By Manny Fernandez
New York Times News Service
AUSTIN, Texas — A grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts on Friday, charging that he abused his power last year when he attempted to pressure the district attorney here, a Democrat, to step down by threatening to cut off state financing to her office.
The indictment left Perry, a Republican, the first Texas governor in nearly 100 years to face criminal charges and presented a major roadblock to his presidential ambitions at the very time that he had been showing signs of making a comeback.
Grand jurors in Travis County charged Perry with abusing his official capacity and coercing a public servant, according to Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor assigned to the case.
The long-simmering case has centered on Perry’s veto power as governor. His critics asserted that he used that power as leverage to try to get an elected official — Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney in Travis County — to step down after her arrest on a drunken-driving charge last year. Lehmberg is Austin’s top prosecutor and oversees a powerful public corruption unit that investigates state, local and federal officials; its work led to the 2005 indictment of a former Republican congressman, Tom DeLay, on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Following Lehmberg’s arrest, Perry and his aides threatened to veto $7.5 million in state funding for the public corruption unit in her office unless she resigned. The governor followed through on his threat, vetoing the money by stating that he could not 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.”
Perry’s detractors said that his moves crossed the line from hardball politics to criminal acts that violated state laws. His aides denied that he did anything wrong and said that he acted in accordance with the veto power granted to every governor under the Texas Constitution. Lehmberg did not resign and remains in office.
The criminal indictment of the state’s chief executive shocked the Texas political world. Perry will be arraigned at a later date at the county criminal courthouse a few blocks from the governor’s mansion.
The charge of abuse of official capacity carries a prison sentence of five to 99 years, and the charge of coercion of a public servant charge carries a two-to-10-year prison sentence.