Evidence Builds That Perry’s Office Pressured Panel On Willingham Probe

ZUMA Press/Newscom

Things are looking worse and worse for Texas governor Rick Perry, accused of stifling a state panel’s probe into that flawed arson investigation that may have led to the execution of an innocent man.

Sam Bassett, the former chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, has now told the Houston Chronicle that lawyers for Perry told him the case was inappropriate, and that the hiring of a nationally known fire expert was a “waste of state money.”Over the weekend, Bassett had said he was pressured by the governor’s lawyers.

Meanwhile, Perry’s GOP rivals are slamming his handling of the issue, and accusing him of a cover-up. As governor, Perry signed off on the execution, despite receiving eleventh-hour documents from lawyers for the convicted man, Cameron Willingham, containing evidence that the original investigation was badly flawed.

Last month, Perry, a Republican, had declined to re-appoint Bassett, as well as several other commissioners whose terms had expired. Bassett has since suggested that the decision was part of an effort to stymie the Willingham inquiry.

Bassett’s replacement as chair, John Bradley, immediately canceled a hearing at which the nationally known arson expert, Craig Beyler, was scheduled to testify, and has not said whether it will be rescheduled.

Bassett told the Chronicle he had been summoned to a meeting earlier this year with Perry’s then-General Counsel David Cabrales and Deputy General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley. He described it as “progressively confrontational.”

Reports the paper:

As Bassett outlined the commission’s investigations of the Willingham case and that of Brandon Lee Moon, an El Paso man wrongly convicted of sexual assault, Cabrales told the chairman “he didn’t think those kinds of investigations were the kind contemplated by the statute,” Bassett said.

“I think he said something along the lines that we should be more forward-looking, more current rather than examining older cases,” Basset said. Later in the discussion, Bassett said, he was told the Moon investigation was appropriate, but the Willingham case was not.

It continues:

At one point, the lawyers asked Bassett how the panel chose Beyler to review the Willingham case. Bassett said he explained state regulations, requiring the soliciting of bids, were followed. When Wiley asked how much Beyler had been paid, Bassett said he responded, “$30,000, maybe a little more.”

Wiley then remarked, “That sounds like a waste of state money,” according to Bassett.

Said Bassett: “I was surprised at the level of involvement that they wanted to have in commission decision-making.”

Perry is in a tough re-election fight, and his rivals for the GOP nomination are jumping on the story.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told a radio interviewer yesterday that Perry “made a mistake in trying to ramrod a covering-up of what might be more evidence for the future.”

And a lesser-known candidate, GOP activist Debra Medina, told the Star Telegram of Fort Worth:

This constant changing of the guard when he doesn’t like the findings is more evidence that the governor behaves more and more like a tyrant, ‘off with their heads’ when people don’t agree with him.

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