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Grand jury indicts Rick Perry on abuse of power claim

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/File 2014

AUSTIN, Texas — A grand jury indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry on Friday for allegedly 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 hopeful his state’s first indicted governor in nearly a century.

A special prosecutor spent months calling witnesses and presenting evidence that Perry broke the law when he promised publicly to nix $7.5 million over two years for the public integrity unit run by the office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. Lehmberg, a Democrat, was convicted of drunken driving, but refused Perry’s calls to resign.

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Though the Republican governor now faces two felony indictments, politics dominates the case. Lehmberg is based in Austin, which is heavily Democratic, in contrast to most of the rest of fiercely conservative Texas. The grand jury was comprised of Austin-area residents.

The unit Lehmberg oversees investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. It led the investigation against former US House majority leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who in 2010 was convicted of money laundering for taking part in a scheme to influence elections in his home state — convictions later vacated by an appeals court.

Mary Anne Wiley, Perry’s general counsel, predicted Perry ultimately will be cleared of the charges against him: abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.

‘‘The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,’’ she said.

David L. Botsford, Perry’s defense attorney, whose $450-per-hour fees are being paid for by state funds, said he was outraged by the action.

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‘‘This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision,’’ Botsford said in a statement. ‘‘Today’s action, which violates the separation of powers outlined in the Texas Constitution, is nothing more than an effort to weaken the constitutional authority granted to the office of Texas governor, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor.’’

Several top aides to Perry appeared before grand jurors, including his deputy chief of staff, legislative director and general counsel. Perry did not testify.

Abuse of official capacity is a first-degree felony with potential punishments of five to 99 years in prison. Coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of two to 10 years.

In office since 2000 and already Texas’s longest-serving governor, Perry isn’t seeking reelection in November.

No one disputes that Perry is allowed to veto measures approved by the Legislature. But the left-leaning Texans for Public Justice government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion because he threatened to use his veto before actually doing so in an attempt to pressure Lehmberg to quit.

‘‘We’re pleased that the grand jury determined that the governor’s bullying crossed the line into illegal behavior,’’ said Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group.

Michael McCrum, the San Antonio-based special prosecutor, said he ‘‘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.’’

‘‘Obviously that carries a lot of importance,’’ McCrum said. ‘‘But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.’’

McCrum said he’ll meet with Botsford on Monday to discuss when Perry will come to the courthouse to be arraigned. McCrum said he doesn’t know when Perry will be booked.

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