Gov. Rick Perry rallied opposition to federal stimulus spending, but he now is the manager of one of the biggest pots of federal gold in Texas: crime grants to local law enforcement agencies.
And those grants have become an integral part of Perry's political machine.
Perry in the past has decided what law enforcement agencies receive about $23 million a year in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance grants. Now, because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Perry will have an additional $90 million to hand out.
While Perry's office is the conduit for the federal money, the governor chooses which agencies receive the money and how it is spent. The political payoff has been great.
About $6 million in Byrne grants helped Perry win the endorsement of border sheriffs in 2006. Perry last year held a news conference to promote $557,000 in grant money he was giving to the San Antonio Police Department to target transnational gangs.
Every time Perry doles out the federal Byrne grants, he sounds like the money is his.
“Texas is tough on crime and remains dedicated to equipping our law enforcement with the resources necessary to protect our citizens and ensure the safety of our communities,” the governor said while handing out $2 million of the federal money to East Texas communities last year.
Perry created a controversy this year when he rejected $550 million in federal unemployment compensation funds, saying it had too many “strings attached,” but he later accepted more than $12 billion in stimulus funds to balance the state's budget.
Fodder for primary battle
Republican primary rival U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been attacking Perry on the stimulus funding, accusing him of hypocrisy. Hutchison voted against the Recovery Act but has said that once it passed Texas should get its fair share of the money.
Under requirements attached to the Byrne stimulus money, 40 percent must go to local governments. The governor's office reports that 425 applications have come in for $40 million of the money, based on recommendations from regional councils of government.
The other 60 percent of the stimulus money — about $54 million — can be spent at the discretion of Perry's office.
Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the governor believes it is important to get the stimulus-backed Byrne money to law enforcement agencies, as well as the usual grants.
“This funding will support investments in crime prevention, law enforcement, prosecution, corrections, treatment and justice information sharing initiatives,” Cesinger said.
She said the Byrne money is different from the unemployment funds because it is for one-time spending, while the unemployment money required a future state-paid expansion of the system.
The Byrne grants are named after a New York City police officer murdered in 1988 by gang members who were ordered by a jailed drug lord to kill a police officer.
The Byrne grants got a bad name in the early part of this decade in Texas when they were used to fund regional drug task forces, one of which resulted in the conviction of 39 innocent people in Tulia based on the false testimony of an undercover narcotics agent.
Perry, who was not involved in funding the Tulia task force, pulled the plug on regional task forces and shifted the emphasis in handing out Byrne money to border and homeland security.
Perry in 2005 gave $6 million in funds to the counties participating in the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition “to deter illegal immigration and prevent border-related crime.” Days before Perry's 2006 re-election victory, the sheriffs made a high-profile trip to Washington with the governor to discuss border crime, and most endorsed Perry.
“I don't think it was a coincidence that the grants roughly correlated with those endorsements,” said Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford, who managed the gubernatorial campaign of party nominee Chris Bell.
Scott Henson, former director of the ACLU Police Accountability Project, said some of the Byrne money in Texas is used for prison diversion programs and drug courts in urban counties. But Henson, who blogs about criminal justice, said some of the money Perry gave to the border sheriffs did nothing to deter crime.
“Some of the people he gave the money to turned out to be on the drug lords' payroll,” Henson said, referring to former Starr County Sheriff Rey Guerra, who recently was sentenced to 64 months in prison for leaking sensitive law enforcement information to Mexican drug traffickers.