Aug. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Texas Governor Rick Perry said an indictment against him stemming from a budget veto was a politically motivated “farce of a prosecution” and vowed to fight it.
“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” Perry said yesterday in a televised press briefing in Austin, the capital. “This indictment amounts to nothing more than abuse of power.”
Perry, a possible 2016 Republican candidate for the White House who will end 14 years as governor in January, was indicted Aug. 15 on charges of abusing his powers by vowing to veto funds for prosecutors who investigate public corruption. An arraignment date will be set next week, said Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor in the case.
The governor said he “wholeheartedly and unequivocally” stands behind his veto and will “fight against those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes, and I intend to win.”
Perry, 64, is accused of trying to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign by threatening to veto $7.3 million in state spending for the public integrity unit run by her office that investigates corruption statewide. Perry called for Lehmberg to step down after her arrest for drunken driving last year.
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 the case was “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.
A Travis County grand jury accused the governor of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant in the indictment handed up in Austin. McCrum has said there’s evidence to support both counts.
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.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that filed a complaint with the district attorney over the governor’s actions, said the issue wasn’t the veto or politics. Rather, it was the threat of a veto to force the official to resign, he said.
“It’s a ruse,” McDonald said in a telephone interview, referring to the governor’s focus on his constitutional power to use the veto, not the coercive threat. “I’m not so sure he’s going to be able to get away with that in the long-term.”
McDonald said a governor under felony indictment, especially on charges of abusing his office, should seriously consider leaving office.
Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said Democrats calling for resignation are hypocritical because 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” 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.
The governor found some unlikely allies too, including David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
“Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy,” Axelrod wrote in a posting on Twitter.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Perry cited Axelrod’s posting and Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz’s comments to the Newsmax website that he was “outraged” over the governor’s indictment.
“Across the board, you’re seeing people weigh in, reflecting that this is way outside of the norm,” Perry said on the program.
While the indictment comes when the legislature isn’t meeting and the state government is essentially on autopilot, it may 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.”
It may also blemish 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 strengthen Perry 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 Republican 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 of 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 employers before he leaves office, Rottinghaus said.
Perry has traveled to states including California, New York and Connecticut and spent money on television advertising to lure businesses to move 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.
“I’m going to continue to do my job,” Perry said during his press conference.
Perry was lieutenant governor when then-Governor George W. Bush became president in 2000. Perry was elected to lead the state in 2002, and was returned to office in 2006 and 2010. A Democrat when he entered public service as a state representative in 1984, Perry became a Republican in 1989 and won the lieutenant governor race in 1998.
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