Scandals hiding in plain sight

By Catherine Rampell, For the Deseret News

Published: Thu, Aug. 21, 2014, 9:50 p.m. MDT

 Most recently, Rick Perry, Texas governor and presumed 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was indicted for abuse of power and coercion.

Most recently, Rick Perry, Texas governor and presumed 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was indicted for abuse of power and coercion.

(Austin American-Statesman, Laura Skelding, Associated Press)

The laboratories of democracy are blowing up.

A rash of relatively convoluted, thoroughly unsexy political scandals involving governors is moving through the country. So many of them involve Republican presidential hopefuls that conspiracy theorists could argue they must be manufactured, or at least overhyped, by wily Democratic strategists. At least one Democratic governor has also been implicated, though.

Most of the scandals (or, to be fair, sometimes pseudo-scandals) are pretty hard to follow unless you're paying really close attention. Which most Americans are not. So here's an overview:

Most recently, Rick Perry, Texas governor and presumed 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was indicted for abuse of power and coercion.

The background: A district attorney in Texas pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was jailed. She also happens to run the state's Public Integrity Unit, which investigates ethics violations by elected officials. Perry threatened to veto funding for the unit if the district attorney didn't resign. She refused, so Perry carried out his threat.

Pressuring a convicted lawbreaker to leave office probably sounds legitimate. Problem is, that Public Integrity Unit was investigating a cancer research institute that was one of Perry's pet projects. (One of its former high-ranking officials now faces a felony corruption charge.) If the district attorney had stepped down before she was up for re-election, Perry would have picked her replacement, who could then presumably have quashed the investigation. Whether his actions rose to the level of criminality is a matter of debate even among his critics.

Likely Republican presidential hopeful and scandal-ensconced governor No. 2 is Chris Christie. By now you might know about the "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" incident, which has cost New Jersey taxpayers $6.52 million this year in bills from Christie's attorneys alone. Other embarrassments seem to be burbling up, too, including Christie's own Solyndra-style debacle: the closure of Atlantic City's glittering Revel Casino Hotel, which opened just over two years ago, thanks in part to $260 million in tax breaks offered by the Christie administration. There's also the matter of another possible bridge scandal, this one involving securities law violations because of the source of the funding to repair the Pulaski Skyway.

On to Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and possible presidential contender, who has been implicated in an allegedly illegal coordination scheme between his campaign and third-party conservative groups. A special prosecutor recently released a statement saying he has not yet drawn any conclusions from the available evidence about whether to file charges against Walker.

Need more?

Robert McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia and one-time rising star of the Republican Party, is on trial over gifts and cash he and his wife allegedly received while in office. Florida's Rick Scott, a tea party darling once considered a possible future presidential contender, faces accusations involving personal financial interests in a rail project and a natural gas pipeline.

As for the lone Democrat among the bunch, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly hobbled an anti-corruption commission he created, steering the commission away from investigating his allies and a media-buying company that had worked on his campaign. He ultimately disbanded the commission altogether.

How could all of this been going on without anybody noticing?

I have one theory. Facing severe challenges to their business models, lots of mid-size newspapers have decided to go "hyperlocal," thinning out their coverage of state-level issues and officials in the process. A recent Pew report, for example, found that the number of full-time statehouse reporters fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. So perhaps governors got accustomed to the luxury of operating with little scrutiny from the Fourth Estate. Some of these imbroglios were first uncovered or pursued not by journalists, by the way, but by government investigators or an outside watchdog group.

Simultaneously, Americans are increasingly turning to comedy and entertainment sources for their news. Unfortunately, most of these newsworthy gubernatorial disgraces and boondoggles involve complex legal issues. Without lurid sexts or colorful femme fatales, they don't especially lend themselves to late-night comedy material, or even a particularly pithy portmanteau (with the exception, of course, of Christie's "Bridgegate"). There are a couple of stellar comedians, such as HBO's John Oliver, who have actively tried to comedify serious but technical topics, but they are unusual.

The takeaway for politicians: If you're going to engage in dubiously ethical endeavors, make sure they're shrouded in complicated, confusing statutes like securities law. Good old-fashioned sex scandals may sound like more fun, but they're intelligible enough to hold the attention of comedians, and voters, for longer than you might like.

Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

1. GaryO
Virginia Beach, VA,
Aug. 22, 2014

“Pressuring a convicted lawbreaker to leave office probably sounds legitimate.”

I don’t think it’s legitimate at all. Perry used the threat of veto in an attempt to force a political rival out of office. She got a DUI, and Perry had the arrogance and remarkably bad judgment to actually threaten to veto a bill if she refused to resign.

That would be like Obama threatening to veto a funding bill if a member of Congress doesn’t resign. It’s unethical.

So, “Pressuring a convicted lawbreaker to leave office probably sounds legitimate” huh? That means it would be OK for Obama to pressure Idaho’s Republican (and LDS) Senator Mike Crapo, who was convicted of a DUI just outside the DC beltway in 2012, to resign from office.

What do you think Republicans? Would it be OK with you if Obama threatened to veto a funding bill in order to get this “convicted lawbreaker” to resign?

2. george of the jungle
goshen, UT,
Aug. 22, 2014

Ya can laugh till ya cry but now it seems that our crying has turned to a laugh. Sad.

3. Esquire
Springville, UT,
Aug. 22, 2014

It seems to me that the editorial writer for the Deseret News should have read this piece before writing today's editorial. The Perry indictment is more than it appears on the surface.

4. Mike Richards
South Jordan, Utah,
Aug. 22, 2014

What we're seeing is the failure of the 4th Estate. If the media had done its job, there would have been many politicians from all parties exposed. Why didn't the drunk driving arrest of the lady politician in Texas get full coverage? Should someone who can't control herself be in a position of authority? Should she be trusted to "dig up dirt" on someone that the Democrats want to defeat? Is that the message that the Democrats are giving?

If Perry is guilty of abusing power, then prosecute him; but, let an impartial person verify the details.

While we're slinging arrows at politicians, let's fully investigate Harry Reid and the land tortoise scam in Nevada. Let's fully investigate the Benghazi cover-up. Let's fully investigate Fast and Furious. Let's fully investigate the sudden appearance of 60,000 children on our Southern boarder, and the failure of the government to properly process those children before sending them to other States. Let's fully investigate Obama's refusal to implement ObamaCare, as written.

Let's expect the 4th Estate to do its job, regardless of whose toes are stepped on.

5. Shimlau
Aug. 22, 2014

Mike Richards; I like your comment. Along with freedom of the press, comes a responsibility to accuratley report the news.