Last night brought new developments in the investigation into Rick Perry’s meddling in the affairs of the Travis County district attorney’s office. County officials revealed that Perry’s office was trying to dislodge Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg even after his veto stripped her office of funding. That seemingly strengthens the case against the governor currently being considered by a grand jury.
We know that Perry last spring had threatened to (and later did) veto funding for the Travis County DA’s anti-corruption unit unless Lehmberg resigned following a DWI arrest. But now we know that wasn’t the end of it. (If you haven’t been following the investigation, read this explainer I posted last week.)
First, the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford got confirmation from Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe that the governor’s office had reached out to certain Travis County officials to make explicit an offer that the governor would restore funding to the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit, which he had previously vetoed, if Lehmberg resigned. That would’ve allowed Perry to appoint her replacement. Shortly after that story broke, the San Antonio Express-News’ Nolan Hicks got Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican on the five-member Travis County Commissioners Court, to say the same.
We knew that Perry had tied Lehmberg’s resignation to the cut in funding before his veto, but now we know that he reportedly did so after the veto as well. The essence of the thing is the same—if the latter is illegal, it’s hard to see how the former could be legal—but the optics are worse. In effect, he offered to provide funds to a local government body if its leader quit, and his office made the unwise decision to make clear it was a quid pro quo.
In short, this thing—Perry-gate? Lehmberg-gate? Vodka-gate?—is growing legs. “This isn’t really news to us, but we’d never seen anyone go on record,” said Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, who filed the complaints that resulted in the grand jury investigation.
The new revelations make it clear Perry “continued to meddle in local affairs after the veto,” McDonald said. “After the veto, he continued to offer things to make her step down.”
That’s important because Perry’s spokespeople have stated repeatedly that the governor did nothing wrong, that he was simply acting in accordance with his constitutionally granted veto power.
But if Perry’s office made the money-for-resignation offer again weeks after the veto, that blows a major hole in the governor’s public defense so far.
“That certainly strengthens the case for bribery,” McDonald said.
The charges that the Austin grand jury are considering against Perry include bribery, which, under the Texas Penal Code, involves accepting or offering to provide any “benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision [...] or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter.”
It is “no defense to prosecution under this section that the benefit is not offered or conferred,” the code continues, until after “the public servant ceases to be a public servant.”
The Tribune reported that Perry’s second offer was communicated by intermediaries to Lehmberg, who “rejected the proposal outright because of concerns that such an offer may be illegal,” presumably because of fears she’d be violating this exact statute. (And presumably because she’d rather keep her job.)
In the report, we also see some of the outlines of the governor’s defense strategy forming. Perry’s spokesperson Lucy Nashed told the Tribune that “neither the governor nor any member of staff met with or spoke with Ms. Lehmberg.” Between the lines, the suggestion is the fact that Perry’s threat came through intermediaries insulates him from criminal charges.