A grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday on two felony counts: abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public official. The charges are linked to his push for Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign after she was arrested for drunk driving last year.
The case focused on Perry's threat to veto funding to Lehmberg's office unless she resigned. Perry eventually made good on that threat, vetoing $7.5 million that would have gone to the Public Integrity Unit in Lehmberg's office, the Dallas Morning News' Christy Hoppe explains. He justified the veto by pointing to Lehmberg's April 2013 arrest for drunk driving, for which she pled guilty and received a 45-day sentence. As a result of the veto, several employees in Lehmberg's office were either reassigned or lost their jobs, the Austin American Statesman reports.
"Despite the otherwise good work (of) the Public Integrity Unit's employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public's confidence," he had said at the time of the veto, the Statesman reports. Had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have been able to appoint a replacement from his own party.
The case revolves around Perry's veto power
Perry is charged with violating two laws. The first is the "Abuse of Official Capacity" statute, which says no public official can misuse "government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant's custody or possession by virtue of the public servant's office or employment." The second is the "Coercion of Public Servant or Voter" law which warns against using coercive means to "to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty".
The key here, though, is that the tool Perry used was his veto, which is a power that he's given by the state constitution and which therefore the state legislature has little authority to constrain. Perry's attorney, Mary Anne Wiley, released a statement saying that "the veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution."
Sen. Ted Cruz, who served as Texas Solicitor General from 2003 to 2008, makes a similar point on his Facebook page: "The Texas Constitution gives the governor the power to veto legislation, and a criminal indictment predicated on the exercise of his constitutional authority is, on its face, highly suspect," he writes.
As Ian Millhiser writes at Think Progress, the courts are likely to take this objection seriously. "Though the state legislature probably could limit this veto power in extreme cases — if a state governor literally sold his veto to wealthy interest groups, for example, the legislature could almost certainly make that a crime — a law that cuts too deep into the governor's veto power raises serious separation of powers concerns."
An indictment means a grand jury thinks there's enough evidence to bring an accused person to trial. Special prosecutor Michael McCrum said he would meet with Perry's lawyers on Monday to discuss arraignment, according to the Associated Press. The abuse of official capacity can mean a sentence of 5 to 99 years, while coercion of a public servant is 2 to 10 years, the AP reports.
Ezra Klein contributed to this article.