Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted on two (thankfully not three) felony counts of abuse of power Friday by a Texas grand jury. The indictment is the latest move in a long-running dispute between the state’s outgoing governor and his Democratic rivals, who allege he illegally attempted to use his veto power to force a public servant to resign.
In a Saturday news conference, Perry called the charges a "farce," and said, "I intend to fight against those who would erode our state's constitution and laws purely for political purposes and I intend to win."
The first charge is that Perry abused his official capacity. It is a first-degree felony with a potential penalty of five to 99 years in prison. The second charge, coercion of a public servant, is a lesser third-degree felony with a potential penalty of two to 10 years.
The public servant in question is Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, who last year was arrested for drunk driving. A video of her belligerent behavior went viral and was widely covered by Texas media.
Perry, untraditionally, weighed in on Lehmberg’s arrest long before he threatened the veto — a move partisans immediately flagged as unprofessional. Then the threats started. Perry demanded Lehmberg’s resignation, and withheld $7.5 million in funding for the district attorney’s public integrity unit on the line until she relented. Lehmberg refused, calling it improper, and Perry made good on his threat. Democrats argued the move was an abuse of the veto power, and a probe was launched shortly thereafter, resulting in the appointment of special prosecutor Michael McCrumb and his request for a grand jury hearing.
The real issue here is the threat. Had Perry just vetoed the funding in silence, this would be completely legal. But the threat was made, and here we are.
The indictment alleges that Perry “intentionally or knowingly misused government property by dealing with such property contrary to an agreement under which defendant held such property or contrary to the oath of office he took as a public servant.” The property referenced is the funding, already approved by the Texas legislature, and the improper use, in theory, is its manipulation to demand Lehmberg’s resignation.
At the heart of the case will be whether the threat to veto, which is allowed by the state’s constitution, constitutes abuse of power, and whether his demand that Lehmberg resign constitutes coercion. Despite the obviously malicious intentions that Perry seems to have had, both charges will be incredibly difficult for prosecutors to prove.
In a statement, Perry’s general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, defended his use of the veto, saying that it was made “in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” and that she and her team would “continue to aggressively defend the governor’s lawful and constitutional action.”
David L. Botsford, Perry’s personal attorney, added that the indictment “clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision,” adding that it is “nothing more than an effort to weaken the constitutional authority granted to the office of Texas governor, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor.”
While McCrum told reporters he felt “confident” in the charges as they were filed, the real problem here is that you just can’t separate politics from the legality of his actions. They are too intertwined — especially in a place like Travis County, which includes ultra-liberal Austin.
Republicans have long accused the Public Integrity Unit of targeting them. The unit has a history of prosecuting high-profile Republicans, including former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and former U.S. Speaker of the House Tom DeLay — Hutchison for allegedly misusing government employees and office equipment when she served as Texas state treasurer, and DeLay for allegedly violating campaign finance laws. Republicans point to Hutchison’s acquittal and the overturning of DeLay’s conviction as proof that the unit is biased.
But the politics also go the other way.
The governor’s critics say that at the time the funding was vetoed, the office was investigating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was one of Perry’s pet state agencies. Questions regarding the institute’s funding and money given to some of the governor’s allies have surfaced, with one former institute official having been indicted for the disbursement of an $11 million state grant. They allege that the vetoed funding was meant to stop the investigation, and Lehmberg’s resignation for drunken driving was simply an excuse.
The he-said-she-said of this case is going to be difficult for courts to sort out, resulting in a pretty low chance of Perry ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.
Perry has long been accused of abusing power. While the Texas governorship has historically been a very weak position, Perry’s status as the longest-serving governor has allowed him to pack more clout than almost any governor in the state’s history.
Perry took office in 2000, when George W. Bush assumed the presidency. Because he's been in office for 14 years, most major statewide positions are held by Perry appointees.
If Perry is found guilty, he’ll be the first Texas governor since 1917 to be convicted of a crime while in office.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore