Texas Governor Rick Perry’s lawyers dismissed allegations he was involved in a cover-up to block a probe of a state cancer-research agency, calling the claims a “red herring.”
Perry, 64, a Republican regarded as a contender for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, was indicted Aug. 15 on two felony counts that he abused his authority by trying to force out of office Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat. Perry pleaded not guilty, saying the allegations were a politically motivated “farce.” The most serious charge carries a sentence of as long as 99 years in prison.
According to Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that filed an initial complaint, Perry’s attempt to remove Lehmberg was designed to block an investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which had been criticized for sending state funds to Republican donors.
Perry was never a target of an ethics task force probe into the claims the cancer-research agency funneled money to the governor’s supporters, according to a sworn statement from a member of the investigative group.
“Any suggestion that Governor Rick Perry or anyone associated with him was being investigated is untrue,” Chris Walling, a former prosecutor with the Public Integrity Unit, said in the affidavit. “At no time did I ever obtain evidence that suggested any wrongdoing on behalf of Governor Rick Perry or the Governor’s office.”
Walling was the primary investigator in a 2013 probe by state public-corruption prosecutors into allegations involving the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, according to his affidavit. He said “absolutely no evidence” uncovered by that investigation pointed to wrongdoing by anyone other than an agency official indicted last year for mishandling funds.
Perry’s lawyers blamed his Democratic rivals for a publicity campaign trying to smear Texas’s longest-serving governor with unethical conduct. Perry and the attorneys have repeatedly stated he acted legally in seeking to remove Lehmberg, who had been convicted of drunk driving, and cutting off funding for her agency when she refused to quit.
Perry called the allegations an attack on his office’s authority under the state constitution. He has maintained that the Texas Constitution allows a governor to veto any spending measure he chooses after lawmakers sign off on the state budget – without explanation.
“The CPRIT issue the Democrats are trying to peddle is a phony issue,” Ben Ginsberg, one of Perry’s defense lawyers, said in a telephone press conference today. “CPRIT is a red herring they’re trying to make float upstream. It is not in the indictment itself.”
Perry was indicted for abusing his official capacity, a first-degree felony that carries a possible prison sentence of five to 99 years. He was also charged with trying to coerce an official into failing to carry out her elected responsibilities, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.
Michael McCrum, the former federal prosecutor brought in to lead the Perry investigation, said the charges were based on more than 40 interviews and hundreds of documents.
“They are flat wrong on accusations of a political witch hunt,” McCrum said today in an e-mail addressing Perry’s remarks. “These accusations of political motivation are ridiculous and without any factual basis. The evidence supports the criminal charges filed against Mr. Perry.”
Walling, the former ethics prosecutor, said he “made it clear” to McCrum during an interview “that there was absolutely no evidence even suggesting wrongdoing on the part of Governor Perry,” according to his affidavit. Perry’s lawyers said Walling came to them after the governor was indicted last week.
McCrum declined today to comment on “my investigation, the evidence, the grand jury process or otherwise,” adding that “all relevant issues will be addressed in court.”
Perry’s political campaign has begun footing the bill for his high-profile defense team, in part to deflect criticism he was using state funds to defend personal actions.
“All further legal bills will be paid for with campaign funds,” Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry, said in an e-mail today. “This is an assault on the Constitution, and we don’t want it to be an assault on the taxpayers as well.”
Nashed confirmed that Perry’s campaign war chest has roughly $4 million on hand, and that taxpayers have picked up about $80,000 of the governor’s legal bill so far.
Perry’s defense team includes Houston trial attorney Tony Buzbee and former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips, in addition to Ginsberg, a Washington attorney who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida presidential election recount. Austin criminal-defense lawyer David Botsford and Washington-based Bobby Burchfield, a complex litigation specialist who has twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, round out Perry’s defense team.
The case is The State of Texas v. Perry, 390th Judicial District of Travis County, Texas (Austin).