WASHINGTON - Criminal charges usually cripple or kill the future ambitions of an American politician. But that's far from certain with Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas and a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
His fellow Republicans are circling the wagons around Perry, outraged at allegations he broke the law by trying to force the resignation of an elected Democratic prosecutor who had been arrested for drunken driving and videotaped in a rant against her jailers.
And Perry has barely broken stride as he plans to test the political waters in three key states in the next two weeks, trying to rally conservatives by claiming to be a victim of government overreach. The charges have further raised the political heat in the state where the governorship, all House of Representative slots and one of two Senate seats will be decided in the November midterm election. Perry is the longest-serving governor in state history and plans to complete his third and final term in January as planned.
On Monday, Judge Bert Richardson, who is overseeing the case, cleared the way for those travels, deciding that Perry would not be arrested but instead will be issue a summons to appear. The court papers will not be issued until Perry's lawyer and state officials meet to decide when Perry will have to appear in court. That likely will allow the high profile Texas chief executive to negotiate the court appearance date to fit his schedule.
Perry has called the criminal charges "outrageous," and vigorously challenged them as politically motivated in Sunday appearance on conservative Fox News television.
"Across the board you're seeing people weigh in and reflecting that this is way outside of the norm. This is not the way that we settle differences, political differences in this country," Perry said Sunday on Fox News. "You don't do it with indictments. We settle our political differences at the ballot box."
A Travis County grand jury on Friday indicted Perry on two criminal charges for carrying out a threat to veto funds to state's Public Integrity Unit that is under the oversight of Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, the elected Democrat who was convicted of drunken driving. She was videotaped in a holding cell kicking the door, yelling for officials to call police higher-ups and finally being strapped to a restraining chair.
The Travis county seat is Austin, which is also the capital of Texas. County district attorneys oversee criminal prosecutions in their jurisdictions.
Perry had vetoed the funds after Lehmberg refused his demand she resign after her arrest and conviction. The 2013 veto prompted the criminal investigation. Perry said he had lost confidence in the prosecutor and had been clear about his intentions to veto the funding. The governor said Sunday that the indictment reflected a larger problem of government agencies not following the rule of law, pointing to the Internal Revenue Service scandal in Washington, where Republicans charge the taxing agency discriminated against non-profit status for their fundraising groups, and concerns about National Security Agency surveillance.
"This is nothing more than banana republic politics," Tony Buzbee a Houston-based defence attorney who will head a cadre of four lawyers from Texas and Washington defending Perry, said at a news conference. "The charges lobbed against the governor are a really nasty attack not only on the rule of law but on the Constitution of the United States, the state of Texas and also the fundamental constitutional protections that we all enjoy."
A summons was being prepared to hold Perry's arraignment — a court appearance to answer the charges — on Aug. 29 at 9 a.m., according to the Travis County District Clerk's Office. But Perry spokesman Felix Browne said Monday evening that date had not been confirmed, adding that the governor wouldn't need to appear personally at the arraignment. Perry would appear personally at his booking.
Perry is the first Texas governor since 1917 to be indicted — the formal issuance of criminal charges by a grand jury, a citizens panel that decides if a prosecutor has sufficient evidence to prosecute. The charges came as he has sought to reintroduce himself to Republican leaders and rank-and-file party members eager to win back the White House. Several stumbles during his presidential bid in 2012 led to his early departure from the race.
Perry was an early favourite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2010, but faded quickly after embarrassing performances on the campaign trail and in candidate debates.
Perry's veto cut $7.5 million in funding to the state's ethics watchdog which is housed in the Travis county district attorney's office. A state judge assigned a special prosecutor to investigate the veto after a complaint filed by a left-leaning watchdog group, which accused Perry of trying to leverage his power to force the resignation of Lehmberg. Austin is a liberal haven in the mostly conservative state. Voters in the county reliably elect a Democrat to serve as district attorney.
Some political observers think the indictment could work in Perry's favour.
"I do think there's the potential for it to boomerang. If you overplay your hand on things like this, it can make you look mean-spirited," said James Riddlesperger, professor at Texas Christian University and a close observer of state politics.
He recalled the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and criminal charges against retired Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Both saw their popularity climb after their brush with the law.
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