Politics

Rick Perry Defends Veto That Led to Indictment

by | August 18, 2014

By Christy Hoppe

Gov. Rick Perry has used longevity and sharp elbows to control state government. His aggressive push last year to oust a damaged district attorney and insert his appointee over an anti-corruption unit was just another step in his muscular style.

A special prosecutor believes it was a step too far.

Perry, a Republican, was indicted on two felony counts accusing him of abusing his authority, and on Saturday he defiantly denounced the prosecution in a Capitol news conference.

"This indictment amounts to nothing more than an abuse of power, and I cannot, and will not, allow that to happen," he said. "I intend to fight against those who would erode our state's constitution and laws purely for political purposes, and I intend to win."

Perry stayed true to an approach that has marked his tenure -- he will push to get his way, and will root out those disloyal to his cause. But now the outcome -- in the courtroom and among voters -- carries more significance as he still has his eye on another run for president.

"This farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is, and those responsible will be held accountable," Perry said, appearing to take aim at the special prosecutor.

After nearly 14 years as governor, the longest such tenure in Texas history, Perry has become used to wielding power.

And most around Austin, regardless of whether they believe he broke the law, say the circumstances show vintage Perry using his bully pulpit and persona to exert control.

"He understands power is the name of the game," said GOP political consultant Bill Miller. "He's used to pushing the envelope, and he got out there on the edge. I personally don't think he crossed the line. But he got out there."

A gap in Perry's clout

As the state's chief executive, Perry has controlled all appointments, filled every state board and helped install most of the top agency executives -- transportation, education, environmental quality and public utilities. Many came from his own staff.

With Perry leading a Republican Party that holds every statewide office, there are few strongholds in state government that aren't under his influence.

Except the Public Integrity Unit, overseen by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat. The unit investigates and prosecutes wrongdoing by state agencies and officials. Critics have long believed the unit has targeted Republicans; its supporters dispute that.

The grand jury charges stem from Perry's veto last June of $7.5 million for the integrity unit.

Two months earlier, Lehmberg had been arrested on a drunken-driving charge, and a videotape of the jail book-in showed her belligerently kicking doors and demanding to speak to the sheriff.

Lehmberg quickly pleaded guilty, served her time and checked into a therapy program.

Perry said the DWI was so reprehensible that Lehmberg would have to resign before he would allow state funding of the integrity unit.

"I said early on that I was clearly going to veto those dollars as long as they had someone in that office who I'd lost confidence in," he said Saturday.

Lehmberg refused to step down. If she had quit, Perry would have filled her post. At the time, her unit was investigating a state cancer research institute backed by Perry.

Perry pointed out that governors have the constitutional right to make line-item vetoes in the state budget.

"I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto," he said. "We don't settle political differences with indictments in this country."

Special prosecutor Michael McCrum, however, said the case was not about the governor's veto authority but rather about his use of it as a threat against a public servant.

Perry is accused of unlawfully promising an officeholder money to coerce her to take an official action. The second felony count, abuse of official capacity, accuses Perry of misusing government funds under his control.

"I feel confident of the charges that have been filed," said McCrum, a former federal prosecutor.

Father's Day Massacre

In a state with a constitutionally weak governor, Perry has rewritten the power book.

In late 2000, he moved up from lieutenant governor when George W. Bush vacated the top job to head to the White House. At the end of the 2001 legislative session, Perry stunned the Capitol by issuing 83 vetoes -- the most by a governor for any Texas legislative session.

That June day became known as the Father's Day Massacre.

Some lawmakers said it was the first inkling they had that Perry had a problem with their bills. But it was clear to many that Perry had laid down his marker.

In 2009, Texas Tech regent Mark Griffin endorsed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary for governor. Griffin said he received a call later from Perry's former chief of staff and was told, "The governor expects loyalty out of his appointees."

The message was clear. Griffin resigned.

More recently, Texas A&M University leaders adopted a grading system championed by Perry that ranked professors based on their worth to the university.

When the University of Texas balked at that and other changes, Perry's regents began questioning the leadership of UT president Bill Powers.

The effort to oust Powers led to the legislative censure of regent Wallace Hall of Dallas for his heavy-handed efforts. The battles continue, with Perry sending encouraging notes to his regents to keep pressing the UT administration.

Powers has agreed to step down next year.

Perry has "tried to get all of state government under his total control," said Glenn Smith, a former aide to Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and now leader of Progress Texas, a Democratic activist group. "That's not the way Texas government is set up."

Smith attributed Perry's action in the Lehmberg case to the "arrogance of power."

"Having run a one-party state for so long," Smith said, "they believe that they're always right and the law doesn't matter, and if they want to do something, it's just necessarily OK to do because they face no real opposition."

Smith said Democrats, who controlled state government for decades, faced the same hubris, which he said resulted in the 1971 Sharpstown stock fraud scandal that prompted indictments against the House speaker and others.

Perry has grown to be this "authoritarian, don't-challenge-me leader," Smith said. "It's the environment he's created for himself."

'Rough and tumble' times

Perry backers have rejected that kind of criticism and said frustrated Democrats are looking for ways to knock out Perry after being unable to do so at the polls.

Former Perry Chief of Staff Ray Sullivan said the political times have gotten more "rough and tumble" and Perry has adapted to them.

Using his limited constitutional powers, along with appointments and persuasion, "Gov. Perry has made the governor's office an extremely strong position in the Texas Capitol," Sullivan said.

He said he didn't think Perry had done anything unusual in political gamesmanship.

"A line-item veto, veto threats and this type of leveraging is commonplace in legislative sessions, and I suspect it has been for decades," Sullivan said.

He said many officials last year -- both Democrats and Republicans -- had called on Lehmberg to resign.

"It so happened," Sullivan said, "that Gov. Perry was in a position to do something about it."

TIMELINE: THE RICK PERRY CASE

Here are developments leading up to Friday's indictment of GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who is accused of abusing the powers of his office by carrying out a threat to veto funds to Travis County's public corruption unit:

April 12, 2013: Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, is arrested on a DWI charge near Lake Travis. A jailhouse video shows her berating officers.

April 19: Lehmberg pleads guilty and is sentenced to 45 days in jail. She serves about half that sentence.

April 27: From jail, Lehmberg posts an open letter apologizing, promising to get help and saying she wants to complete her term but won't run again.

Early June: Ken Armbrister, the governor's legislative affairs director, approaches Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson about Perry's plan to veto funding to the DA's Public Integrity Unit, which investigates and prosecutes local and state officials accused of wrongdoing.

June 10: The Austin American-Statesman reports that Perry has been pushing for Lehmberg to resign and is threatening to withhold $7.5 million in state funding from her office.

June 14: Perry vetoes the money. Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group, calls for an inquiry into whether his threat broke state laws against abuse of office, official oppression, coercion of a public servant and bribery.

July 8: Perry, after nearly 14 years in office, announces he won't seek re-election.

July 15: Senior state District Judge Robert Richardson of San Antonio is appointed to oversee an investigation into the complaint against Perry.

Aug. 19: Richardson names Michael McCrum, a San Antonio defense attorney, as a special prosecutor in the case.

April 14, 2014: A special grand jury is convened in Travis County to look into Perry's actions.

Friday: The grand jury indicts Perry on two felony charges: coercion of a public servant and abuse of official capacity. Each carries a possible prison sentence.

(c)2014 The Dallas Morning News

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