Gov. Rick Perry personally called a well-known Austin Democrat to discuss her interest in replacing Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg days before the public learned Perry was threatening to withhold state funding from Lehmberg’s office unless she resigned.
Austin defense attorney Mindy Montford, who previously ran as a Democratic candidate for state district judge and district attorney in Travis County, confirmed her conversation with Perry — which took place in early June 2013 — to the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV on Sunday.
She said Perry informed her he intended to veto money to the Public Integrity Unit unless Lehmberg stepped down following her high-profile drunken driving arrest. Under the law, Perry, a Republican in his 14th year in office, would have named Lehmberg’s replacement pending an election.
“I think I told him, of course, it would be an amazing opportunity, and I thanked him for considering me,” Montford said. “The fact that I am a Democrat was surprising, and I think I mentioned that to him. I told him I would think about it, and thanked him.
“There was no acceptance because I didn’t feel like it was timely at that point,” she said. “We never spoke again because it became irrelevant when she did not resign.”
The revelation shows the level at which Perry was directly involved in attempts to force Lehmberg’s resignation and appoint a successor in the days leading up to his June 14 veto — rather than high-level aides coordinating the effort and briefing the governor.
To be clear, this information doesn’t add anything to the first round of legal arguments over whether or not the indictments are valid. Perry’s high-priced lawyers are arguing that the statute is unconstitutional, and if that’s true it’s true whether or not Rick Perry was behind the curtain trying to shove Lehmberg off the ledge. What it does is definitively ties Perry to the alleged criminal action of trying to coerce Lehmberg’s resignation. Remember that in the Tom DeLay case, one of the weaknesses of the prosecution’s case was the lack of direct evidence that linked DeLay to the money transfer. Mindy Montford provides that evidence for the Perry case quite nicely. No question, if there’s a trial, she’ll be a star witness.
This also brings up a point that Christopher Hooks in the Observer illustrates. Perry kind of needs the indictments to go away quickly, because the longer this plays out, the more revelations like this we’re likely to get, and the more dots that can be connected. Ed Sills in his email newsletter riffed off that Statesman piece to show the lengths that Perry spokespeople went to back in April to avoid saying anything that would later prove to be false. Hooks elaborates:
Separately, the story of the indictments is set to give new life to old stories about Perry’s improprieties, in much the same way Chris Christie’s bridge-related indiscretions gave rise to a narrative about his temper and vindictiveness toward political opponents. And Perry’s personality—best suited to offense—was well tailored to the first stage of this ordeal, but may trip him up going forward.
Here’s Perry’s story about the indictments, as outlined in a video released by his political action committee, PerryPAC: He saw a damaged public official, a woman who shouldn’t possibly hold office or any kind of responsibility, and took firm, narrowly targeted action to try to remove her. Now he’s facing political retribution from Democrats.
Parts of that narrative fall apart as soon as you look at them closely—particularly the notion that special prosecutor Michael McCrum, appointed to the case by a Republican judge in San Antonio, is an agent of Battleground Texas. But much of the rest of it could fall apart over the course of a trial, too.
Perry says his veto was about unseating Lehmberg, but it had significant consequences. As the Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg wrote on Thursday, Perry’s veto of the funding for the Public Integrity Unit “derailed more than 400 felony level tax and insurance fraud investigations allegedly committed against the State of Texas.”
In other words, Perry’s action didn’t just punish Lehmberg for her refusal to step down—it punished the state as a whole and Texas citizens generally. Think about that: Perry zeroed out the funding for more than 400 felony investigations because a local official wouldn’t step down when he wanted. Kronberg:
The Travis County Public Integrity Unit is the most under-appreciated law enforcement apparatus in the state. Fully 95% of what it does is pursue white collar crime in Texas and on behalf of the State of Texas – motor fuels tax fraud, insurance fraud and legal support for the smaller of Texas 254 counties that do not have the funding or expertise to pursue white collar crimes in their jurisdictions.
When Perry derailed the unit, the Travis County Commissioners Court stepped in and restored a portion of the funding—but the PIU had to slash staff and caseload. The state’s side in serious criminal cases that had nothing to do with Lehmberg’s troubles—or even, politics generally—suffered needlessly.
But the PIU investigates political corruption too. Kronberg dismisses the relevance of the investigation into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas as a factor in Perry’s motivation for wanting a friend in control of the DA’s office, but points to other possibilities.
“It is far more interesting to look at the Public Integrity Unit investigation of Republican AG candidate Ken Paxton and Perry Regent appointment Wallace Hall,” Kronberg writes. “Had Lehmberg resigned, it is doubtful Perry’s appointed replacement would be very interested in either criminal referral.” There’s no shortage of possible motives for Perry’s intervention in the PIU, even if those motives don’t necessarily matter to the legal case against him.
If the trial gets going, there’s really no telling what’s going to get dredged up in the discovery process. What internal communications, what private conversations will we become privy to? This trial might be the most penetrating look at Perry’s workshop in the 14 years since he took office. There’s no politician that comes away from that level of scrutiny looking good.
Some of this will come out anyway, but in the context of a trial, it’s going to look worse. And Perry may not get to hide behind privilege as much as he usually gets to. There are a lot of rocks to look under, and who knows what we’ll find. Harold Cook and Grits have more.