Things had been going so well for James Richard “Rick” Perry, of late the governor of the great state of Texas. Over the course of the border crisis, he’s striven—with some success—to remake himself as a serious, thoughtful presidential contender. But all good things must come to an end. Today, Perry found himself indicted by an Austin grand jury for two felonies: abuse of official capacity, and coercion of a public official.
The charges come as a result of a long-running power struggle involving Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. A Democrat, Lehmberg runs the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates public corruption and is a thorn in the side of some state elected officials. In April 2013, Lehmberg caught a DWI, and Perry’s office tried to muscle her out. It looked improper, especially because Lehmberg was in the middle of an investigation into the state’s crooked cancer research institute. (A much more in-depth explanation of the episode can be found here.)
Special Prosecutor Michael McCrum kept mostly mum after announcing the charges; he’ll be meeting with Perry’s legal team on Monday to work out how the case will be handled. Perry hadn’t been subpoenaed, and McCrum wouldn’t say if he had refused to testify voluntarily. He wouldn’t comment on a possible venue change. (It’s thought that Perry’s team might want to try the case outside of Austin.)
Shortly after McCrum announced the indictments, Perry’s General Counsel Mary Anne Wiley released a statement calling Perry’s actions legal: “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.”
There will be political as well as legal consequences. The latter may weigh on Perry’s mind more heavily now. Abuse of official capacity carries a possible prison term of 5 to 99 years, while coercion of a public official carries a possible term of 2 to 10.
But the political fallout is serious, too, especially given the timing. Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) quickly called for Perry to step down. The Texas Democratic Party did the same. Others will follow. This could spell the end of Perry’s presidential ambitions, though some of his fellow contenders for the GOP nomination are also damaged—Scott Walker and Chris Christie have their own ethics problems. Perry’s the longest-serving governor in Texas history, and he’s had free rein to control the state for a long, long time. It’s wholly remarkable to think that his tenure as governor could be consumed by this cloud.