A grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday for allegedly abusing the powers of his office by carrying out a threat to veto funding for state prosecutors investigating public corruption. He’s the first governor in Texas to be indicted in nearly a century.
A special prosecutor spent months calling witnesses and presenting evidence that Perry broke the law when he promised publicly to nix $7.5 million over two years for the public integrity unit run by the office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. The DA, who is a Democrat, was convicted of drunken driving, but refused Perry's calls to resign.
Though the Republican governor now faces two felony indictments, politics dominates the case. Lehmberg is based in Austin, which is heavily Democratic, in contrast to most of the rest of fiercely conservative Texas. The grand jury was comprised of Austin-area residents.
The unit Lehmberg oversees investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. It led the investigation against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who in 2010 was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering for taking part in a scheme to influence elections in his home state -- convictions later vacated by an appeals court.
No one disputes that Perry is allowed to veto measures approved by the Legislature. But the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion because he threatened to use his veto before actually doing so in an attempt to pressure Lehmberg to quit.
Mary Anne Wiley, Perry's general counsel, predicted Perry ultimately will be cleared of the charges against him -- abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.
"The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution," she said.
"Rick Perry had every right to veto the legislation that forms the basis of these allegations," said legal analyst Brian Wice. "The question is whether or not he threatened to tie that veto to Rosemary Lehmberg resigning."
Abuse of official capacity is a first-degree felony with potential punishments of five to 99 years in prison. Coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of two to 10 years.
The indictment of Perry is the first of its kind since 1917, when James "Pa" Ferguson was indicted on charges stemming from his veto of state funding to the University of Texas in an effort to unseat faculty and staff members he objected to. Ferguson was eventually impeached, then resigned before being convicted.