Texas Gov. Rick Perry indicted for abuse of power

Last Updated Aug 15, 2014 11:30 PM EDT

AUSTIN, Texas - A grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday for abusing the powers of his office by carrying out a threat to veto funding for state prosecutors investigating public corruption - making the possible 2016 presidential hopeful his state's first indicted governor in nearly a century.

A 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, which is run by Travis County District Rosemary Lehmberg's office. Several top aides to the Republican governor appeared before grand jurors in Austin, including his deputy chief of staff, legislative director and general counsel. Perry himself wasn't called to testify.

He was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Maximum punishment on the first charge is five to 99 years in prison. The second is two to 10 years.

Perry's lawyer, David L. Botsford, said he was "outraged and appalled" by the indictment.

"This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision," Botsford said in a statement.

The Texas Democratic Party called on Perry to resign immediately.

"Gov. 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 Gov. Perry to follow the law," the party said in a statement.

"We call on Gov. Perry to immediately step down from office. Texans deserve real leadership and this is unbecoming of our governor," it said.

Perry's general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, said the governor acted within his rights and would fight the charges.

"The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution. We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail," she said in a statement.

Perry said Lehmberg, who is based in Austin, should resign after she was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken driving in April 2013. 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.

Lehmberg, a Democrat, served about half of her 45-day jail sentence but stayed in office, despite Perry's assertions that her behavior was inappropriate.

Lehmberg oversees the office's public integrity unit, which investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. 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.

No one disputes that he is allowed to veto measures approved by the Legislature, including part or all of the state budget. But the left-leaning Texans for Public Justice government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion since he threatened to use his veto before actually doing so in an attempt to pressure Lehmberg to quit.

"I 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," said Michael McCrum, the San Antonio-based special prosecutor. "Obviously that carries a lot of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law."

McCrum said he'll meet with Perry's attorney Monday to discuss when the governor will come to the courthouse to be arraigned. McCrum said he doesn't know when Perry will be booked.

The indictment 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 effort to unseat faculty and staff members he objected to. Ferguson was eventually impeached, then resigned before being convicted.

In office since 2000 and already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry isn't seeking re-election in November. But the ongoing criminal investigation could mar his political prospects as he mulls another run at the White House.

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.

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