Texas Governor Rick Perry hired an all-star defense team to challenge his indictment on public corruption charges as “banana republic politics” whose timing is suspect, given his potential 2016 presidential aspirations.
Speaking at a press conference yesterday in the state capital, Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee said a team has been formed “to defend an indictment that is absolutely improper. This is wrong, and what the governor did was right.”
Buzbee was accompanied by Ben Ginsberg, a Washington lawyer who represented the George W. Bush presidential campaign in the 2000 Florida election fight, Bobby Burchfield of Washington and Austin criminal defense lawyer David Botsford. Also on the team is Tom Phillips, former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
“There has been a near universal condemnation of this indictment,” Buzbee said. “Governor Perry will fight this indictment 100 percent and at the end of the day he will prevail.” The defense will be paid in part by taxpayers, the lawyers said, since the charges stem from Perry’s official duties.
Perry, a Republican, is accused of abusing his authority by trying to force out the Democratic prosecutor whose office probes government corruption across Texas. Perry’s action against Rosemary Lehmberg came after she was convicted of drunk driving. She refused to step down, and Perry subsequently vetoed funding for her office.
According to the nonprofit group that filed the initial complaint, Perry’s bid to remove Lehmberg was part of a cover-up designed to derail an investigation of a cancer research-funding program he championed. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has been criticized for funneling state funds to Republican donors, and a former official was indicted last year for mishandling grant money.
Buzbee said Perry was following the state constitution and exercising his First Amendment rights when he vetoed funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
At yesterday’s press conference, the attorneys played a brief recording of Lehmberg after her arrest, in which she accused police of ruining her “entire political career.”
Buzbee said the state appropriations bill had $7.5 million in Texas taxpayer money in it to fund Lehmberg’s unit, and that Perry couldn’t release that money in good conscience as long as she was in charge.
“The issues raised in this matter are much larger than just Governor Perry,” Buzbee said. “This is nothing more than banana republic politics.”
Buzbee said Perry will waive arraignment in the case. A court proceeding in the case is scheduled for Aug. 22, according to court records.
Rudy Magallanes, a spokeswoman for the Travis County District Attorney’s office, said in an e-mail this weekend that Lehmberg declined to comment on the case.
Michael McCrum, the white-collar defense lawyer brought in to lead the Perry investigation, expressed confidence in charges he said are based on more than 40 interviews and hundreds of documents.
“I looked at the law and I looked at the facts,” McCrum, a Republican, said last week. “The grand jury has spoken that at least there’s probable cause he committed two felony crimes.”
Perry was indicted Aug. 15 on two charges, one of abuse of official capacity and one of coercion of a public servant.
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.
Perry is charged in the indictment with abusing his office by misusing state funds in a manner “contrary to the oath of office he took as a public servant.” He also tried to coerce Lehmberg into failing to carry out her elected responsibilities by threatening to veto a measure already approved by the legislature, according to the document.
An arraignment date will be set this week, according to McCrum. It might be three months to a year before a trial begins, he said.
Perry, 64, speaking on the Sean Hannity radio show yesterday, said the indictment reflects a “process being prostituted.”
“This needs to be exposed for the absolute corrupt process that it is,” he said, pointing to the timing of the indictment as he’s trying to boost his national profile ahead of a potential 2016 White House bid.
“The timing is suspect, to say the least,” he said.
Botsford said it was Perry’s First Amendment right to call for Lehmberg’s resignation and link it to the veto.
“That conduct is protected and it is not illegal,” he said. “We tried to educate the special prosecutor of all the concerns” he said, adding “that education apparently did not get through.”
The case is The State of Texas v. Perry, D-1-DC-14-100139, 390th Judicial District of Travis County, Texas (Austin).