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Behind the indictment: Did Texas Gov. Rick Perry abuse the power of his office?

August 16, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
One day after a grand jury indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts, charging that he abused the power of his office last year, questions remain about the governor's actions and what comes next. Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper joins Hari Sreenivasan from Austin.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: “The first governor in Texas to be indicted in 100 years.” Those were some of the headlines late last night about Gov. Rick Perry, and what a grand jury says was his abuse of power.

To explain what’s behind it all is Tony Plohetski from the Austin American-Statesman. So let’s talk about the incident in question: What is it that Rick Perry allegedly did, that was an abuse of his power?

TONY PLOHETSKI: Well, it all started more than year ago in April 2013. The sitting district attorney here in Travis County, Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested and charged with drunk driving.

Two months after that while the legislature was finishing their session, Gov. Rick Perry was about to sign the state’s budget. And during that time he is accused of sending word to District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg: “Resign or I am going to veto an item in the state budget to withhold $7.2 million in funding to your office.”

Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney, is a Democrat. Rick Perry is, of course, a Republican.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So why is that an abuse of power? Is that not within his rights as a governor – to veto items from the budget?

TONY PLOHETSKI: Well, that is the key question here. The governor’s camp steadfastly says, “Listen, the governor was doing just that. He was exercising his line-item veto authority.

But what the prosecution and these grand jurors essentially have said is, “Well, yes, Gov., you may have been doing that, but you also attached a threat to it. So that changes the dynamic.

Yes, you may have legally used your veto authority, but potentially, you did something illegal by attaching a threat to that veto authority.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And none of this happens in a political vacuum. There are Republicans that say the public integrity unit that was underneath this prosecutor went after Republicans far more aggressively than it did Democrats.

TONY PLOHETSKI: Right, that is a decades-long, you know, dispute between Republicans and the Democratic Party. The DA’s office here in Travis County operates the public integrity unit.

The money the governor vetoed was earmarked for that unit. That unit is tasked with investigating state ethics violations among all state officials. Their jurisdiction is not just Travis County.

And so for years, Republicans have alleged that the DA’s office is going after Republicans and their party. The DA’s office here has been led by Democrats for decades.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, so what happens next in the legal process for the governor. What does the governor’s office do about it?

TONY PLOHETSKI: Well, sometime during the next several days, Gov. Rick Perry is expected to come to the Travis County courthouse and turn himself in, just like any other indicted criminal defendant. He will be fingerprinted, he will have his mug shot taken, and then released on a bond.

He will have to at some point, though, answer for these charges, potentially in court.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Tony Plohetski from the Austin American-Statesman, thank you for joining us today.

TONY PLOHETSKI: Thanks for having me.