Aug. 18, 2014 – A Travis County grand jury Friday indicted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts of abuse of power. Perry threatened to veto state funding for a Public Integrity Unit overseen by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg unless she resigned following a very public DWI arrest. She refused to resign, pled guilty, served jail time, and Perry carried through on his threat to block funding. At the time of her arrest, the integrity unit was investigating a cancer research institute backed by the governor. University of Houston Law Center Assistant Professor David Kwok, who teaches in the areas of public policy, white collar crime, and law and the social sciences, answered questions about the indictment.
Q.) What does the grand jury indictment against Governor Perry allege?
He has been indicted under Texas Penal Code Sec. 39.02, Abuse of official capacity by intentionally or knowingly misusing government property in the form of funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office, and TPC section 36.03, Coercion of public servant, by intentionally or knowingly influencing or attempting to influence Rosemary Lehmberg, District Attorney for Travis County.
Q.) What will prosecutors have to prove to win their case?
The law in this area is unclear. Most references to abuse or corruption are relatively stark cases. For example, a public official using government funds to purchase himself a vacation home would be a clear abuse, as would a business owner paying a bribe to obtain a business license to which he was not otherwise entitled. The key for these cases is often illegitimate private personal benefit. If the prosecution can show that a sitting governor attempted to benefit himself by interfering with a legitimate investigation into his activities, the case is much stronger.
Q.) What is the likelihood of a conviction?
The indictment is relatively light on facts, so the likelihood of conviction is also unclear. As part of democratic governance, publicly elected officials make trades on voters’ behalf. Thus, a legislator might agree to fund a particular county project conditioned on another legislator’s reciprocal vote for funding. This type of “horse trading” is not criminal use of official capacity, although some might decry it as “pork barrel” politics. It remains to be seen whether the facts of this case look more like legitimate behavior or abusive behavior.
Q.) How unusual is this type of case?
Corruption cases are unfortunately not uncommon, but until more facts are revealed, it is difficult to know whether there was run of the mill corruption or whether this is a more unusual situation of prosecution for possibly legitimate political activity.