AUSTIN – Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a longtime Republican political figure and 2016 presidential hopeful, was indicted Friday by a Travis County grand jury following an investigation into whether he withheld millions of dollars from the office of the local district attorney, a Democrat.
Grand jurors charged Perry, 63, with abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony, and coercion of a public official. Perry must now turn himself in to the Travis County Jail, where he will be booked, fingerprinted and and have his mug shot taken, according to KVUE-TV.
A Texas governor hasn’t been indicted since 1917, when Democrat James E. Ferguson was convicted and removed from office for vetoing funding for the University of Texas after objecting to some faculty members.
Mary Anne Wiley, General Counsel for Perry, said in a statement that “the veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution. We will continue to aggressively defend the governor’s lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.”
Texas Democrats were quick to denounce the long-term governor. The Texas Democratic Party issued a statement calling on Perry to immediately step down.
“Governor Rick Perry has brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas,” it read. “Texans deserve to have leaders that stand up for what is right and work to help families across Texas.”
The indictment stems from the drunk driving arrest last year of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who was captured on video berating officers following her arrest. She served jail time, underwent counseling and returned to her post.
Perry called for Lehmberg’s resignation and, when she refused, vetoed $7.5 million in state funding for the public integrity unit that she oversees. The withholding forced Lehmberg to cut some staff in that office.
Perry has held the governor’s office for a record 14 years but will step down after this year. In recent months, he has increased his national visibility in preparation for what’s widely expected to be a second run for president in 2016. Perry lost a bid for the Republican nomination two years ago after an embarrassing flub during a live televised debate.
This year, the governor has made numerous appearances around the USA, including several in Iowa, home to the kickoff presidential caucus, spreading his message that the Texas model of limited government could lead to American economic prosperity. And as the summer crisis of immigrant youth crossing the border worsened, Perry blasted President Obama for not doing enough and dispatched 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, further bolstering his conservative credentials.
How the indictment impacts his presidential aspirations remains to be seen, said Larry Sabato,director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Perry could turn it around and say he stood by his principles, which Republican activists would applaud, he said. The indictment could also be resolved before the start of the election season in 2016.
But with Perry down in the polls among Republican presidential hopefuls, the indictment could do more harm than good, Sabato said. In a McClatchy-Marist poll released this week, Perry was tied for sixth among Republican primary candidates, backed by just 7% of Republican voters.
“Longshots like Perry need to run a perfect campaign,” Sabato said. “An indictment doesn’t fall into that model.”
Republicans in Texas – and Texans in general – have mostly sided with Perry on this issue, said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The investigation never gained much buzz within the state and most saw it as the governor standing firm against an elected official who broke the law.