Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was indicted on charges of abusing the powers of his office by vetoing funding for prosecutors investigating public corruption.
Perry was indicted on two charges, one of abuse of official capacity and one of coercion of a public servant, according to a copy of the Travis County grand jury indictment issued yesterday in Austin, the state’s capital. If convicted of the more serious count, Perry could face as long as 99 years in prison.
Perry is accused of trying to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign by threatening to veto funding for the state’s public integrity unit, which operates from her office and probes corruption cases statewide.
“There’s evidence to support all of the language in both counts,” Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor hired to investigate the case, said in a phone interview. “I looked at the law and looked at the facts; I feel confident of the charges,” he said later in an e-mail.
David L. Botsford, a criminal-defense lawyer hired to defend Perry, said the indictment represents political abuse of the court system and lacks a legal basis.
“I am outraged and appalled that the grand jury has taken this action, given the governor’s constitutional right and duty to veto funding as he deems appropriate,” Botsford said in an e-mailed statement.
Perry, 64, is one of three Republican governors and potential 2016 presidential candidates affected by probes of possible criminal wrongdoing. An investigation into possible illegal coordination by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2012 recall election campaign with conservative issue advocacy groups has been temporarily blocked by a Milwaukee federal court judge.
New Jersey’s Chris Christie still faces accusations that his allies deliberately caused traffic jams at his state’s side of the George Washington Bridge last year as retribution for a mayor’s failure to support the governor’s re-election bid. The office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in Newark, New Jersey, is leading a criminal investigation of the lane closures.
Perry was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 and became governor in 2000 when George W. Bush resigned to become president. In 2012, his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination faltered during the primaries.
In his 13-year tenure as governor, Perry has propelled Texas to the center of national political debates by opposing President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act and by enacting laws that have led to some abortion clinics closing and requiring voters to present photo identification before being allowed to cast ballots.
Perry asked Lehmberg to resign after she was arrested for drunk driving in April 2013.
Lehmberg pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and served part of a 45-day sentence in the county jail, according a statement on her website. Her license was suspended for 180 days and she paid a $4,000 fine, according to David Sheppard, her attorney.
When Lehmberg refused to step down, Perry eliminated $7.3 million in funding for the state ethics prosecutors operating out of her office, according to complaint filed with the District Attorney by the nonprofit group Texans for Public Justice.
“The grand jury decided Perry’s bullying turned into law breaking,” Craig McDonald, founder of Texans for Public Justice, said in a phone interview. “A governor under felony indictment should consider seriously stepping down.”
Perry explained his decision in the line-item veto he issued in June 2013.
“Despite the otherwise good work of the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” the governor wrote then.
Perry’s attorney said the grand jury’s actions violate the separation of powers in the state constitution.
The indictment “sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor,” Botsford said in an e-mail.
McCrum expressed confidence that his investigation, based on more than 40 interviews and hundreds of documents, could overcome Perry’s political influence as Texas’s longest-serving governor.
“We’re talking about the governor, the governor of the state of Texas, which we all love,” McCrum said in an e-mail. “But when we get down to it, the law is the law.”
The abuse of official capacity charge is a first-degree felony and carries a possible prison sentence of five to 99 years, McCrum said. The coercion charge is a third degree felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison, he said.
An arraignment date will be set next week, McCrum said. It might be three months to a year before a trial begins, he said.
Texans for Public Justice claims Perry may have intentionally slashed the ethics unit’s funding in a bid to shut down a probe of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, which the watchdog group calls “one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.”
The cancer research agency drew criticism from lawmakers over alleged favoritism in the awarding of public grants, largely to the benefit of major Republican donors.
“Rick Perry’s track record of insider conduct is shameful and reflects a disturbing pattern of Republican misconduct,” Ed Espinoza, executive director of the Austin-based political advocacy group Progress Texas, said in a statement. “Now Perry will have to get booked, have his mug shot taken and his fingerprints recorded.”
The case is The State of Texas v. Perry, 390th Judicial District of Travis County, Texas (Austin).
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Allen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Laurel Calkins in Houston at email@example.com; Andrew Harris in federal court in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org