's political career. [...] With the $613,000 that the Gramms donated to Perry over the years, Wendy Gramm is Perry's No. 1 donor-appointee. Perry appointed Wendy Gramm to be a regent of his A&M alma mater in 2001; in 2005 he appointed her to the Tax Reform Commission. Meanwhile, as vice president of UBS investment bank, Phil Gramm pitched the Governor's Office on unsuccessful schemes to privatize the Texas Lottery and buy 'dead-peasant' life insurance policies on state employees (UBS hired Governor Perry's son around that time)." [Texans for Public Justice, September 2010, emphasis added]

Gramm's Company (UBS) Hired Perry's Son In 2007 While Working With Governor's Office On "Possible Sale Of The Texas Lottery." As reported by the Dallas Morning News: "UBS, one of two large financial firms consulting with the governor's office over the possible sale of the Texas lottery, hired Gov. Rick Perry's son to work in its Dallas office about two weeks ago. The governor's office said that there is no relationship between the two events and that Griffin Perry, 23, is a bright young economist who is pursuing a career on his own merits. [...] Also involved in the UBS consulting team is former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a longtime friend of the governor. He has met with one of the governor's top aides to discuss the idea but not with Mr. Perry, Mr. Black said last week. Mr. Gramm, a UBS vice president of investment banking, works out of the company's New York office. Griffin Perry will be working in the separate area of personal wealth management, Mr. Black said." [Dallas Morning News, 2/13/07, emphasis added, via Nexis]

As Governor, Perry Ignored Evidence That Could Have Freed A Wrongly Convicted Man, And Sent Him To His Death

Cameron Todd Willingham Was Executed After Perry Denied His Plea For Clemency. As reported by The New Yorker: "[Cameron Todd] Willingham had requested a final meal, and at 4 p.m. on the seventeenth he was served it: three barbecued pork ribs, two orders of onion rings, fried okra, three beef enchiladas with cheese, and two slices of lemon cream pie. He received word that Governor Perry had refused to grant him a stay. (A spokesperson for Perry says, 'The Governor made his decision based on the facts of the case.') [...] The warden pushed a remote control, and sodium thiopental, a barbiturate, was pumped into Willingham's body. Then came a second drug, pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the diaphragm, making it impossible to breathe. Finally, a third drug, potassium chloride, filled his veins, until his heart stopped, at 6:20 p.m." [The New Yorker, 9/7/09, emphasis added]

Willingham's Guilt Was Called Into Serious Doubt By A Report From Arson Expert Dr. Gerald Hurst. As reported by The New Yorker:

A Texas prosecutor once told the Chicago Tribune, of [Dr. Gerald] Hurst, "If he says it was an arson fire, then it was. If he says it wasn't, then it wasn't." [...]

[Hurst] received the files on Willingham's case only a few weeks before Willingham was scheduled to be executed. As Hurst looked through the case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal, jumped out at him. Vasquez had testified that, of the roughly twelve hundred to fifteen hundred fires he had investigated, "most all of them" were arson. This was an oddly high estimate; the Texas State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only fifty per cent of its cases. [...]

Vasquez and [assistant fire chief Douglas] Fogg had cited as proof of arson the fact that the front door's aluminum threshold had melted. "The only thing that can cause that to react is an accelerant," Vasquez said. Hurst was incredulous. A natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two thousand degrees Fahrenheit-far hotter than the melting point for aluminum alloys, which ranges from a thousand to twelve hundred degrees. [...]

Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire-one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on "junk science." Hurst wrote his report in such a rush that he didn't pause to fix the typos. [The New Yorker, 9/7/09, emphasis added]

Perry Spokeswoman Told The New York Times That Perry Had Seen The Hurst Report But Allowed Willingham's Execution To Proceed Anyway. As reported by the New York Times: "Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said that on the night of the execution, the governor's general counsel thoroughly briefed him on the report of the arson expert and various appellate court decisions. He denied the reprieve, she said, because the courts 'all agreed that the Hurst report was no more than an opinion and did not merit reopening the case.'" [New York Times, 10/19/09, emphasis added]

A Freedom Of Information Act Request Found That The Governor's Office Ignored Hurst's Report. As reported by The New Yorker: "The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor's office and the board pertaining to Hurst's report. 'The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,' [Innocence Project co-founder] Barry Scheck said. 'The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.'" [The New Yorker, 9/7/09, emphasis added]

Perry Derailed An Inquiry Into The Willingham Execution And Perry's Own Failure To Grant Clemency

A Panel Of Experts "Concluded That 'Each And Every One' Of The Indicators Of Arson Had Been 'Scientifically Proven To Be Invalid.'" As reported by The New Yorker: In December, 2004, questions about the scientific evidence in the Willingham case began to surface. Maurice Possley and Steve Mills, of the Chicago Tribune, had published an investigative series on flaws in forensic science; upon learning of Hurst's report, Possley and Mills asked three fire experts, including John Lentini, to examine the original investigation. The experts concurred with Hurst's report. Nearly two years later, the Innocence Project commissioned Lentini and three other top fire investigators to conduct an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham case. The panel concluded that 'each and every one' of the indicators of arson had been 'scientifically proven to be invalid.'" [The New Yorker, 9/7/09, emphasis added]

Perry Replaced Three Members Of The Texas Forensic Science Commission Days Before They Were To Hear From Author Of A "Scathing" Report On Willingham Case. As reported by CNN:

An investigation into claims that faulty evidence led Texas to execute an innocent man in 2004 was at a "crucial point" when the state's governor replaced three of its members this week, one of the three said Thursday.

Gov. Rick Perry's shake-up of the Texas Forensic Science Commission came two days before it was to hear from the author of a scathing report in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. That Friday session has been postponed indefinitely in the wake of Perry's new appointments, and critics of the governor accused him of trying to quash the Willingham probe. [...]

The Forensic Science Commission began investigating the Willingham case in 2008, hiring Maryland fire investigation expert Craig Beyler to examine the evidence used to convince a jury the fire that killed Willingham's three daughters was deliberately set. Levy said Thursday he told the governor's office "that it would be disruptive to make the new appointments right now."

"The commission was at a crucial point in the investigation," he said. Asked about the future of the Willingham investigation, he said, "I don't know if it will ever be heard."

Levy, a top prosecutor in Fort Worth, Texas, said he had asked to remain on the commission, but received no response from the governor's office. Sam Bassett, the panel's former chairman, said he also asked to remain. [CNN, 10/2/09, emphasis added]

Wrongful Convictions Expert: Perry's Shakeup Of Willingham Investigation Was "Like Nixon Firing [Staff] To Avoid Turning Over The Watergate Tapes." As reported by CNN: "Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck compared the shake-up to the Watergate scandal's 'Saturday Night Massacre,' when embattled President Richard Nixon sought the removal of a special prosecutor investigating his administration. 'Rather than let this important hearing go forward and the report be heard, the governor fires the independent chairman and two other members of this commission,' Scheck said. 'It's like Nixon firing Archibald Cox to avoid turning over the Watergate tapes.' The Innocence Project seeks to help prisoners who were wrongfully convicted. Its 2006 report on the Willingham case concluded that 'an innocent man was executed.'" [CNN, 10/2/09, emphasis added]

Perry, Five Years After Execution: Willingham Was "A Monster." As reported by the New York Times: "Mr. White's remarks came with Mr. Perry, a Republican and staunch backer of the death penalty, under criticism for not granting a 30-day reprieve to Cameron T. Willingham in 2004, when an arson expert working with Mr. Willingham's defense concluded that the evidence that had put him on death row was seriously flawed. [...] Last week Mr. Perry defended his decision and struck back at his critics. 'Willingham was a monster,' he said. 'Here's a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so he wouldn't have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to the facts in this case.'" [New York Times, 10/19/09]