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Perry defends veto that led to indictment

WASHINGTON — Governor Rick Perry of Texas remained unrepentant Sunday about a veto he made that led to his indictment on charges of abuse of power, saying that “if I had to do it again, I would make exactly the same decision.”

The governor, who appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” also used the occasion to criticize President Obama, saying he was responsible for a national erosion of the “rule of law.”

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Perry’s appearance was his first national television interview since his indictment Friday on two felony counts stemming from his effort to pressure Travis County’s top prosecutor, Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to step down by threatening to veto state funding for an ethics investigative unit within her office. Lehmberg had been arrested on a drunken driving charge.

Grand jurors in Travis County charged Perry, a Republican, with abusing his official capacity and coercing a public servant.

On Fox, Perry laid out his complaint against Lehmberg — saying she had almost three times the legal blood-alcohol limit and was “abusive” when arrested. He then added, of the indictment: “This is not the way we settle differences — policy differences — in this country. You don’t do it with indictments. We settle our differences at the ballot box.”

Perry repeatedly invoked the “rule of law,” suggesting that it had suffered under Obama, whether in the scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of political nonprofit groups, enforcement of border security, or surveillance by the National Security Agency.

The governor said he had received support from a range of political figures, not just Republicans but also from the other end of the political spectrum. He quoted a Twitter post from David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to Obama, as saying the indictment seemed “pretty sketchy.”

‘This is not the way we settle differences — policy differences — in this country.’

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Axelrod’s full post read: “Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy.”

Perry also cited Alan M. Dershowitz, a retired professor of constitutional and criminal law at Harvard University. Dershowitz told Newsmax, the conservative news website, that he was a “longtime Democrat who would never vote for Rick Perry” but that the indictment represented an unacceptable “criminalization of party differences.”

On Saturday, in a news conference in Austin, Perry made some of the same arguments, saying that Lehmberg had lost public confidence, and adding, “I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto.”

The indictment Friday marked a change in fortunes for a man who has been an unrivaled power in Texas. Throughout his nearly 14 years as governor, Perry has filled every position on every board and commission in the state. That amounts to thousands of appointments, from the most obscure positions on the Texas Funeral Service Commission to more influential posts on university boards of regents.

But one powerful institution he does not control is the prosecutor’s office in the state capital of Austin. The office has often been a potent irritant to state politicians.

At the time of Lehmberg’s drunken-driving case, in which she pleaded guilty, her office’s Public Integrity Unit had been conducting an investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which received a steady stream of lucrative state grants. The investigation led to the indictment of one of the institute’s former executives, who was accused of improperly awarding an $11 million grant to a Dallas firm. Travis County officials have struggled to fund the unit through other means.

Depending on what deal was worked out if Lehmberg had resigned, Perry could have been in a position to name her successor.

Now, Perry’s indictment threatens to tarnish his legacy and derail his hopes for a second presidential run.

The charges set in motion a battle of competing narratives over just what kind of overreach the indictment reflects. Democrats say the charges describe the arrogant overreach of a governor with unchecked power. But Republicans took up the argument made by Perry on Saturday that the excess was in the investigation and indictment themselves, which they described as political in nature and extremely dubious in legality.

The thousands of appointments Perry has made and his longevity in office have given him leverage and influence in every sphere of Texas life. So getting involved in the aftermath of a district attorney’s arrest was not out of the ordinary for him.

In the recent battle between the president of the University of Texas at Austin, William Powers Jr., and the Perry-backed board of regents, people familiar with the situation have said that Perry was directly involved.

Republicans defended Perry’s actions as lawful and said the indictment would not do any long-term political damage to him. They said the grand jury, in one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds, had exceeded its authority and inserted itself into the world of politics.

Perry has spent much of this year seeking to reintroduce himself to Republican donors and voters in states with early presidential primaries.

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