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The perils of Rick Perry

By James C. Moore
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
James Moore says Gov. Rick Perry is reinventing himself with new glasses, but they won't distract from a grand jury probe.
James Moore says Gov. Rick Perry is reinventing himself with new glasses, but they won't distract from a grand jury probe.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Moore: Texas governor reinventing himself, but grand jury inquiry won't go away
  • Grand jury takes up allegations Perry bribed, coerced official to force her out of office
  • Moore: State official was conducting criminal investigation that might have implicated Perry
  • He says Perry's troubles are good news for Jeb Bush in race for presidential nomination

Editor's note: James C. Moore is a business consultant and partner at Big Bend Strategies, a business messaging firm. He is co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential" and a TV political analyst.

(CNN) -- Politicians struggle with reinvention after failure, and during the Internet era, everything lives forever in the digital universe. Some things simply cannot be undone, no matter how hard we might try.

Buying a nice pair of black glasses, for instance, to suggest character and intellect will not prevent search engines from finding stories and videos of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's famous "Oops" moment during a nationally televised debate. Although an entire nation either grimaced or laughed through his blunder, he will continue trying to portray himself as presidential timber, a leader who is as good at creating jobs as he is at inadvertent political humor.

James C. Moore
James C. Moore

Those new specs won't make a grand jury investigation go away, either.

A special prosecutor in Austin has impaneled a grand jury to examine allegations that the governor of Texas may have bribed and coerced a key state official to force her out of office. At the time, her office was investigating one of Perry's signature projects, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute. (Watchdog group Texas for Public Justice filed the complaint with the prosecutors.)

Rosemary Lehmberg, the Travis County district attorney, oversees the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates possible corruption in state government. Her office had launched the investigation of the multibillion-dollar cancer research agency after 18 scientists, including the Nobel laureate director, resigned in protest. They had claimed that investment decisions for that organization were being made without proper scientific review and that tens of millions of dollars were ending up in the hands of Perry supporters and donors for their business ventures. One former executive of the agency had been indicted in connection with an improperly awarded $11 million grant, and the case is pending.

And then Lehmberg was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Republican Perry demanded that Lehmberg, a Democrat, resign after a video showed her behaving belligerently and asking for favoritism during booking. When she refused to step down, he threatened to withhold her $7.5 million state funding, which she was using to pay for the cancer investigation. Lehmberg would not accede to the governor's demands -- she is a locally elected official -- and he followed through on this threat to veto the budget.

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The move to cut the funding for the state watchdog group had a few political benefits for the Texas governor. He had just eliminated money for a legal inquiry in which he possibly might have, eventually, been implicated. If she had quit, Perry would have also had the authority to name Lehmberg's replacement, most likely a Republican, which then becomes a convenient way to avoid any potential charges or political damage in advance of a second GOP presidential run.

A special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, was assigned to the case and has said he was "very concerned" about Perry's behavior. The governor has, consequently, hired a high-profile Austin criminal defense lawyer. Perry has not spoken publicly about the case, but his office is arguing that he was constitutionally empowered with a line-item veto and that he did nothing wrong. Because he claims to have been acting in his capacity as governor, Perry plans to have his lawyer paid out of taxpayer funds.

Any attempts to characterize the investigation of Perry as a political prosecution are uninformed. Texas law is clear on official abuse of power: Prosecutors would only need to show that Perry was offering considerations in return for actions by District Attorney Lehmberg.

If there is evidence of any additional conversations after Lehmberg's original refusal and the formal veto, and evidence that Perry or his representatives attempted further negotiations for her resignation in exchange for anything, McCrum's presentation to the grand jury could become more compelling in convincing members that Perry was coercing another officeholder.

A Travis County judge said it was communicated to him that Perry's representatives told Lehmberg, even after the veto, that money for her office would be restored if she resigned, actions that could easily be interpreted as bribery or coercion by the grand jurors. The special prosecutor appears to have confirmed that he is looking at whether Perry's office made such potentially illegal representations by acknowledging that he is looking at everything "before and after the veto."

Perry's problems come at precisely the wrong moment in his reintroduction tour of America, and the legal tangle might harm his presidential profile worse than shutting down lanes of a bridge. In fact, the Texas governor's actions, if proved by evidence, are worse than the New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie team's traffic tricks because Perry might have obstructed justice, not just a thoroughfare. At least Christie has exhibited the basic sense to use his campaign funds to pay his $300,000-plus in legal fees and not lean on the state's overburdened taxpayers to fund his defense.

The secrecy of grand jury proceedings are likely to prevent Perry from getting hammered in the media on every day, but his troubles quickly turn into good news for the emerging campaign of Jeb Bush.

Neither Perry nor Christie has to be convicted of a crime for the former Florida governor to be viewed as the putative GOP front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination; they need only to have their reputations harmed. Christie is already battered, and Perry is just starting to take punches, which continues to prove there is still entertainment value in American presidential politics.

Just not much character or leadership.

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