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Perry Indictment Seen Blemishing Final Months in Office

Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted on charges of abusing his powers by vetoing money for prosecutors who investigate public corruption. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted on charges of abusing his powers by vetoing money for prosecutors who investigate public corruption. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Texas Democrats are calling for Governor Rick Perry to resign after being indicted yesterday, while Republicans say the charges are politically motivated and won’t stop him from governing or even running for president.

Perry, a possible 2016 Republican candidate for the White House who leaves office in January after more than 13 years, faces charges of abusing his powers by vetoing money for prosecutors who investigate public corruption. An arraignment date will be set next week, said Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor in the case.

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that Perry should step down because he “brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas,” even as Republicans and Perry’s lawyer said he was indicted “in a political prosecution” for exercising his constitutional authority.

State government will still function during Perry’s final months and he won’t back down, said Brandon Rottinghaus, who teaches political science at the University of Houston and is writing a book about governors and presidents who faced scandal.

“We have a saying in Texas, it’s ‘Keep your saddle oiled and your gun greased,’ and I’m sure he’s got both ready to go,” Rottinghaus said by telephone.

Funding Threat

Perry, 64, is accused of trying to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign by threatening to veto funds for the state’s public integrity unit, which operates from her office and investigates corruption statewide. A Travis County grand jury accused him of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant in the indictment handed down in Austin, the capital. Perry asked Lehmberg to resign after her arrest for drunken driving last year.

David L. Botsford, a criminal defense lawyer representing Perry, said the governor has a legal right and duty to veto spending as he deems appropriate. 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,” he said. McCrum has said there’s evidence to support both counts.

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, the nonprofit group that filed a complaint with the district attorney over the governor’s actions, said Perry should weigh resignation.

“A governor under felony indictment should consider seriously stepping down,” McDonald said.

Hypocritical Demands

Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said Democrats calling for resignation are being hypocritical when they made no similar demands of Lehmberg or other Democratic officeholders who got in legal trouble.

Perry is facing “the criminalization of what is normal political activity” in the indictment by a grand jury drawn from a Democratic area of the state, he said.

“The vast majority of Texans are going to think this is a political prosecution,” Munisteri said.

While the indictment comes when the legislature isn’t in session and the state government is essentially on autopilot, it could distract Perry from preparing for a possible presidential run and might hurt fundraising, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“This will certainly be a cloud over the governor’s remaining months in office,” Jillson said. “It will skew everything that he intended to do to prepare for running for president.”

Long History

It may also be a blemish on Perry’s record as the longest-serving Texas governor, depending on how the case turns out, Jillson said. Perry is the state’s first sitting governor to be indicted since James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917, he said.

Munisteri said the indictment may make Perry stronger politically among Republicans and other voters if they conclude he’s standing up to an unjust prosecution -- as long as it’s resolved before the presidential primaries.

Democrats and state Senator Wendy Davis, running against Attorney General Greg Abbott for governor in November, will argue that the case shows Republicans are corrupt and out of touch, Rottinghaus said.

“These allegations are troubling, and I have confidence in our justice system to do its job,” Davis said in a statement.

The indictment also may increase scrutiny on Perry’s decisions such as ordering 1,000 National Guard troops to the Mexico border in July during an influx of Central American refugees, and could hamper his pitch for jobs before he leaves office, Rottinghaus said.

Employer Pitches

Perry has traveled to states including California, New York and Connecticut and spent money on television advertising to lure businesses to the Lone Star State. Texas has been competing with four other states to land Tesla Motors Inc.’s proposed $5 billion battery plant and 6,500 jobs.

Perry, who replaced George W. Bush in 2000 when he became president, won terms in 2002, 2006 and 2010. A Democrat when first elected to public office as a state representative in 1984, Perry became a Republican in 1989 and won the lieutenant governor race in 1998 before becoming governor.

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