Gov. Rick Perry pled “not guilty” to felony charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant after being indicted by a grand jury Aug. 15.
The charges are related to Perry’s attempts to force the resignation of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after her April 2013 drunken driving arrest.
According to the indictments, Perry vetoed legislation June 2013 awarding $7.5 million in state funds to the Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates incidences of fraud and government corruption. Perry threatened the veto when Lehmberg refused to step down. After being booked at the Travis County Justice Complex on Tuesday, Perry made a statement defending his actions.
“The actions that I took were lawful, they were legal, and they were proper,” Perry said. “This indictment is fundamentally a political act that seeks to achieve at the courthouse what could not be achieved at the ballot box.”
University law professor Jennifer Laurin spoke with The Daily Texan about the case and shed some light on the challenges both the prosecution and defense might face.
“[The First Amendment] requires the legislature to give adequate notice about what is criminal and what isn’t, so that people don’t refrain from speaking out of fear,” Laurin said.
The prosecution will most likely have to prove that Perry knew the veto threat was criminal at the time he made it, as well as show the $7.5 million appropriation was the governor’s property, according to Texas Penal Code 39.02.
“There is some question whether the governor had custody over a legislative appropriation at the time of the veto,” Laurin said. “That’s going to be a novel legal question that’s going to have to be resolved.”
Laurin said it appears the prosecution will argue Perry’s motivations — whether political or for self-protection — distinguish this from an ordinary veto threat, but that waits to be seen with the evidence.
The public integrity unit was investigating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which awarded $11 million to a private company without the required review process. Perry has been accused of attempting to halt the investigation by defunding the unit.
At the time of the veto, Perry stated he believed Lehmberg had lost public confidence. After the indictment, Perry’s super PAC released videos on its site of Lehmberg’s arrest, including her field sobriety test and subsequent videos of her being restrained by officers at the Travis County jail.
Perry waived his scheduled Friday arraignment and traveled to New Hampshire to address Republican voters in the country’s first primary state, lending to speculations about a possible 2016 bid for the White House.
Perry’s attorneys were present at the hearing and stated they intend to file a motion to have the case dismissed.
“The governor has yet to talk about a real solution to these indictments,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, who filed the original complaint that led to the indictments. “Someday, when it gets to trial — if it does, and I think it will — he will have to address the real issues here.”