Just some more thoughts and links relating to the big story that turned a relatively quiet Friday into one of the busiest news day of the year so far. Let’s start with a reality check from Harold Cook.
First of all, I’m a bit puzzled by the indictment. It seems weak to me. When the criminal complaint was first made following Perry’s veto of Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Unit, it seemed weak to me then, too. But then, Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum remarked publicly that he was especially concerned about Perry’s actions post-veto, which might rise to the level of breaking the law.
Finally, an aspect of this that made sense to me. Except that in reading the actual two-count indictment, it appears to focus on Perry’s veto, and his threatening words before the veto. A layman reading between the lines of the indictment would conclude that, while it’s perfectly legal to line-item veto a DA’s budget, it’s illegal to threaten to veto a DA’s budget, if you then subsequently veto that budget.
Don’t get me to lying – I’m not going to practice law without a license on this situation, but personally that seems like (good)hair-splitting. I’m left wondering whether the case is weak, or whether there are smoking gun-like aspects of a strong case which aren’t spelled out in the indictment. Either thing, or both things, are entirely possible. Only time will tell.
The trial, if there is one, may come down to whether the Governor was within his Constitutional rights, threat or no threat, in vetoing a line item, or whether he was out of his lane by trying to circumvent a legal process by which a district attorney may legally be removed from office (a process in which, incidentally, Lehmberg prevailed).
The second notable item related to the indictment is that I have seldom seen such breathless hyperbole, misdirection, and misinformation launched in any situation than I have in this one. Opinion leaders from the left, the right, and even from some journalists, are guilty of it.
I’m no more a lawyer than Harold is, but I think if it comes to a trial, the prosecution has a pretty straightforward story to tell. If I were in charge of this case – Lord help us if I were, but stay with me here – what I would present to the jury is a simple tale of coercion. One elected official does not have the right or the authority to force another elected official to resign, especially by making threats. The only authority Rick Perry has over Rosemary Lehmberg is what any other registered voter has over her. Let’s pretend for a moment that the DUI never happened and there is no CPRIT investigation to speak of. We all agree that if Rick Perry had just out of the blue told Rosemary Lehmberg in 2013 to resign or he’d veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit, that would be suspicious, right? Perry’s always been free to veto the PIU funding. It’s actually a little surprising that he hasn’t put pressure on the Lege to cut that function out of the Travis County DA office and give it to the Attorney General or something like that. But he hasn’t, maybe because it wasn’t worth the effort and the political fallout, or maybe he just had other fish to fry. Then Lehmberg goes and gets herself busted for drunk driving, and now maybe Perry has a wedge. That doesn’t give him any more right to threaten the duly elected Lehmberg than he’d had the day before she made the poor choice to get behind the wheel after downing too much vodka. One elected official cannot coerce another. I think a jury will have an easy time grasping that.
Harold also muses about how odd it is for Perry to get indicted for doing something he could have easily done on the QT without raising any eyebrows. It’s absolutely true that in the aftermath of Lehmberg’s arrest Perry could have joined the calls for her to resign without explicitly mentioning the PIU funding, and he could have vetoed the PIU funding later saying that it made no sense for someone who lacked integrity to head up a Public Integrity Unit. It was publicly connecting the two that landed him in the soup. Isn’t that often how it is with criminal activity? The perpetrator could have gotten away with it if only someone – usually but not always the perps themselves – had kept their big mouth shut. I find a deep well of irony and humor in this, but I don’t see any contradiction.
Against all that you’ve got the Chron and the Statesman running stories with lots of quotes from defense attorneys and law professors saying that McCrum has a high bar to clear to get a conviction. I can only presume he thinks that he can, because by far the path of least resistance would have been to drop the whole thing. I’m glad this is his job and not mine, that’s for sure.
Harold has a lot more to say at his post and you should go read it all because he makes a lot of sense. On the subject of keeping one’s mouth shut, it’s interesting to see the reactions to this so far from Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. Here’s Davis:
State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, passed on the opportunity Saturday morning to call for Gov. Rick Perry’s resignation following his indictment by a Travis County grand jury.
Speaking with reporters before a block walk in Plfugerville, Davis reiterated her statement Friday that she was troubled by the charges against Perry, which stem from his threat to veto funding for the state Public Integrity Unit unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned. Lehmberg’s office controls the unit, which aims to enforce ethics among public officials.
