Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's political redemption tour hit a massive speed bump late Friday when he was indicted on two felony counts of abusing the powers of his office. The indictment also triggered a Texas-size partisan brawl over whether the charges were legitimate or politically motivated.
Perry, a Republican, is the longest-serving governor in the history of the Lone Star State. The state's constitution limits the powers of the governor, but longevity has its advantages. Over the past 14 years, Perry has been able to put his stamp on state government through the appointments process in ways that his predecessors, who served far shorter tenures, were never able to do.
Whether he exercised his powers responsibly or recklessly is at the heart of the case now roiling Texas politics and clouding Perry's future as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. The question ahead is whether this is a clear-cut example of a public official using his powers in a bullying and illegal way or the criminalization of legitimate political activity.
The current charges stem from a bitter power struggle between the governor and the Travis County district attorney, who is based in Austin and oversees a state-funded public integrity unit that investigates public corruption by officials statewide.
The district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, was arrested for drunken driving in April 2013. A video of her during the arrest is available on YouTube and paints a sorry portrait of a public official at a moment of extreme duress. She eventually pleaded guilty, serving 45 days in jail and undergoing treatment.
At the time of Lehmberg's arrest, Perry declared her unfit for public office and called for her to resign. He threatened to veto the more than $7 million in state funding for the public integrity unit if she refused. When she rejected his appeals, he exercised his veto power as governor and eliminated the funding. Even after the veto, he sought to remove her and offered inducements to get her to resign.
(A fuller accounting of the sequence of events is available in Saturday's Dallas Morning News story about the indictment.)
But there is more to this case than just Perry vs. Lehmberg. That particular clash is set against the backdrop of a long-standing conflict between the district attorney's office in heavily Democratic Travis County and GOP officeholders in heavily Republican Texas.
It was this same office (although a different DA) that prosecuted former House majority leader Tom DeLay, a Republican, for money laundering, leading to his conviction in 2010 and a three-year sentence. But in September 2013, a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the conviction. Two months ago, prosecutors asked the court to reinstate it.
Ronnie Earle, the same prosecutor who went after DeLay, had indicted former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, in the early 1990s for misconduct when she served as Texas state treasurer. A jury quickly acquitted her after prosecutors decided not to present their case.
So Perry's indictment comes with much history attached. As a result, it is a sticky legal case and a political drama of a high order.
The governor addressed the charges on Saturday afternoon in Austin, calling the indictment "nothing more than an abuse of power" by prosecutors. "I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto," he said, adding that in this country, "we don't settle political differences with indictments."
Meanwhile, Perry's allies leaped to his defense.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose Senate candidacy Perry opposed in 2012 and who is a potential rival of the governor's in the 2016 sweepstakes, offered his support Saturday. Citing what he called the "sad history" of the Travis County prosecutor's office, Cruz said in a tweet, "Governor Perry is a friend, he's a man of integrity — I am proud to stand with Rick Perry. #StandWithRickPerry."
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