Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Erik Larson and Darrell Preston (c) 2014, Bloomberg News
HOUSTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has hired a criminal-defense lawyer to represent him in a prosecutor’s probe of claims that he violated state law by vetoing funding for the state ethics office, his spokeswoman said.
Perry, 64, hired David Botsford of the Austin law firm of Botsford & Roark, “to ensure the special prosecutor receives the facts in this matter,” Lucy Nashed, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “This veto was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution.”
Perry, an unsuccessful Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election, tried to remove Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg from her post after she was arrested for drunk driving last April. When the Democrat refused to step down after pleading guilty and completing a short prison sentence, Perry eliminated $7.3 million in funding for the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which Lehmberg headed as the primary vehicle for investigating corruption among elected officials and at agencies, according to complaint filed by Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group.
Perry explained his decision in the line-item veto he issued in June.
“Despite the otherwise good work of the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience 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,” the governor wrote.
Texans for Public Justice claims Perry may have intentionally slashed the ethics unit’s funding in a bid to shut down a probe of the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, which the watchdog group calls “one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.”
“Our first thought when we heard about what Perry had done was: You can’t threaten a district attorney,” Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said in a telephone interview. In its complaint, the group accuses Perry of criminal abuse of office, bribery, coercion of a public servant and official oppression.
The cancer research agency drew criticism from lawmakers last year over alleged favoritism in the awarding of public grants, largely to the benefit of major Republican donors.
“It’s awfully convenient that Governor Perry vetoed money for the state’s ethics enforcement office while his administration and his cronies have a history of making ethically questionable decisions,” Emmanuel Garcia, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said in an emailed statement.
Travis County officials restored some of the Public Integrity Unit’s funding after Perry’s veto last year and investigated CPRIT anyway. In December, prosecutors obtained an indictment of one of the cancer research agency’s senior officers for securing execution of a document by deception, according to Gregg Cox, head of special prosecutions at the Travis County district attorney’s office.
Cox said a state judge appointed to investigate the Perry allegations empaneled a special grand jury in Austin this week, under the leadership of a special prosecutor brought in from San Antonio.
“Several people from our office have been interviewed” by Michael McCrum, Perry’s special prosecutor, Cox said in a telephone interview. None of these staff members have yet spoken to the grand jury, he said. McCrum declined to comment.
Lehmberg pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in April of last year and immediately served part of a 45-day sentence in the county jail, according a statement on Lehmberg’s website. Her license was suspended for 180 days and she paid a $4,000 fine, according to David Sheppard, her attorney.
Lehmberg, who is still the district attorney for Travis County, declined through an aide yesterday to comment on the probe of the governor.
-0- Larson reported from New York, Preston from Dallas.