by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The news of the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry late Friday thrilled many of his critics around the country, but it perplexed anyone who actually read the indictment. The charges against Perry, who was scheduled to be booked on Tuesday, stem from his carrying out a threat to veto the funding of a “public integrity” office after its chief prosecutor was incarcerated. How a seemingly political act became an alleged criminal offense is a Texas tale more twisted than the Brazos. …
… The indictment in Texas v. Perry is based on two state laws, including one that is maddeningly vague and another that has little applicability to this type of circumstance. The charge, Abuse of Official Capacity, refers to public servants who “intentionally or knowingly” misuse government property or services or personnel. It is a provision that would be more fitting if Perry used the $7.5 million for a romp in Vegas. The state provision is incredibly ambiguous, and there is no direct precedent for its use in this type of case. Indeed, such vague provisions are often passed because most prosecutors practice discretion and restraint — both of which was missing here.
The second count refers to attempting to influence “a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty.” The “specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance” in this case would be the resignation from office. That is obviously not the intent or purpose of this law.
Perry made this threat publicly. He was using (unwisely) the threat of a budget cut to deal with someone that he (wisely) viewed as a disgrace to her office. There is no precedent directly supporting this charge against Perry, but at least one case seems to contradict it. In 1990, a Texas appellate court ruled that a threat of a lawful action cannot constitute coercion of a public official. Perry is allowed under the Texas Constitution to veto a budget item, and the legislature may override him. Indeed, most of this case turns not on the vetoing of the appropriations line, but threatening to do so in advance. Had he simply cut the funding with little more than a smirk, he would have presumably been free and clear.
When you decide to criminally charge a governor in a case with serious constitutional implications, you should have strong facts and clearly applicable law. Few people (including Perry) would have been put on notice that such laws could be used to criminalize this political dispute. Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor handling the case, had to pound very hard to get these square facts into round holes. A bit too hard.