WASHINGTON, August 15, 2014 — A Texas grand jury has indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry for abusing the powers of his office. His offense? He vetoed funding for Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit, a unit that investigates public corruption and ethical lapses.
This makes Perry Texas’ first indicted governor in nearly a century. The last one was James “Pa” Ferguson, in 1917, who was indicted for, among other things, vetoing state funding to the University of Texas in effort to to get some faculty members fired.
Why would anyone want to defund public integrity?
Perry threatened the veto to force the ouster of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. Lehmberg, whose office runs the corruption unit, was arrested on a drunk-driving charge in April, 2013, after being caught by Austin police with an open bottle of vodka in the front seat of her car. She was caught in a church parking lot in Austin. Jailhouse video and images show that her behavior was anything but Godly; Lehmberg is not a happy drunk.
She pled guilty and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
But she didn’t resign. Drunk driving may be a crime in Texas, but to Lehmberg and the grand jury that looked into the matter, it was no sin. She considered her ethics unimpaired and her integrity intact. (Her dignity, such as it was, was collateral damage.) Perry disagreed and pulled the trigger on his veto threat.
Austin is a patch of blue in Texas’ sea of red, and folks there don’t like pulling triggers on guns or on vetoes, especially when it’s done with a Texas swagger. But, like guns, vetoes aren’t just legal in Texas; they’re a constitutional right. As governor, Perry can veto any legislation he likes, including part or all of the state budget. Perry willfully, flagrantly, and unrepentantly did just that.
The liberal Texans for Public Justice government watchdog group was outraged, and it did what outraged liberals do: It went to court. It filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion, because he threatened to veto the funding before he actually did it.
The 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 if Lehmberg refused to resign.
This is Rosemary Lehmberg. Lehmberg, a Democrat, was arrested with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit for driving. The jailhouse video led to an investigation of Lehmberg by a separate grand jury, but its term expired before it could say whether she should be removed from office for official misconduct.
The Public Integrity Unit investigates allegations of corruption made against local, state and federal officials from Texas. Texas Republicans have long wanted to defund the unit, which based as it is in liberal Travis County, they claim is an instrument of partisan vendettas.
Perry said he wouldn’t allow Texas to fund the unit while Lehmberg remained in charge. He used his line-item veto power to remove funding for the unit from the Texas budget.
Do you blame him?
Perry was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.
This is a game of political payback. Perry refuses to support a convicted criminal as head of an integrity and ethics unit. At a time when Americans are demanding more accountability from an overbearing and dysfunctional government, his stance doesn’t seem unreasonable.
A video recording made at the jail showed Lehmberg shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell and sticking her tongue out. She served a portion of her 45-day jail sentence, but was allowed to retain her office.
Perry, the longest serving Texas governor, isn’t seeking re-election in November. He may, however, seek the White House in 2016, a prospect that dismays liberal Democrats. Liberals hope that the investigation of a governor known for his Christian values and his strong stance for public ethics will spare the nation the horror of another Christian conservative in the White House.
Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor who pushed for Perry’s indictment, has been accused of a partisan witch hunt against Perry. McCrum denies the charge. He observes that anyone charged with a felony must, as a matter of procedure, be booked, complete with fingerprinting and mugshots, but says blandly of the political theater, “That didn’t go into my consideration whatsoever.”
Perry and his aides say he didn’t break any laws.
“The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution, and we remain ready and willing to assist with this inquiry,” spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in April, after the grand jury was convened in the case.