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Look behind the scenes

There’s another angle to consider the Perry indictment saga, which is that the indictment isn’t so much about what Rick Perry said publicly regarding Rosemary Lehmberg and the Public Integrity Unit but what he was saying behind the scenes. Erica Greider explores this, with a minor detour first.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

To review those facts, in 2013 the Travis County district-attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to 45 days in jail. It was a penalty that no one could find fault with after viewing video footage of the field sobriety test and her subsequent behavior at the station that evening (she served about half the sentence and entered a treatment program after leaving prison). A number of Texans felt that she should resign, among them Perry, who publicly warned that he would use his line-item veto to remove state funding to the Public Integrity Unit—an anti-corruption outfit located in the Travis County DA’s office—unless she stepped down.

At the time, Democrats grumbled that Mr Perry’s threat was politically motivated. The Public Integrity Unit investigates corruption among statewide officials, which means, in the context, that it’s a check on Republicans like Perry and his pals. If Lehmberg stepped down, Perry would, in theory, have had a chance to replace a Democrat with a Republican appointee more friendly to his agenda. And after Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry vetoed the funding, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint, charging that the veto had been politically motivated. That led to yesterday’s indictments; the charges are coercion and abuse of power.

Perry, unsurprisingly, responded Saturday by doubling down, dismissing the indictment as “outrageous.” More surprising, perhaps, is how quickly public opinion has moved in his favor, or at least in favor of proceeding with caution. Republicans were quick to rally round, but even independents and Democrats, after the initial fizzle faded, seemed skeptical of the indictment.

“Skeptical” is an overbid, some national pundits notwithstanding. (Some of those national pundits would do well to read Forrest Wilder. Or Progress Texas. Or me.) If Democrats here have tempered their response to this news, it’s not because we think Rick Perry is being railroaded, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before and we’ve learned the hard way how long a distance it is from “indictment” to “conviction”, especially a conviction that sticks. KBH walked. Tom DeLay may be let off the hook by the most pro-prosecution court in the country. We know better than to count our chickens before they hatch.

Back to the main thesis:

It’s worth emphasizing that the indictments don’t lay out all (or even much) of the special prosecutor’s evidence, and I suspect the focus on the veto, which is mentioned in the second count, will prove to be a red herring.

[…]

More intriguing, to me, is the chatter that around the time of the veto, Perry’s camp had some behind-the-scenes discussions with Travis County officials about a potential deal wherein, if Lehmberg resigned, he would appoint a Democrat to replace her. These rumors have been reported before, and several Democratic sources have suggested to me there’s something to it. This has always struck me as plausible. Perry’s critics argue that he was targeting Lehmberg opportunistically, as a way to stifle the PIU, either by removing its funding or by appointing a Republican to oversee it. But if Perry wanted to stifle the PIU, he could have simply vetoed its funding years ago (or, for that matter, left it in the care of the beleaguered Lehmberg). It would have been more shrewd, actually, to proceed quietly.

Worth considering is an alternative account of Perry’s political motivation. In June 2013, when he vetoed the PIU funding, he was signing the overall budget for the 2014-2015 biennium—a budget that restored billions of dollars of funding to public schools and expanded funding to worthy priorities such as higher education and mental health care. It was a budget that had been passed by the legislature with widespread bipartisan support and that was opposed only by a handful of tea partiers, who accused the Legislature and the governor of taking the state on a California-style spending spree. They were wrong, but they were clamorous, and Perry’s defense of the budget risked costing him some standing with the Republican base. My impression, at the time, was that the governor was aware of those risks. On a Monday, he said that his critics needed remedial math lessons; he then turned around and added abortion to the call for the special session that was already in progress. And on the day he signed the budget, to widespread applause, he made a point of using his line-item veto to remove state funding from a unit overseen by a Democratic district-attorney who had just spent several weeks in prison.

If my thinking is correct—if his goal was to cover his right flank rather than to gut the PIU—it’s not hard to believe that months later, Perry (or his people) would let Democrats know that he was open to replacing Lehmberg with a Democrat, that he would help find another job for Lehmberg, and even that he would restore funding to the PIU if they proceeded with such a deal. In such negotiations, though, the governor may have extended his constitutional authority, and so if Perry did have such discussions, I suspect turn out that the prosecutor’s evidence will have more to do with those backroom agreements than with a public warning about his intention to exercise his constitutional powers. If so, the legal case against Perry might be more serious. The ethical case against him would potentially less so, though.

Peggy Fikac followed the grand jury investigation as it was going on, and she fills in some details from her perspective outside the jury room.

The grand jury meets behind closed doors, but we sat in the hallway with our laptops, getting an idea of where the case was going by the people who came and went during a half-dozen meetings before the big one last Friday.

There were current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers.

Each had a part – directly or through their expertise – in the drama surrounding Perry’s threat to veto funding for the public corruption unit overseen by Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned after an ugly drunken-driving arrest.

The Republican governor had the clear right to veto the money, but the road to his indictment started with his use of that power to try to force out a locally elected official.

Each person’s presence was a piece of the story, even though it wasn’t clear how many of them actually testified to grand jurors.

There was Perry spokesman Rich Parsons. He was quoted in last year’s initial story on the threat, conveying Perry’s concerns to the Austin American-Statesman about “the integrity of the Public Integrity Unit” and saying his position had been relayed to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson was tapped to convey the veto threat to Lehmberg. At some point after the funding was killed, Travis County intergovernmental relations coordinator Deece Eckstein set up a meeting among Perry’s legislative director and former Democratic state Sen. Ken Armbrister from Victoria, Perry deputy chief of staff Mike Morrissey and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican. Daugherty earlier told my colleague, Nolan Hicks, that he reached out to Perry’s office to see if there was a way to restore the two-year, $7.5 million in funds.

Sources told Hicks that if Lehmberg had been willing to resign, Perry aides offered to restore funding, allow Lehmberg to continue working at the DA’s office in some capacity and pick her top lieutenant as her successor.

All went into the grand jury room this summer; Armbrister did so several times.

Besides them were a former Perry chief of staff; his former and current general counsel, and an assistant general counsel; an adviser; and his former communications director.

Perry’s technology manager was among them; so was a Travis County Attorney’s office employee who works closely with the commissioners court; and Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who last year pressed for Lehmberg’s resignation and said he couldn’t support using state dollars for her “utter disrespect of the law.”

Perry – who didn’t testify – told reporters in June that he didn’t initiate any sort of deal, and that he didn’t personally make phone calls with regard to asking Lehmberg to step down.

Asked about the post-veto machinations on Saturday, Perry said his decision making was clear. He said he had promised to “veto those dollars as long as they had someone in that office who I lost confidence in, and I did exactly what I said I would do.”

The takeaway from all this is that there’s almost certainly more to this than what we can see right now. If Mike McCrum is as smart and capable as people say he is, he’s surely got a few cards up his sleeve, which he’ll reveal when he’s ready. That doesn’t mean this can’t come crashing down around him once it hits a courtroom, but it does mean we don’t know enough to judge how this case will go just yet. Perry’s over the top response may be more of his usual bluster, or it may be because he knows what shoes are out there waiting to drop on him. We’ll know soon enough. Campos, Ed Kilgore, Alec MacGillis, the Trib, and Jim Moore have more.

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