A Travis County, Texas grand jury has handed down two indictments against Gov. Rick Perry on charges related to his veto of funding of public integrity unit run by Travis County District Rosemary Lehmberg, who had served a jail term for driving while intoxicated, according to a Friday story by the Associated Press. Perry had issued the veto threat to pressure Lehmberg to resign. He is charged with abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant, both felonies. The first carries a sentence of up to 99 years in prison the second up to ten years.
Lehmberg had been arrested on a DWI charge in 2013 with her blood alcohol level being three times the normal limit and served half of a 45 day sentence. Despite this conviction and a rather damning video that shows her unprofessional conduct she refused to resign her office. It is Perry’s position that he was using his constitutional authority using the power of the purse to persuade her to do the right thing and step down, restoring the integrity of her office that had been sorely compromised by her arrest and conviction.
Instead, at the behest of a liberal group Texans for Public Justice filed an ethics complaint against Perry since he had offered a veto threat before carrying it out. A special prosecutor was named, who convened a grand jury to investigate the charges. Thus Perry became the first Texas governor to be indicted for a crime since 1917.
The natural suspicion has been raised in a number of quarters that the indictments are politically motivated. They were more designed to retaliate against Perry for opposing Obama administration policies and remove him as a possible presidential candidate than to litigate anything resembling a crime. Travis County, which is a liberal enclave that includes Austin, Texas, has a history of politically motivated criminal proceedings against Republican office holders.
For example, in 2005 then House Majority Leader Tom Delay was charged on a number of campaign finance law violations. His subsequent 2010 conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2013. But he had been forced to resign his congressional seat, something many suspect was the true goal of the indictment.
In 1993 then newly elected Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted on number of charges related to her service as Texas state treasurer. The evidence that was gathered against her was obtained without a warrant. As a consequence the judge instructed the jury to acquit Hutchison of all charges in 1994. She continued to serve in the Senate until 2012.
The political implications of the Perry indictments are unclear. The purpose is clearly to tie him up in court for years, forestalling any chance he might have to run for president. However the move, blatant as it was in defending a district attorney who is a convicted criminal who was abusive and threatening to police, may backfire to Perry’s credit, especially if he can get the indictments quashed relatively quickly.
Some legal analysts are worried about the precedence the case might represent. If issuing a veto threat or carrying out a veto can become an indictable offense, then there would clearly be no executive office holder who was safe from criminal prosecution. Indeed the president of the United States could be impeached at any time for carrying out a constitutionally mandated duty of his office.