A visiting state district judge began convening a special grand jury Wednesday to consider two possible criminal cases stemming from the April drunken driving arrest of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.
The 12-member panel with two alternates, which may be seated as early as Friday, will help determine whether Gov. Rick Perry broke any law when he threatened to veto millions of dollars in state funding to Lehmberg’s office unless she resigned.
The grand jury will also help determine whether Lehmberg violated any state laws, including those concerning obstruction, resulting from her behavior in the Travis County Jail immediately after her arrest.
The grand jury will meet, hear evidence and deliberate in private. It can issue indictments or can decide criminal court action isn’t merited.
The grand jury, which is being impaneled by Senior District Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio, will be available to independently investigate allegations in both possible cases through witness testimony and any records they may subpoena, according to information obtained by the American-Statesman in collaboration with KVUE News.
Lehmberg has repeatedly apologized for her behavior and declined to comment Wednesday night. A Perry spokesman has said that the governor did nothing more than exercise his constitutional veto authority.
About 80 randomly selected Travis County residents were ordered to report to the county’s criminal courthouse at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The selected grand jurors won’t be sworn in until background checks are completed in the next several days.
The names of the selected grand jurors weren’t available Wednesday.
Travis County grand juries are typically seated through a system in which district judges select several grand jury commissioners, who then create a pool of prospective grand jurors that judges may then pick from. That system has faced legal challenges over the years amid allegations that it can foster cronyism and favoritism and taint grand jury makeup.
But the grand jury that is expected to hear the allegations involving Lehmberg and Perry will be picked from the same pool of registered Travis County voters used to select regular juries in criminal and civil cases.
Richardson declined to comment Wednesday, and out-of-county prosecutors appointed to look into both potential cases couldn’t be reached.
The potential cases against Perry and Lehmberg arose after her high-profile April 12 drunken driving arrest in western Travis County and two separate complaints filed in Travis County court related to actions after the arrest.
Rick Reed, who several years ago ran against Lehmberg for district attorney, filed a complaint in May alleging that Lehmberg’s post-arrest behavior constituted obstruction, a third-degree felony. In his complaint, Reed quoted Lehmberg, whose several hours in jail were documented on a video that was publicly released, telling corrections officers that they were “screwed” and would go to jail if they didn’t “do something pretty quick.”
Judge David Peeples, who was appointed to preside over that case, tapped former Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner to serve as a special prosecutor in that matter. That case is still pending.
Lehmberg later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. She also took a personal leave of absence for treatment and has since returned to work.
Lehmberg, who is serving her second term and has said she has no plans to run for re-election, faces a separate lawsuit seeking to remove her from office. That case is still pending.
Separately, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint after Perry in June threatened to veto funding to Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates ethics complaints. At that time, various officials said that intermediaries had communicated to Lehmberg that her resignation could avoid the veto and loss of funding. Perry later publicly acknowledged the veto threat.
Lehmberg didn’t resign, and Perry carried out his promise, withholding $3.7 million a year in state funding.
Texans for Public Justice filed its complaint initially with Lehmberg and Travis County Attorney David Escamilla. They both stepped aside, and Richardson was eventually assigned to the case. He recently appointed San Antonio attorney Michael McCrum to determine whether the complaint has merit, should be dismissed or presented to a grand jury for further investigation.
“I am pleased,” Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald said. “We want this case to move forward, and if this is a step to move forward, that is where we think it should go. We think our case has merit.”
Statesman and KVUE
This story is reported in partnership with KVUE-TV. See more of Tony Plohetski’s investigative reports online at MyStatesman.com and on air at KVUE.