A grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on Friday on felony charges of abuse of power and coercion as part of an ethics inquiry into his veto of funding for the state's public integrity unit.
Perry was scheduled to make a statement on the charges at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The inquiry began last summer after a ethics complaint was filed, alleging that Perry had improperly used a veto to deny funding for the unit, which is housed in the Travis County district attorney's office and focuses on government corruption and tax fraud.
After District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg pleaded guilty to drunken driving last year, Perry threatened to withhold $7.5 million in funding over two years for the integrity unit if Lehmberg did not resign.
Lehmberg, a Democrat, served a jail sentence but did not resign. Perry made good on his promise and vetoed the state budget's funding line item for the unit. Though Perry has the authority to veto items in the budget, his critics said that this was done expressly for political purposes and is a crime.
That was the rationale used by Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning money-in-politics watchdog group that filed the initial complaint last June. The complaint said Perry was guilty of coercion of a public servant, official oppression and abuse of official capacity.
'We're pleased that the grand jury determined that the governor's bullying crossed the line into illegal behavior,' said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice. 'The complaint had merit, serious laws were potentially broken.'
Though the Republican governor now faces two felony indictments, politics dominates the case. Lehmberg is based in Austin, which is heavily Democratic, in contrast to most of the rest of fiercely conservative Texas. The grand jury was comprised of Austin-area residents.
Perry's office has repeatedly said that his veto was appropriate and that he violated no laws.
'The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,' said Mary Anne Wiley, general counsel for Gov. Perry. 'We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.'
David L. Botsford, Perry's defense attorney, whose $450-per hour fees are being paid for by state funds, said he was outraged by the action.
'This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision,' Botsford said in a statement. 'Today's action, which violates the separation of powers outlined in the Texas Constitution, is nothing more than an effort to weaken the constitutional authority granted to the office of Texas governor, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor.'
The Austin-American Statesmanreported in June that Perry would probably not testify before the grand jury, which has been meeting periodically for months, though several staffers from his office and from Travis County testified.
Michael McCrum, the San Antonio-based special prosecutor said he 'took into account the fact that we're talking about a governor of a state and a governor of the state of Texas, which we all love.'
'Obviously that carries a lot of importance,' McCrum said. 'But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.'
McCrum said he'll meet with Perry's publicly funded defense attorney Monday to discuss when he will come to the courthouse to be arraigned. McCrum said he doesn't know when Perry will be booked. A pre-trial hearing will be arranged within the next few weeks.
Last August, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to provide some of the funding to the public integrity unit.
The unit Lehmberg oversees investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. It led the investigation against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who in 2010 was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering for taking part in a scheme to influence elections in his home state convictions later vacated by an appeals court.
Lehmberg declined to comment.
Defense attorneys could file a motion to have the indictment thrown out, which would delay a trial, or seek to have a trial within the next 90 days.
Perry can continue to serve as governor while under indictment. He can also continue as governor if convicted, but he could be stripped of office through a separate legislative removal process.
The Texas Democratic Party immediately called for Perry to step down following the indictment Friday afternoon.
'Governor Rick Perry has brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas. Texans deserve to have leaders that stand up for what is right and work to help families across Texas. The indictment today shows a failure of Governor Perry to follow the law,' said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa in a statement. '[...]We call on Governor Perry to immediately step down from office. Texans deserve real leadership and this is unbecoming of our Governor.'
Abuse of official capacity is a first-degree felony with potential punishments of five to 99 years in prison. Coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of two to 10 years.
In office since 2000 and already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry isn't seeking re-election in November.
When he ran for president in 2012, Perry plummeted from brief front-runner to national punchline, his once promising campaign doomed by a series of embarrassing gaffes, including his infamous 'Oops moment' during a debate.
As he eyes another White House run, Perry has re-made his cowboy image, donning stylish glasses, studying up on foreign and domestic affairs and promising conservatives nationally that he's far more humble this time around.
The indictment of Perry is the first of its kind since 1917, when James 'Pa' Ferguson was indicted on charges stemming from his veto of state funding to the University of Texas in an effort to unseat faculty and staff members he objected to. Ferguson was eventually impeached, then resigned before being convicted.
Terri Langford and the Associated Press contributed reporting.
KEY PLAYERS IN THE PERRY CASE
By KVUE News Austin
Craig McDonald, complainant and director of Texans for Public Justice
- Filed criminal complaint against Perry days after veto
- Complaint alleged Perry broke several misdemeanor and felony state laws
- Complaint was initially sent to State District Judge Julie Kocurek in Travis County
- Kocurek recused herself, and a special judge and prosecutor were appointed to handle the matter
Michael McCrum, special prosecutor
- San Antonio native
- Appointed by State District Judge Bert Richardson in August 2013 to handle Perry inquiry
- Former federal prosecutor hired during President George H.W. Bush administration
- Selected by President Barack Obama for a U.S. attorney position in Texas, but withdrew his name from consideration
- Currently works primarily in San Antonio criminal defense practice, specializes in white collar crimes
Bert Richardson, state district judge
- San Antonio native
- Appointed in July 2013 by State District Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield to handle Perry inquiry; Stubblefield is presiding judge for region
- 25 years of trial experience as a lawyer and a judge
- Current Republican candidate for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
David Botsford, Perry defense attorney
- Hired by Perry for $450 an hour at taxpayer expense in April
- Has successfully represented doctors, lawyers, oil executives and other notable clients
- Has said Perry veto was 'carried out in both the spirit and the letter of the law'