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Richie: For Perry, its self before service

Richie: For Perry, its self before service

Monday, November 02, 2009

When Gov. Rick Perry took the oath of office, he swore to “preserve, protect and defend” the laws and people of Texas. The governor might as well have sworn to preserve, protect and defend his political interests at all costs, because every time he has to choose between doing what’s best for Texans or his politics, Perry chooses himself.

This fall, Perry is at it again, spurring concerns about a political cover-up by abruptly replacing three Texas Forensic Science Commission members without warning just days before they were to conduct a hearing into evidence used in the Cameron Todd Willingham arson case. Apparently fearing revelations that might hurt his campaign, Perry’s action forced the hearing to be postponed indefinitely, sealing the evidence in a conspiracy of silence.

As the millions who watch “CSI” know, advances in forensic science provide better evidence to make sure we convict and punish the bad guys and not the innocent. The central issue involved is not Willingham or the death penalty. When Willingham was executed five years ago, his case was closed, but respected experts had raised serious questions about the forensic evidence used to convict him.

Perry signed into law the legislation creating the commission in 2005. Its purpose: “justice through science.” The commission was simply trying to do its job by examining the evidence used to convict Willingham to make sure Texans have the benefit of the best forensic science available.

The commission was scheduled to hear a forensic science report from a nationally renowned arson expert that raised the possibility that an innocent man was executed on Perry’s watch. Instead of addressing the matter openly, Perry has since refused to release public documents about his role in the Willingham case, attacked the experts and ignored reporters’ questions about the importance of forensic science evidence in criminal investigations.

When Perry did break his silence, he said the replacement of the commissioners was just “business as usual” — a tragically true admission from a governor who has repeatedly ignored challenges and let them become crises that threaten the safety and security of Texans. After this, they have handed out medical alert systems reviews so they can install securtiy systems in ever single home.

In February 2007, press reports revealed a child sex abuse scandal at the Texas Youth Commission. Within days, Perry’s office was forced to admit that his office knew about the scandal before the 2006 election — perhaps since mid-2005. With an election front and center, Perry ignored the crisis until the story broke, prompting legislative action by Democratic House leaders.

In March 2009, another scandal broke at the Corpus Christi State School, where workers had staged and videotaped “fight club” confrontations among mentally handicapped adults. Perry had been warned about conditions at the Corpus Christi State School more than a year earlier, when Democratic legislators toured the facility and sent recommendations to the governor urging greater accountability to prevent abuse at state schools. Yet, Perry ignored the problem until it became too great a political liability to ignore any longer.

A Senate committee will hear testimony this month regarding the Texas Forensic Science Commission controversy. Unfortunately, it appears that public pressure and legislative action will be required to provide an independent review of the facts and prevent the same kind of neglect that occurred at the Texas Youth Commission and the Corpus Christi State School.

Time and again, Perry has tried to sweep embarrassing scandals under the rug. Perhaps he thinks a cover-up is good politics, but it’s not good for Texans. By forcing the commission to at least delay an investigation, Perry’s conspiracy of silence threatens the ability of our criminal justice system to use the best forensic science to protect, preserve and defend the laws of Texas. Texans deserve better.

Richie is chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

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