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By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s legal team on Thursday stepped up its aggressive strategy to fight two felony charges against him, arguing that Democrats were floating a “red herring” by suggesting that Perry was motivated to veto funding for a Texas public integrity unit because the office was investigating one of his pet projects.

Perry’s legal battle is complex, but basically it amounts to this: The Democratic Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, had an ugly, videotaped confrontation with police when she was arrested last year on drunken-driving charges. Lehmberg oversees the county’s Office of Public Integrity, which has statewide jurisdiction. Perry threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the unit, which investigates public officials, unless she stepped down.

Lehmberg refused and Perry followed through on his veto threat. That led a government watchdog group to file a complaint against Perry alleging improper intimidation. After being indicted by a grand jury Friday, Perry and his allies framed the legal drama as a political persecution that amounted to an attack on the U.S. system of government.

But Perry’s opponents have alleged that he had other motives to target the public integrity unit beyond Lehmberg’s conduct — namely that the office was conducting an investigation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Questions had been percolating about the funding of the institute, which is known as CPRIT, and how money was being distributed to some of the governor’s allies.

But on Thursday, two of Perry’s lawyers, Tony Buzbee and Ben Ginsberg, dismissed the questions about the institute as a political diversion being pushed by Democrats.

“The CPRIT issue is a red herring that the Democrats are trying to make float upstream,” Ginsberg said on a call with reporters. “This thin indictment really falls apart without them being able to float this unsubstantiated rumor.”

Perry’s lawyers produced an affidavit by Chris Walling, who was a criminal investigator with the public integrity unit. He said he was at one time the primary investigator for the probe into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

In the affidavit, Walling said that Perry and other aides in the governor’s office had never been a target of the investigation. “At no time did I ever obtain evidence that suggested any wrongdoing on behalf of Gov. Perry or the Governor’s office,” Walling said in the affidavit provided by Perry’s lawyers. “Any suggestion that Governor Rick Perry or anyone associated with him was being investigated is untrue.”

But questions about Perry’s feud with Lehmberg and the office have persisted. On Tuesday, Dallas Morning News reporter Christy Hoppe detailed how Perry did not speak out against two other district attorneys who faced drunken-driving charges under similar circumstances. Both were Republicans.

“This case will be decided by facts not spin,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said of the assertions by Perry’s lawyers. “The fact is Perry will have his day in court. When that day comes we look forward to seeing the evidence that convinced a jury of Gov. Perry’s peers to indict on two felony charges.”

Earlier this week, the Texas governor appeared at the criminal justice center in Austin to be booked after a grand jury indicted him on charges of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. The formal proceeding — where he was photographed and fingerprinted — took on the air of a campaign rally as he vowed to fight the charges against him “with every fiber of my being.”

He said the actions that he took were “lawful and legal,” and that he was entering the courthouse with his head high.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

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