Gov. Rick Perry was indicted on two counts of abuse of power Friday by a Texas grand jury, in the latest chapter of a long-running politically-charged dispute between the Republican and his Democratic opponents.
The indictment revolves around Perry's veto of $7.5 million in funding to state’s public integrity unit., based in the Travis County district attorney’s office. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who ran the unit, was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated in 2012. Perry publicly demanded that she step aside. When she didn’t, he vetoed the unit’s funding.
At the same time, the unit, long a weather vane to Texas politics, was investigating one of Perry’s signature achievements, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, for alleged mismanagement. Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning watchdog group, filed an ethics complaint over Perry’s public veto threat.
At the request of Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum, a Travis County grand jury returned felony indictments against Perry on two counts, abuse of official capacity, which carries a penalty of five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant, which carries a penalty of two to 10 years.
Central to the case will be whether Perry's threat to veto, an act authorized by the state's constitution, constituted a misuse of state property, and whether his calls for Lehmberg to resign rose to a level of coercion. Both counts are likely to prove difficult for prosecutors to make.
In a statement, Perry’s general counsel Mary Anne Wiley defended the legality of the veto and pledged to fight the charges. “The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” she said. “We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.”
"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," added David L. Botsford, Perry's personal attorney. "This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision. The facts of this case conclude that the governor's veto was lawful, appropriate and well within the authority of the office of the governor. Today's action, which violates the separation of powers outlined in the Texas Constitution, is nothing more than an effort to weaken the constitutional authority granted to the office of Texas governor, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor."
Perry did not testify before the grand jury and he was not subpoenaed to appear, though members of his staff did.
McCrum told reporters he will be working with Perry's attorney to set up a time for Perry to be arraigned and booked. "I feel confident with the charges that have been filed," he told reporters.
A noted San Antonio criminal defense attorney, McCrum was appointed as an assistant US Attorney by President George H.W. Bush. In 2010 he was nominated in President Barack Obama to be U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, but he withdrew his name after his nomination stalled.
Texas Democrats quickly released a statement calling on Perry to resign. "Governor Rick Perry has brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas," the party said. "Texans deserve to have leaders that stand up for what is right and work to help families across Texas."
The indictment comes as Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, is set to step down in January after 14 years in office. The failed 2012 Republican presidential hopeful has been traveling the country in recent months in preparation for a second run at the White House, most recently returning to Texas from a four-day trip to Iowa on Tuesday.