Late yesterday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted by a grand jury in Austin on charges of abuse of power. The charges stem from Perry carrying out a threat to veto funding the budget for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, which handles political corruption investigations.
District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg had been arrested for drunk driving and was widely criticized for her conduct while in custody. She refused to resign even after been sentenced to jail and Perry carried out his threat. I have been critical of Perry in the past and I believe that his veto was wrongheaded. However, I view the indictment as very troubling on a separation of powers basis and the result of the extension of criminal provisions with tangential applicability to this type of dispute.
This controversy began with the arrest of Lehmberg. Here are the videos from the arrest to booking to holding. Police say that she had to be restrained (the mask was put on her allegedly to protect her identity):
She eventually pleaded guilty and received a 45-day jail sentence under the plea agreement. She served half of that time before being released and then she resumed her work in office.
Perry (and, in fairness, various state groups) called for her to resign. Lehmberg refused. The conflict had, at the outset, obvious political dimensions. Lehmberg is located in the very liberal and very Democratic city of Austin. The governor hails from an extremely conservative part of the state and Lehmberg is one of the few Democratic officials in a major position in the state.
Perry ratcheted up the conflict by giving Lehmberg an ultimatum to resign or he would veto the budget for the office. When the budget came through, he made good on the threat and cut $7.5 million in funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
Perry was then made the subject of a complaint filed by Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group. That led to San Antonio lawyer Michael McCrum being appointed the special prosecutor and investigating the matter for months with numerous witnesses called before a grand jury.
The indictment (which can be seen here) is based on two state provisions.
The first (§ 39.02. ABUSE OF OFFICIAL CAPACITY) is a statute prohibiting public servants from “intentionally or knowingly . . . misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.” That statute is extraordinarily vague and ambiguous. It is also not clearly intended for this type of conflict where a governor uses his right to veto a budgetary provision, even if his motives are viewed as an effort to replace one of the last Democrats holding a statewide office.
The second (Section 36.03: COERCION OF PUBLIC SERVANT OR VOTER) law criminalizes the use of coercion to “influence or attempt to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influence or attempt to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.” Once again, the use of this provision is highly problematic in this circumstance. The “specific exercise of his official power or . . . specific performance” in this case would be the resignation from office. That is not likely the intent or purpose of this law. Perry made this threat publicly and openly. He was using (in my view unwisely) the threat of a budget cut to deal with someone that he viewed as a disgrace to her office.
From what I can see, these provisions are rarely used and prosecutors have waited for the strongest possible grounds for such charges. Indeed, such laws are written broadly in reliance on prosecutorial discretion. In this case, the special prosecutor seemed to pound hard to get these square facts into these round holes. A bit too hard for such a case.
Article 4, Section 14 of the Texas Constitution states:
Sec. 14. APPROVAL OR DISAPPROVAL OF BILLS; RETURN AND RECONSIDERATION; FAILURE TO RETURN; DISAPPROVAL OF ITEMS OF APPROPRIATION. Every bill which shall have passed both houses of the Legislature shall be presented to the Governor for his approval. . . . If any bill presented to the Governor contains several items of appropriation he may object to one or more of such items, and approve the other portion of the bill. In such case he shall append to the bill, at the time of signing it, a statement of the items to which he objects, and no item so objected to shall take effect. If the Legislature be in session, he shall transmit to the House in which the bill originated a copy of such statement and the items objected to shall be separately considered. If, on reconsideration, one or more of such items be approved by two-thirds of the members present of each House, the same shall be part of the law, notwithstanding the objections of the Governor.
That is precisely what he did. However, it appears to be the fact that Perry made the threat before the veto that is the basis for the charges. Had he simply vetoed the budget, he presumably could not be accused for coercion since there was no threat. It is the fact that he used the threat of a veto that is being cited as the basis for the charges. If you look at the indictment, the entire office of Lehmberg is being treated as property worth “more than $200,000” and treated as misused given Perry’s oath as governor. The indictment is very short and sheds little light on how or where to draw the line for criminal as opposed to political actions. The case has some disturbing similarities to the trial of Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich who was given a 14-year sentence in a case that I viewed as questionable. It is a cautionary tale for Perry. Blagojevich was hurt by witness testimony and recordings with vulgar and raw exchanges between politicians. It reaffirmed the view of many of politicians are distrustful and a bit sleazy. However, I felt the indictment of Blagojevich dangerously blurred the line between the political and the criminal realms.
