Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted by a grand jury Friday, accused of two felony counts of abusing his power by eliminating funds for the state’s ethics watchdog.
The byzantine case involves the drunk-driving conviction of a Democratic prosecutor, deep-seated partisan tensions and a test of Perry’s powers as the longest-serving chief executive in Texas history. It comes as Perry attempts to resurrect his image and renew his presidential ambitions after a disastrous 2012 run.
With the governor already planning to step down at the end of his term in January, the impact is likely to be greatest outside his home state, where Perry is probably still best known for the pratfalls of his unsuccessful White House bid.
“It’s a red light,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist in Austin, Texas, who believes Perry had done much to repair his reputation among Republicans, especially with his recent tough stance on immigration issues. “It stops a lot of the momentum.”
Perry offered no public reaction Friday, but his lawyer was quick to assert his innocence, saying the governor’s veto of funding for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which houses the state’s public integrity unit, was lawful and appropriate.
David L. Botsford, counsel for Perry, said in a statement that he was “outraged and appalled” at the grand jury action.
“This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision,” he said. “Today’s action ... sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor.”
Republican allies were quick to take up the argument, saying Perry was being treated as a criminal for merely doing his job.
But Democrats, a minority who have long chafed under Perry’s assertive conservatism, accused him of a longstanding pattern of corruption and cronyism and demanded his immediate resignation.
That was not about to happen. But the charges will probably hinder Perry’s attempted comeback as a national figure and serious contestant for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, at least in the short term.
“This is pretty obviously not a good thing,” said James Henson, director of the state politics project at the University of Texas in Austin. “There’s not a presidential aspirant anywhere who goes into this omnipotent enough to welcome the words ‘felony’ and ‘indictment’ in stories about them.”
There is a history of fraught relations between GOP lawmakers and the district attorney’s office in Travis County, which takes in the state capital of Austin and is a staunch Democratic exception to Texas’ strongly Republican leanings.
Two high-profile Republican lawmakers, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and ex-Rep. Tom DeLay, were both indicted by the Travis County district attorney while in office: Hutchison for allegedly misusing government employees and office equipment when she was state treasurer, and DeLay for allegedly violating campaign finance laws. Hutchison was acquitted and DeLay’s conviction was overturned years later.
Against that backdrop, Travis County Dist. Atty. Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested last year on drunken-driving charges. She turned belligerent after police stopped her, and a videotape of her aggressive behavior in custody was widely circulated in the Texas media.
Perry threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the public corruption unit in Lehmberg’s office unless she stepped down, saying he could not support continued funding “for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility for that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
Lehmberg served a jail sentence of about three weeks but refused to quit, and Perry followed through on his veto threat.
A left-leaning government watchdog group filed a complaint against Perry, which resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor, who presented his case to the Austin grand jury.
Critics of the governor note that at the time the funding was cut, the public corruption unit was investigating a state agency, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was one of Perry’s pet projects. Questions have surfaced regarding funding of the institute and money given to some of the governor’s close allies; a former institute official has been indicted for the disbursement of an $11 million state grant.
The office of the Texas governor has historically been a weak one. But Perry’s unprecedented tenure — he took over as governor when George W. Bush was elected president — has allowed him to fill virtually every appointed office in the state and hold powerful sway over the nation’s second most populous state.
“He’s been both lauded and criticized for the ways in which he’s expanded the power of the governor’s office,” Henson said. “But here he may have bumped into the limits.”
That said, Henson added, Lehmberg “is not an especially sympathetic figure.”
Even before her arrest and conviction, Henson said, “the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was seen by detractors as a tool for liberals to prosecute Republicans.”
Lehmberg, who remains in office, had no immediate comment on the indictment.
The last Texas governor to be indicted was James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917. He was eventually convicted of 10 charges and left office in a scandal involving funding for the University of Texas.
On Twitter: @markzbarabak
Times staff writer Maya Srikrishnan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.