Trial should clarify Perry’s motive in Lehmberg case

Gov. Rick Perry, determined to reform his national image, has been busy traveling the country this year to promote Texas’ economy and his role in shaping it. Lately, he’s been talking tough about border security. Perry is scheduled to leave office in January after 14 years as governor and he’s expected to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Perhaps we should say “was” expected. Perry now must factor a criminal trial into his plans — a trial that might leave him without a political future. If so, he has only himself to blame.

Late Friday afternoon, a Travis County grand jury charged Perry with breaking the law in 2013 when he tried to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign after she was arrested for drunken driving. Grand jurors charged Perry with abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony that carries a punishment of 5-99 years, and coercion of a public servant, a third-degree felony punishable by 2-10 years.

Next for Perry: booking and a formal reading in court of the charges against him.

For residents of Travis County and our fellow Texans, a legal process now has been set in motion that will formally explore whether Perry abused his political power. A trial should offer clarity about Perry’s motive, and open a window, however small, into his behavior as governor.

Perry potentially will leave office with perceptions of him shaped not on his own terms, but on a trial jury’s terms, and with a criminal conviction trailing his legacy.

Perry’s authority to veto the Public Integrity Unit’s budget was not in question. The question is whether he crossed legal lines when he neutered the unit’s state budget to try to force Lehmberg, an elected official answerable to the voters of Travis County, to resign.

Lehmberg, whose blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, pleaded guilty to drunken driving and was sentenced to 45 days in jail, fined $4,000 and had her license revoked for 180 days. Her decision to drive drunk put her credibility and the credibility of her office in jeopardy.

Nonetheless, Perry’s decision in June 2013 to cut the $7.5 million lawmakers had allocated for the Public Integrity Unit for 2014-15 because Lehmberg refused to resign was egregious and coercive. Perry’s action put hundreds of cases and investigations in limbo and placed in doubt the jobs of 35 prosecutors, investigators and other employees.

The Travis County district attorney’s office is the most powerful in the state because the Public Integrity Unit is charged with policing the ethics of legislators and other state officeholders. While Perry’s veto did not take away the unit’s authority to investigate official wrongdoing, it left it without state funding. Authority without funding is no authority at all.

Travis County commissioners decided to cover the unit’s costs, approving $1.8 million last August to help keep the unit alive this year. Commissioners added to the funding mix $734,000 from a forfeited property fund that the district attorney controls. Travis County taxpayers are now paying for the work of an office established by the state to investigate state officeholders. If Perry is convicted, perhaps commissioners should consider asking the state for reimbursement.

For decades, Democrats have led the Travis County district attorney’s office and Republicans have complained the Public Integrity Unit unfairly targets them for prosecutions. A Travis County grand jury indicted former Republican U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land in 2006 for money laundering. Former Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted by a Travis County grand jury in 1993 for official misconduct and records tampering dating from her time as state treasurer.

Perry’s case, however, was not being considered by Lehmberg’s office but by Michael McCrum, a special prosecutor from San Antonio. Presumably, Perry will seek a change of venue for trial.

“I took into account the fact that we’re talking about a governor of a state — and a governor of the state of Texas, which we all love,” McCrum said Friday. “Obviously that carries a lot of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.”

Now the law might make Perry pay for his unseemly politics.

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