Asked whether Perry should step down, Davis told reporters: “As I said, there will be, I’m sure, more information that comes to light. I trust that the justice system will do its job, and these indictments handed down by the grand jury demonstrate that some very seriously potential crimes have been committed.”
As the story notes, the Texas Democratic Party and at least one elected official, Rep. Joaquin Castro, have called for Perry to step down. It’s very much in Davis’ interest to not get invested in this. For one thing, there is a non-zero chance that the indictment could get tossed. For another, it does her no good for this to be seen as just another partisan dispute. Her story line is one of a “culture of corruption” that Perry embodies and Abbott represents, and it’s much better for her if the evidence for that is as objective and non-partisan as possible. There’s also a principle at play here, which Juanita captures:
I am not one of the folks calling for Rick Perry to step down as Governor and I believe it is a major mistake to do so.
I am a Democrat and therefore I believe in the rule of law. You are innocent until proven guilty. Period. No exceptions. None.
Additionally, we Democrats were all outraged when Rick Perry asked District Attorney Lehmberg to step down. We were right to be angry. We even supported her when she was found guilty and served her jail sentence. Her behavior was unacceptable but we stood behind her. It seems more than a tad duplicitous for us to now call for Perry’s resignation.
Hard to argue with that. As for Abbott, he expressed his doubts about the indictment on a Fox News appearance but declined to say more than that, saying he hadn’t read it yet. My guess is that after he does read it he won’t say much more than that. Like Davis, there are risks for him if he throws his full weight behind defending Perry. Perry is highly unlikely to go to trial before November, but Abbott has to think longer term than that. It would not be good for him as Governor if there’s a trail of full-throated statements of support by him of Perry and he winds up going down in a way that leave no doubt about his guilt. Enough bad information could come out about Perry and the evidence against him between now and November to have a significant effect on public opinion, and he doesn’t want to be too closely associated with that.
A bit of history, since the name Tom DeLay has come up quite a bit and will no doubt continue to do so. DeLay was indicted in October 2005, and eventually resigned in June 2006 after trying to withdraw from the race in CD22 by claiming that he was a citizen of Virginia and thus ineligible to be the nominee. The goal there was to get another nominee on the ballot, as DeLay’s shenanigans meant that CD22 was in danger of being won by Democrat Nick Lampson in a year where Republicans were (rightly) worried about losing their majority in the House. DeLay’s gambit ultimately failed and Lampson prevailed over the epic write-in candidacy of Shelley Sekula Gibbs. My point in bringing this up is that while DeLay did resign, he did so for his own reasons and with other considerations in mind. Democrats were happy to have him on the ticket for as long as possible.
There is one clear-cut line of attack Davis can take that Abbott could be vulnerable to. Here’s Burka to point it out.
The indictment of Rick Perry turns Texas politics upside down. He can’t be a serious presidential candidate when he is facing a potential jury trial. But it also has serious affects for the state party. An obvious issue is that Greg Abbott has previously ruled that the state could pay for Perry’s defense. Does anyone think the Democrats are going to sit idly by and allow Perry to continue to spend large sums of money on his defense when he stands accused of breaking the law? Not a chance.
My archives show that Abbott was asked for an opinion about this, but it appears that request is still pending. Given the other ways in which Abbott has helped Perry it’s easy enough to imagine a similar ruling, and it’s easy enough to imagine the attacks even in the absence of such a ruling. One can certainly make a case that criminal defense of an action taken in the official capacity of the office of Governor should be paid for by the public, but boy is that a tough thing to stick up for when the chips are down. I’d feel sorry for the position Abbott is in if I were a better person.
And finally, the Trib has the official word from the man of the hour his own self.
A steamed Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday decried a Travis County grand jury’s indictment of him on two felony counts, saying allegations that he abused his power by threatening to veto funding for the state’s anti-corruption unit were politically motivated.
“We don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country,” Perry said in a short press conference. “It is outrageous that some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution. This indictment amounts to nothing more than abuse of power and I cannot and I will not allow that to happen.”
Perry — who followed through on the threat because Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who had pleaded guilty to drunken driving, refused his request to step down — said his actions were protected by the state Constitution, and that he and his attorneys would aggressively fight the charges. They include abuse of official capacity, which carries a potential penalty of five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant, which has a penalty of two to 10 years.
“I intend to fight against those who would erode our state’s constitution and laws purely for political purposes and I intend to win,” he said. “I’ll explore every legal avenue to expedite this matter. I am confident that we will ultimately prevail, that this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is. And those responsible will be held accountable.”