WASHINGTON, August 16, 2014 — Republican Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted by a state grand jury yesterday on two felony counts of abusing power. Specifically, grand jurors charged Perry with abusing his official capacity and coercing a public servant.
The charges stem from allegations that Perry attempted to force Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign her post by threatening to veto financing for her office.
Rosemary Lehmberg is the district attorney in Travis County and oversees a powerful public corruption unit that investigates state, local and federal officials. That unit investigated former Republican congressman Tom DeLay and provided evidence that led to his 2005 indictment on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
The unit is also investigating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a state-funded organization linked to Gov. Perry, for corruption and misuse of funds.
Last year, Lehmberg was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin, on suspicion of driving under the influence. Police found an open bottle of vodka in the car and arrested her. In response, Lehmberg unleashed a string of verbal abuse that continued after she was taken to jail.
After blowing a .239, almost three times the legal limit, Lehmberg remained hostile, and police strapped her into a restraining chair and began filming her as is standard procedure when dealing with uncooperative detainees.
The video was leaked to media and YouTube and shows both Lehmberg’s erratic behavior and her unending threats and insults. Eventually, police officers put a hood, known as a “spit mask” over Lehmberg’s head.
Lehmberg eventually pleaded guilty and served approximately half of her 45-day sentence.
The extremely embarrassing behavior by Lehmberg prompted immediate calls for her resignation. Lehmberg refused to step down, but did quietly agree to retire after her term expires in 2016.
The situation likely would have ended there, if Gov. Perry had not become involved.
Perry apparently sought to capitalize on Lehmberg’s very public fall from grace and threatened to veto funding for her Public Integrity Unity unless Lehmberg resigned immediately. Travis County’s liberal DAs have long been a thorn in the side of Republicans in Texas, and if Lehmberg had left office, Perry could have replaced her.
Instead, Lehmberg refused to leave office, saying she would not allow Perry to “bully” her.
Perry then followed through with his threat, vetoing the $7.5 million budget. Although the unit continues to operate at a limited level, it is now focusing on county financing. The move ended the investigation of questionable grants disbursed by The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute.
Supporters say Perry correctly used his constitutional veto power to rein in an untrusted public servant. As Perry himself said, he took the action because he could not fund “an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
Critics counter that regardless of the actions of Lehmberg, however, the Governor acted inappropriately by attempting to leverage a budget to force someone out of office.
Perry is the first Texas governor in almost 100 years to face criminal charges. The last to do so was James E. “Pa” Ferguson, who was indicted in 1917 by a Travis County grand jury on embezzlement and eight other charges.
The indictment against Perry could hamper his presidential ambitions. Perry has not announced plans to run for president in 2016, but has recently stepped up national appearances and appears to be maneuvering for a run. He has said he will not run for office after his term expires in January.
Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He has paid his attorney approximately $80,000 since June. The abuse of official capacity carries a prison sentence of five to 99 years, and the charge of coercion of a public servant carries a sentence of two to ten years.
Perry will be arraigned, including having his finger prints and mug shot taken, at a later date.