A grand jury has charged Texas Governor Rick Perry with abusing the powers of his office by carrying out a threat to veto funding for state prosecutors investigating public corruption, making the possible 2016 presidential candidate his state's first indicted governor in nearly a century.
A special prosecutor spent months calling witnesses and presenting evidence that the Republican governor broke the law when he promised publicly to veto US$7.5 million (NZ$8.84m) over two years for the public integrity unit, which is run by Travis County District Rosemary Lehmberg's office. Several top aides to the governor appeared before grand jurors in Austin, but Perry wasn't called to testify.
Perry was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Maximum punishment on the first charge is five to 99 years in prison. The second is two to 10 years.
Perry said Lehmberg, who is based in Austin, should resign after she was arrested and pled guilty to drunken driving in April 2013. A video recording made at the jail showed Lehmberg shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell and sticking her tongue out.
Lehmberg, whose blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for driving, served about half of her 45-day jail sentence but stayed in office, despite Perry's assertions that her behaviour was inappropriate.
Perry eventually carried out his veto threat. No one disputes that he is allowed to veto measures approved by the Legislature, including part or all of the state budget. But the left-leaning Texans for Public Justice government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion since he threatened to use his veto before actually doing so in an attempt to pressure Lehmberg to quit.
Lehmberg, a Democrat, oversees the office's public integrity unit, which investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. Perry said he wouldn't allow Texas to fund the unit while Lehmberg remained in charge. He used his line-item veto power to remove funding for the unit from the Texas budget.
The indictment is the first of its kind since 1917, when James "Pa" Ferguson was indicted on charges related to his veto of state funding to the University of Texas in effort to unseat faculty and staff members he objected to. Ferguson was eventually impeached, then resigned before being convicted.
In office since 2000 and the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry isn't seeking re-election in November. But the ongoing criminal investigation could mar his political prospects as he considers another run at the White House, after his 2012 presidential bid fell apart.
Perry and his aides say he didn't break any laws.
"The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution, and we remain ready and willing to assist with this inquiry," spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said in April, after the grand jury was convened in the case.