Scandals involving governors usually have a bit more meat to them than the one going down in Texas right now.
In Illinois in 2010, former Governor Rod Blagojevich was caught on wiretaps trying to use a vacant U.S. Senate seat for personal gain. He’s now serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. Right now in Virginia, former Governor Bob McDonnell is facing federal charges of corruption for allegedly taking illegal gifts and loans from the CEO of a dietary supplements company. But with the felony charges against Texas Governor Rick Perry, there’s very little the public knows yet, and that’s led to some confusion.
The alleged offenses by the Governor are less familiar to most of us than the usual political corruption charges like extortion or bribery. And we still don’t know what evidence the grand jury heard that led them to believe there is probable cause for the felony charges, although the special prosecutor who brought them says there were dozens of interviews, hundreds of documents, and a thorough review of the law.
At issue is whether or not Perry violated state law last summer by threatening to (and following through with) a veto of state funding for the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates political corruption and ethics violations in Texas, unless Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resigned in the wake of a drunk driving arrest earlier that year. (Read more on the background behind the charges here.)
So, let’s take a look at what the charges are. They’re part of the Texas Penal Code, one of many state laws overseen (and from time to time, amended) by the state legislature. Both of the charges against Perry come from the ‘Offenses Against Public Administration’ parts of the law
Abuse of Official Capacity
The first, and most significant, charge against the Governor is a first-degree felony for “intentionally or knowingly” misusing government property. In this case, that property is funding for the Public Integrity Unit, which is run by the Travis County District Attorney's office, which Lehmberg heads. The charge carries a sentence of five to 99 years and comes from section 39.02 of the code:
“A public servant commits an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another, he intentionally or knowingly … misuses government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant's custody or possession by virtue of the public servant's office or employment.”
In this case, the offense is being charged as a first-degree felony, because it deals with an amount of more than $200,000. The amount of state funding for the Public Integrity Unit that was vetoed was $7.5 million. If the amount had been under $200,000, it would have been a second-degree felony or lower. If, say, the Public Integrity Unit had a budget of under $500 subject to Perry’s veto, he could only be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.
Coercion of Public Servant
The other charge against Perry, a third-degree felony, is for coercion. That comes from section 36.03 of the code:
“A person commits an offense if by means of coercion he influences or attempts to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influences or attempts to influence a public servant to violate the public servant's known legal duty.”
Normally, this is a misdemeanor, unless “the coercion is a threat to commit a felony,” the code states, which would make it a third-degree felony offense in this case. The public servant Perry allegedly attempted to influence was District Attorney Lehmberg.
The influence? The veto of funding for the Public Integrity Unit. It carries a sentence of two to 10 years.
These two offenses, the charges say, were committed by Perry “against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas.” Perry's team of lawyers beg to differ. At a press conference this afternoon, Perry's attorney Tony Buzbee said the charges amount to "an outrageous assault on the rule of law." The team of lawyers stressed Perry acted within the law and his first amendment rights. Perry's defense will be paid for -- at least in part -- with state money, according to Buzbee.
The evidence for these charges remains to be seen by the public; if all of this ends up in a trial, you can expect to hear it then.