Texas-Sized Drama

08.15.14

What the Hell Just Happened in Texas, and Why Was Rick Perry Just Indicted?

The scandal that erupted Friday night involved millions of dollars, statehouse power plays—oh yeah, and alcohol, police, and masks.

Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted Friday on charges of abuse of power—a first degree felony—and coercion—a third degree felony. The charges stem from a 2013 scandal that has been quietly rumbling in the Lone Star State as Perry has been floated as a viable contender for the Republican nomination in 2016.

This is a complex case, which might be why it has not made national headlines the way other recent, state-level scandals (like Bridgegate, in New Jersey) have. Below, I have outlined a somewhat confusing short version of events, and a longer, more colorful explanation that involves alcohol, police, and masks.

The short version is this: A Democrat refused to resign from her position as District Attorney, where she controlled the state’s Public Integrity Unit, an entity which investigates ethics violations of elected officials. The likely reason why is that Perry, a Republican, would have almost certainly installed another Republican. One of the few positions in control of a Democrat under Perry’s watch would’ve vanished—a big deal, given the power of the Public Integrity Unit.

Perry, as a means of intimidating the DA into resigning, publicly threatened to veto the Public Integrity Unit’s budget. And when she didn’t step down, he made good on his tough talk, gutting all of its funding ($8 million) for two years.

From the outset, Perry was adamant that what he did was not illegal—which is presumably why he made no secret of it. But his opponents were not convinced. In August, an investigation into the matter began, which resulted in today’s indictments.

The long version is as follows: In the memorable words of the Texas Observer’s formidable Christopher Hooks: “Like many schemes, it started with vodka.”

The District Attorney in Travis County, Rosemary Lehmberg, was pulled over near Lake Travis, on April 13, 2013, found with an open bottle of vodka in her vehicle, and promptly arrested. Lehmberg acted belligerently enough to be strapped into a restraining chair once she arrived to jail—and officials filmed her.

Video screenshot

In the video, officers chastise Lehmberg for grabbing them as they remove her jewelry, and she berates them from behind glass, yelling “I don’t care if you film me.” Her head bobbing, hair tousled, and eye-makeup running, she questions the actions of the officers. The officers then place a white mask over her face as they prepare to roll her down a hallway, “this way nobody sees you.” In one shot from the video, Lehmberg points her finger at the camera as if it is a gun. Her arms strapped back, Lehmberg tells the officials “this erratic behavior is going to ruin my career.”

It is, in fact, because it did not ruin her career that Perry has been indicted.

Lehmberg pleaded guilty and spent a couple of days in jail, but she did not resign — despite cries that she do so.

In June of 2013, Perry made known his intention to effectively dismantle the Public Integrity Unit with devastating budget cuts unless Lehmberg stepped down—resulting in outcry from state Democrats, who charged the move would “be a huge blow” to the Unit’s caseload, part of which included investigating wrongdoings by the state’s GOP. “For Perry to say ‘I’m closing down the investigation shop is outrageous,’” a Democrat activist, Glenn Smith, told the Texas Tribune.

That same month, a liberal watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, filed a complaint against Perry, accusing him of abuse of official capacity, bribery, and coercion of a public servant. The judge appointed as prosecutor on the case Michael McCrum, who said “I cannot elaborate on what exactly is concerning me…But I can tell you I am very concerned about certain aspects of what happened here.” McCrum was nominated to be the United States Attorney in West Texas, but withdrew from consideration after Republicans in the U.S. Senate held up his nomination.

The indictment claims Perry violated two laws, the first of which prohibits public servants from consciously engaging in “misuse [of] government property, services, personnel, or any other things of value belonging to the government that has come to the public servants custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.” And the second of which bans coercion to influence “or attempt to influence” public officials in either “a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty” or “to violate the public servants known legal duty.”

A statement released by Perry’s general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, claims the charges are flimsy at best: “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.”

This was the last of Perry’s 14 years in office. But in this homestretch, he became the first sitting Texas gov. to be indicted since 1917, and the fifth gov to be indicted in the 21st Century (the last was Illinois’ Rod Blagojevich, in 2008).

And Perry is also, of course, a major figure in the national Republican party. Although he failed to win the Republican nomination for president in 2012, Perry is widely seen as a possible candidate for 2016. Not even two weeks ago, Perry created a Political Action Committee, RickPAC. This month, Perry will travel to key states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He may have some questions to answer about the indictments handed down Friday night.