Criminal Element in Republican Politicians is Alive and Well—and No Big Deal—in Texas

Tuesday, April 26, 2016
(graphic: Getty Images)






By Mike Ward, New York Times


AUSTIN - One is under indictment on criminal charges and faces a federal securities lawsuit. The other faces a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers for charging state taxpayers for personal trips.


While Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller currently may be the Texas Republican Party's bad boys in headlines, they will be nothing of the sort in three weeks when both are scheduled to take the spotlight as GOP success stories when the party convenes in Dallas for its biennial statewide meeting.


Instead, they are the latest in a line of Texas elected officials whose legal troubles appeared to have little downside politically.


"Texans love characters, and they elect characters," explained Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant who has represented a number of state officeholders, both Democrats and Republicans, who have been called before grand juries or faced criminal charges. "If those characters they elect have some flaws, or they get charged in court, it makes them even more of a character."


Or, suggested James Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Buffalo in New York, a state that has had its share of political corruption cases in recent years, Texas' culture includes "an appreciation of the rogue."


"There's a different political culture in Texas," Campbell said. "Maybe Texas crooks just do it with more flair."


'I don't really care'


For their part, state GOP officials say they are unconcerned about the pending charges against Paxton, a tea party favorite who has continued making national appearances despite his indictment, or the investigation targeting Miller, a rancher with an outsized cowboy persona whose in-your-face bluntness is part of his charm to many.


Paxton faces state securities fraud charges alleging that he recruited investors to buy into a tech company without disclosing that the company was paying him. He also faces a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for the same allegations. The criminal case is expected to go to court later this year.


With the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, Miller is being investigated by the Texas Rangers for using state funds for a trip to Oklahoma, where he may have received a controversial medical treatment called the "Jesus shot." A separate trip to Mississippi where he participated in a rodeo also is under investigation, officials said.


At the Republican convention in Dallas, Paxton, the state's No. 3 statewide elected official, is slated to headline a keynote address after Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Miller, known for his folksy stories and Texas-isms, is to deliver a main stage speech later the same day.


"I don't really care if they're in trouble, frankly, unless that affects their positions on issues I care about," said Marie Callaway, a longtime Houston GOP activist and past convention delegate. "Whatever legal problems they have, they have to work out on their own. I suppose if they get convicted I'd care, but they're innocent until proven guilty."


Party officials make much the same point.


"We have no issue with either of them," said Michael Joyce, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. "We don't intend to bring up any of the issues."


While there has been much national debate about elected officials facing criminal charges and investigations, much of it since the 1990s when the "criminalization of politics" became a buzzword to defend accused officeholders, the Texas experience has been different. States such as Illinois and New York have notched notable public corruption convictions of high-profile politicians, Texas has not.


The reason, at least in part, political observers and experts say, is Texans' hidebound spirit of independence.


"Having characters in Texas politics is part of this, yes, and Texans don't generally expect a lot of their politicians. So, if they get some entertainment out of the people they elect, then all the better," said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist who has studied political misbehavior in Texas for two decades.


"But the other factor is that politicians often get off because the laws they are accused of violating are so poorly written," he continued. "They have holes in them big enough to drive a truck through ... and they get off."


Republicans and Democrats


Among recent examples: Former Gov. Rick Perry, who had felony abuse-of-office charges against him dismissed weeks ago; former Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison, who faced a 1993 indictment for official misconduct and tampering with state records that later was dismissed; former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was convicted of campaign-ethics charges that later were thrown out by an appeals court.


All were Republicans.


On the Democratic side, bribery charges against Attorney General Jim Mattox in 1983 and House Speaker Billy Clayton in 1980, as part of a federal sting of union bribery allegations, ended with acquittals; House Speaker Gib Lewis pleaded no contest to ethics charges and paid a $1,000 fine to resolve a more-serious indictment in 1992.


While those wins may be a testament to the legal prowess of their attorneys, more telling, experts say, is that Texas politicians are able to keep their supporters, who help pay the tab for such high-priced legal help.


"They'd rather have this guy who agrees with their politics, under indictment than someone else who is not beholden to them," Jillson said. "What that says about Texas is that the state is currently run by people who are elected in the Republican primary. And the primary voters still probably like Miller and Paxton."


Jerry Polinard, a veteran political science professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, agreed.


"There's a shrug-your-shoulder mentality, like people expect it," he said. "That doesn't foster trust in government."


Not surprisingly, Texas Democrats blame the Republicans' legal travails for putting Texas in a bad light.


Manny Garcia, deputy director of the Texas Democratic Party, which has been highly critical of both Paxton and Miller since the investigations began, said having statewide elected officials under indictment and criminal investigation "damages the Texas brand" across the country.


"Ken Paxton and Yosemite Sid should be embarrassing to our state," he said.


'A badge of honor'


Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog that monitors ethics violations by state officials and filed the criminal complaint that got Perry indicted, said embarrassment may not be as much a consideration as it would in other states.


"I think that Texas exceptionalism and individualism is a big part of why people don't seem to care a lot about this," he said. "Texans have a don't-tread-on-me mentality, even when it's law enforcement investigating them. And that resonates with a lot of people in the state. It's like they're saying: They're coming after me, and they can come after you. It's about freedom.


"What happens is these investigations become a badge of honor for politicians," he added. "There's no sense of shame."


To Learn More:

Most Top Officials in Texas Town Arrested by Feds for Corruption (by Nomaan Merchant, Associated Press)

Homeland Security in Texas Accused of Faking Inspection Reports (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

Rick Perry First Texas Governor to be Indicted while in Office Since World War I (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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