AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was indicted Friday on two felony counts by a state grand jury examining his handling of a local district attorney’s drunken-driving arrest and the state financing for a public corruption unit under the lawyer’s control.
The indictment was returned late Friday in Austin.
The investigation centered on Perry’s veto power as governor. His critics asserted that he used that power as leverage to try to get an elected official and influential Democrat and elected official - Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney in Travis County - to step down after her arrest for drunken driving last year. Lehmberg is Austin’s top prosecutor and oversees a powerful public corruption unit that investigates state, local and federal officials; its work led to the 2005 indictment of a former Republican congressman, Tom DeLay, on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Following Lehmberg’s arrest, Perry and his aides threatened to veto $7.5 million in state dollars for the public corruption unit in her office unless she resigned. The governor followed through on his threat, vetoing the money by stating that he could not support “continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
Perry’s detractors said that his moves crossed the line from hardball politics to criminal acts that violated state laws. His aides denied that he did anything wrong and said that he acted in accordance with the veto power granted to every governor under the Texas Constitution. Lehmberg resisted calls for her to resign and remains in office.
The criminal case against Perry began when a nonprofit government watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, filed a complaint last June accusing the governor of misdemeanor and felony offenses over his veto threat, including coercion of a public servant. A judge appointed a special prosecutor - Michael McCrum, a San Antonio lawyer and a former federal prosecutor - and the grand jury began hearing the case in April.
A number of Perry’s aides have testified in recent weeks before the grand jury, including Ken Armbrister, the governor’s legislative liaison. A previous grand jury was sworn in last year to determine whether Lehmberg should be removed for official misconduct. Its term expired, however, and it appeared to not consider the issues surrounding Perry’s threat and veto.
For Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, the criminal investigation had the potential to mar his legacy as his tenure neared an end. Along with his blustery image as a tough-talking, pistol-packing Texan, Perry has made it a point throughout his nearly 14 years as governor to tout his ethics and Christianity. He summed up his views in a book, published in 2008, about the values he learned as a Boy Scout; it was called “On My Honor.”
Perry has announced he is not seeking re-election and will leave office in January. He is considering a second run for president and has been crisscrossing the country and traveling abroad in recent months to raise his political profile and to show he has fully recovered from his unsuccessful 2012 campaign, which for a time turned him into a national punchline. Lately he seems to have rebounded, making numerous appearances on national talk shows to discuss his plan to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops to the border to stem illegal immigration and receiving high praise from conservatives on his recent trip to Iowa.
Still, Perry appeared to take the investigation into his actions in the Lehmberg case seriously, hiring a prominent defense lawyer, David Botsford, to represent him. According to information on the state comptroller’s website, the governor’s office has paid Botsford nearly $80,000 since June.
One night in April 2013, Lehmberg was found by sheriff’s deputies with an open bottle of vodka in the front passenger seat of her car in a church parking lot in Austin and was arrested for drunken driving. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
She plays a powerful role in Austin in overseeing the Public Integrity Unit. At the time of Perry’s veto last year, prosecutors in the unit had been investigating a state agency called the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which finances cancer research and prevention programs. The agency - one of Perry’s signature initiatives - came under scrutiny by state lawmakers after accusations of mismanagement and corruption; a former official there was indicted last year for his handling of an $11 million grant.
Perry’s critics accused him of using Lehmberg’s arrest to dismantle the public corruption squad, to thwart the investigation into the cancer-research agency and to seize an opportunity to take down a prominent Democrat.
“The governor has a legitimate statutory role in the legislative process,” said Craig McDonald, the director and founder of Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the original complaint. “In the case of the Travis County district attorney, the governor had no authority over the district attorney’s job - a district attorney who was elected by Travis County voters and serves exclusively at their will.”
But Perry’s supporters said the accusations amounted to an attempt to criminalize politics. Republican lawmakers had attempted for years to strip the public corruption unit of state financing, accusing it of pursuing politically motivated prosecutions.
The last Texas governor to face criminal charges was James E. “Pa” Ferguson, who was indicted in 1917 by a Travis County grand jury on charges of embezzlement and eight other charges. His case also involved a veto that angered his critics: Ferguson vetoed the entire appropriation to the University of Texas because the university had refused to fire certain faculty members. The state Senate voted to impeach him, but he resigned the day before the judgment was announced.