Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted on Friday by a grand jury in Texas on two counts of abuse of power and coercion over a funding veto he made last year that was seen as being intended to force a local prosecutor to resign.
Perry, seen as a possible Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential race, was charged with abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony, and coercion of a public official, a misdemeanor, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
A probe was launched last year when Perry tried to veto $7.5 million in funding for an integrity unit that is part of the Travis County District Attorney's office. The move was seen as trying to force out county District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she pleaded guilty to drunken driving.
Lehmberg served a jail sentence but refused to quit and Perry followed through on his threat cutting the funding for her office. Lehmberg, a Democrat, had long been a target of Republicans, who accused her of partisanship in her oversight of the state government, which is controlled entirely by GOP lawmakers.
The indictment said Perry, "with intent to harm another, to-wit, Rosemary Lehmberg and the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney's Office, intentionally or knowingly misused government property."
Perry's General Counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, said the veto was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution.
"We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail," Wiley said in a statement.
Aides to Perry said he properly exercised his authority as chief executive. But a government watchdog group filed a complaint that resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Special prosecutor Michael McCrum said a conviction on the first-degree felony charge could bring between 5 to 99 years in prison. Perry will be arraigned next week, he added.
"The grand jury has spoken that there is probable cause to believe that he committed at least two felony crimes," McCrum told reporters.
Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist, said the case against Perry appears shaky.
"I don't think there is any real hope of actually obtaining a conviction," Jones said. "I think it is more of a political inconvenience."
But because of the Travis County's history of tussling with Republicans, Jones said, it may not damage Perry's standing with the conservative activists he has been courting ahead of 2016.
"Certainly being indicted is not good, but if you are going to be indicted, being indicted by a jury in Texas's most liberal county for attempting to obtain the resignation of a Democratic district attorney [who was arrested for drunken driving] is perhaps not the worst thing in the world, especially in the Republican primary," he said.
Republicans have long charged that they have been targeted by the Public Integrity Unit, which is in the solidly Democratic Travis County, where left-leaning Austin is the main city. The unit has investigated prominent Republicans including former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom Delay.
Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, had already announced plans to step aside in January 2015 and has been traveling to Republican battleground states and party gatherings in what analysts said were visits that have helped him scout the political landscape for a possible presidential run.
The indictment, regardless of the case's outcome, is not likely to help. Perry's first run for the presidency, in 2012, ended in ignominy as he stumbled badly in debates.
Reuters, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this reportCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun