A Travis County grand jury is deciding whether Gov. Rick Perry broke the law trying to sink a prominent Democrat or merely offended his detractors with a brazen demonstration of hardball politics. If that panel of citizens thinks he broke the law, he could be indicted and tried. If they don't, add a new verse to the Ballad of Rick Perry. Either outcome figures into his future, as the 2016 presidential race begins to loom in political conversation.
The inquiry started with the state budget — a piece of it, anyway — and whether Gov. Rick Perry stepped over the line when he threatened to cut state funding for the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office.
The public integrity unit handles, among other things, criminal complaints against state officials — whether those officials are elected, appointed or hired employees. Other local prosecutors have similar duties, but they don’t have the state Capitol in their counties and don’t get state funding to take care of that state business.
The Perry inquiry started with the April drunken driving arrest of Rosemary Lehmberg, Travis County’s top prosecutor. It was a particularly embarrassing public event, starting with a viral video of the district attorney fumbling around in the parking lot where she was pulled over and continuing with another viral video that showed her argumentative booking into the county jail that same night.
The short version: She pleaded guilty, served some jail time, got some counseling and went back to work.
Perry, meanwhile, said Lehmberg should resign and added that he would cut state funding from her office if she failed to do so.
When she ignored his ultimatum, he vetoed the funding. His veto proclamation struck through the office’s $7.5 million in state funding, and he offered this explanation: “Despite the otherwise good work [of] the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued State funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence. This unit is in no other way held accountable to state taxpayers, except through the State budgetary process. I therefore object to and disapprove of this appropriation.”
Roughly half of that money — $3.2 million — was appropriated for the general state government investigations that tend to get all of the attention from the news media and the public. Almost $2 million would have gone to investigations of motor fuel tax fraud, and the remainder was allotted to insurance fraud investigations. Perry didn’t have the option of vetoing a portion, so he vetoed all of it. And as The Texas Tribune reported on Tuesday, the governor's emissaries then renewed the swap talk, telling county officials he would restore the vetoed funds if she would resign. That came to nothing. County commissioners increased their funding, but Lehmberg was forced to cut staff and shrink the integrity unit.
To recap: Lehmberg kept her job. Perry made his political points. And the watchdogs over state officials were at least partially defanged.
Was that illegal?
The governor’s aides said at the time that they weren’t trying to turn the watchdog into a toy poodle — they wanted Lehmberg to quit. Her replacement would have been appointed by the governor, and the Austin political community — strongly Democratic, if you haven’t looked at an election map lately — was alarmed at the prospect of a Republican district attorney. There was also an appearance problem with the notion that a prosecutor could be hounded out of office — that the public nature of Perry’s threat made it less likely that Lehmberg would leave.
She remains in office, though she repeated her intentions to not seek a third term. A civil action aimed at unseating her fell short when a judge ruled in December that she could keep her job. Her part of this story is over, and her Terrible Year is behind her.
Perry’s story is still going. He got his political moment a year ago, asking for her resignation and taking the moral high ground in a very public way. He vetoed her state funding, making good on a threat and letting others know, for a moment, that this particular lame duck can still be dangerous.
But the governor is looking at another national race, with different competitors who are busy trying to disqualify one another as they enter the two-year campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The stakes are high. If he was just playing hardball, that will go into the mix as a show of strength. If the grand jury decides there was something criminal going on, he’ll have a criminal problem as well as a political problem.
And the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will have something to talk about besides Chris Christie’s bridge.