Perry indictment catches Texas politicians off guard

Mark Berman and Sean Sullivan (c) 2014, The Washington Post. A grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts Friday, alleging that he abused his office and used a veto threat to coerce an elected district attorney to resign.

The grand jury began considering charges against Perry earlier this year following an ethics complaint alleging that he abused his veto power when he cut funding for the state’s anti-corruption unit, which is part of the Travis County district attorney’s office.

He had called on Rosemary Lehmberg, the Democratic district attorney for Travis County, which includes Austin, the state capital, to step down after she was arrested in April 2013 for drunken driving. Lehmberg pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated — an open bottle of vodka was found in her car — and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

Perry, a Republican, threatened to veto $7.5 million in state funding for her office unless Lehmberg resigned. She refused, and Perry followed through on his veto threat, saying that he could not provide the money “when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”

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The Travis County district attorney’s office has a tense history with Republican politicians in Texas and has been accused of politicization. Austin is a Democratic bastion in a solidly Republican state.

Lehmberg’s predecessor, Ronnie Earle, indicted then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, for allegedly misusing state resources when she was the state treasurer. The prosecution crumbled on the first day of trial. Earle also brought a case against then-House whip Tom DeLay, a Republican, for violations of Texas campaign finance laws. The conviction was overturned.

An attorney for Perry strongly defended his actions Friday.

“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,” David Botsford said. “This clearly represents political abuse of the court system, and there is no legal basis in this decision.”

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The indictment comes as Perry, who is stepping down at the end of his term after 14 years in office, attempts to rehabilitate his political image as he considers another presidential campaign.

Perry, who ran a disastrous campaign for president in 2012, has been actively laying the groundwork for a potential run in 2016. He has tried to soften his image, ditching cowboy boots for loafers and donning new glasses. Perry has been crisscrossing the country to promote Texas’ economic climate and to poach businesses from other states. And he has been a fixture in early presidential nominating states, spending considerable time in Iowa and impressing state activists.

The special prosecutor in the case, Michael McCrum, said the indictment was not a political decision.

Politics “did not go into my consideration whatsoever,” he said at a briefing with reporters Friday. “I took into account the fact that we’re talking about the governor of the state. . . . obviously that carries a level of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.”

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McCrum said he has not subpoenaed Perry but declined to say why.

Perry was charged with abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony, and coercion of a public servant, a third-degree felony.

The first charge carries with it a potential punishment of five to 99 years in prison, while the second charge carries with it a potential sentence of two to 10 years, McCrum said.

Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist, said the case against Perry appears shaky.

“I don’t think there is any real hope of actually obtaining a conviction,” Jones said. “I think it is more of a political inconvenience.”

But because of the Travis County’s history of tussling with Republicans, Jones said, it may not damage Perry’s standing with the conservative activists he has been courting ahead of 2016.

“Certainly being indicted is not good, but if you are going to be indicted, being indicted by a jury in Texas’s most liberal county for attempting to obtain the resignation of a Democratic district attorney [who was arrested for drunken driving] is perhaps not the worst thing in the world, especially in the Republican primary,” he said.

The indictment late Friday was a shock to political observers and strategists in Texas, said Bill Miller, a veteran Republican lobbyist.

“I can say that no one down here saw it coming,” Miller said.

Miller said he expected the reaction to the indictment to be drawn along partisan lines. Republicans will portray it as a politically motivated assault on the governor in advance of a second presidential campaign; Democrats will cast it as a legal battle with plenty of merit, he said.

“I think it will be spun both ways,” he said. “That it was a legitimate legal matter and that it was a vendetta by the Democrats.”

A veteran Democratic strategist, Matt Angle, said the indictment threatens to hurt Perry’s political brand and cast a pall over his tenure.

“It certainly harms him,” said Angle, director of the Lone Star Project and an adviser to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis. “He was damaged goods anyway. And I think it goes beyond harming his presidential campaign. I think it really throws into relief the culture under his leadership in Texas.”

Davis, a state senator, is vying against Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, in the race to succeed Perry. The campaigns for Davis and Abbott did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

“Texans deserve real leadership and this is unbecoming of our Governor,” state Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

He called on Perry to resign, saying that the governor had “brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas.”

After entering the 2012 race to heavy fanfare, Perry suffered several stumbles. Most notable was what came to be known as his infamous “oops” moment. During a debate, Perry was unable to name one of the government agencies he previously said he wanted to shutter.

While Perry has not said whether he plans to run again, most observers expect he is setting up another campaign while preparing to leave his state’s top job. He has actively weighed in on the border crisis in Texas, stressing the importance of securing the border as tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant children have flocked to the state.

In addition, Perry has told reporters he has fully recovered from the health problems that plagued him during the 2012 run.

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Washington Post staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report