In fairness to the prosecutor, we have not seen the evidence, including witness testimony. This includes testimony from the state senator who first went with the message to resign to Lehmberg. That type of testimony can color a case and distract from what may seem abstract arguments based on inherent executive authority. Yet, I view this type of dispute is more appropriately a matter for an impeachment rather than an indictment controversy. I would have serious qualms about an impeachment on this basis alone, but that would be a more obvious route than a criminal charge. Putting aside the partisan passions on both sides, the jailing of a top prosecutor raises a legitimate question of her competence to continue in office. Perry decided to use the one means that he could to try to push her to resign. I think he was wrong given the public integrity role of the office and jurisdiction over state officials like Perry himself. Perry had every right to call for her resignation but to threaten to effectively kill the office was unwise. Yet, none of this supports the indictment in my view. This was not an effort by Perry to coerce a favor for a friend or force an official to drop an investigation. It was not a secret communication made between politicians. It was a public commitment made in response to a public scandal.
I recognize that the threat can be viewed as seeking to force Lehmberg to take an official action — i.e., her resignation — however that seems materially different from what the law was primarily designed to achieve. In the very least, this would seem an area for prosecutorial discretion that the charge in this individual case does not advance the purposes of the provision. As for the first charge, I view it as hopelessly ambiguous and facially unsuitable in this case.
There are significant constitutional concerns raised by this type of indictment. Perry is essentially being indicted for his use of constitutional power to veto an appropriations item. Most people seem to recognize that he could have done this if he had not threatened to do it in advance. That seems to be the determinative factor: that he announced what he would do in advance if Lehmberg did not resign. That does not make for a particularly compelling criminal charge.
In fairness to McCrum, one could foresee such an effort that was based on trumped up charges or no charges at all. If a governor were to announce that an official from an opposing party would have to resign or face defunding of the office, it would present a far more serious issue. From McCrum’s perspective, the difference between that circumstance and the current controversy is dangerously subjective. Perry gave an official a ultimatum: resign or face defunding. Once again, however, that sounds like an impeachment rather than an indictment question. The Constitution gives the Governor the right to strike out an appropriations item and the right of the legislature to overcome that veto. What if a governor objected to an office being used to investigate and prosecute particularly areas of business or society? So long as governors are not engaging in obstruction of justice or seeking to influence a particular case, there is clearly authority to seek defunding of state programs or offices through the budget process. This was not an executive order but an executive veto that is part of the legislative and appropriations process. (Even with what I consider to be executive orders that violate the U.S. Constitution, I still do not believe that they have risen to the point to warrant impeachment)
The U.S. Congress recently took such a step over an official who was denounced by conservatives as an advocate for undocumented persons. Congress passed a bill containing a bar on the use of federal funds to support the work of the “Public Advocate” at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The ban on funding of the controversial positions passed both houses and was signed into law by President Obama. The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2013 stated clearly that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to provide funding for the position for the position of Public Advocate within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” However, the Administration simply gave the same official a new title and continued the same work, unimpeded by the congressional action. There is now an effort to again seek to defund the entire office.
Governors and presidents routinely seek to defund or cut the funding of offices that they view as unnecessary or abusive. It becomes a matter of legislative and executive debate. Ironically, the greatest concern in Perry’s action would be the effective nullification of the underlying laws enforcing public integrity. However, the legislature can cut such budgets and, under the Texas Constitution, governors are allowed to do so as well (while subject to a veto override). Nullification controversies (like the one involving President Obama in areas like immigration) arise when agencies retain both the authority and budgets to enforce the laws. These are difficult questions to be sure but this dispute occurred in the context of the legislative-executive budgetary process.
In the end, I have great reservations over the use of a criminal indictment in a case of this kind. In the very least, this should have been a matter for the use of prosecutorial discretion in declining a criminal case given the vague or inapposite character of the underlying provisions.
What do you think?