By Wayne Slater and Marissa Barnett, The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Governor Rick Perry struck a tight smile for his mug shot Tuesday and issued a spirited defense against charges of abusing his power, vowing “to fight this injustice with every fiber of my being.”
“The actions I took were lawful, they were legal and they were proper,” he told supporters outside the Travis County Courthouse, where he was fingerprinted and his booking photo was taken.
Perry said he faces the charges with his “head held high” and vowed, “We will prevail.” Supporters and members of his staff chanted, “Perry! Perry! Perry!” Detractors in the crowd waved placards, one of which said, “Nice mug shot, criminal.”
The Republican governor was indicted Friday on two felony counts of coercion and abuse of power. He is accused of threatening to veto $7.5 million for the state public integrity unit run by the Travis County district attorney’s office and trying to push District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to leave office after a drunken-driving conviction.
When Lehmberg refused to resign, Perry vetoed the funding for the office, which investigates state officials. A liberal group filed an ethics complaint alleging he had abused his authority by trying to force an elected county official from office rather than let local voters deal with the matter.
Perry has dismissed the indictment as political reprisal by Democrats. A Republican state district judge appointed a special prosecutor to direct a grand jury inquiry. The special prosecutor, Mike McCrum, is a San Antonio lawyer who was a federal prosecutor in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
“It is our system of constitutional checks and balances that is being challenged here today,” Perry said outside the courthouse. “This prosecution would seek to erode the power of all Texas governors, Republicans and Democrats, to veto legislation and funding they deem proper.”
Perry made brief comments before going into the courthouse and upon leaving. He took no questions.
The indictment is the first of a Texas governor in nearly 100 years. It also poses an obstacle for Perry, who has an extensive travel schedule ahead to presidential primary states as he considers another run for the White House in 2016.
Perry faces felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Maximum punishment on the first charge is five to 99 years in prison. The second is two to ten years.
Perry showed up for his booking in a black suit, white shirt and blue tie. He removed his signature black glasses for the mug shot, as county rules require.
Offering an early outline of his legal defense, Perry called the indictment “a chilling restraint on the right of free speech” and said everything he did was legal because the governor has authority to veto funding for any reason.
Outside the courthouse, state GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri denounced the charges as partisan dirty tricks.
“The governor has the absolute right to appropriations,” Munisteri said. “The only conclusion you can draw is that this was politically motivated.”
Jan Soifer, chairwoman of the Travis County Democratic Party, accused Perry of committing a crime by trying to remove a public official through coercion.
“His attempts to spin this back as being either political or something about the district or something about the veto are fascinating political spin, but not an accurate view of what happened, which was that the governor abused his power,” she said.
One man in the crowd shouted “President Perry,” a reference to the governor’s anticipated second presidential bid. He plans this weekend to visit New Hampshire, a key early-voting state in the nominating contest.
Photo: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/MCT