A grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on Friday on charges of abuse of power and coercion as part of an ethics inquiry into his veto of funding for the state’s public integrity unit.
The inquiry began last summer after an ethics complaint was filed alleging that Perry had improperly used a veto to deny funding for the unit, which is housed in the Travis County district attorney’s office and focuses on government corruption and tax fraud.
The indictment throws a major wrench in Perry's possible presidential ambitions; he was in Iowa last week and was expected in both New Hampshire and South Carolina in coming weeks. Perry is the first Texas governor to be indicted in almost a century. His office did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Perry had been riding high and making national headlines in recent weeks, railing against the Obama administration for a perceived lack of response to the humanitarian crisis on the Texas-Mexico border, then reallocating funds to send National Guard troops there himself.
Now, he'll be playing defense.
The first count, abuse of official capacity, is a first-degree felony with a potential penalty of five to 99 years in prison. The second count, coercion of a public servant, is a third-degree felony with a penalty of two to 10 years.
Michael McCrum, the special investigator in the case, said he interviewed more than 40 people and reviewed hundreds of documents in the case.
He said that a time would be set up for Perry to come to court, be arraigned and be given official notice of his charges.
After District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg pleaded guilty to drunken driving last year, Perry threatened to withhold $7.5 million in funding over two years for the integrity unit if Lehmberg did not resign.
Lehmberg, a Democrat, served a jail sentence but did not resign. Perry made good on his pledge and vetoed the state budget’s funding line item for the unit. Though Perry has the authority to veto items in the budget, his critics said that this was done expressly for political purposes and is a crime.
That was the rationale used by Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning money-in-politics watchdog group that filed the initial complaint last June. The complaint said Perry was guilty of coercion of a public servant, official oppression and abuse of official capacity.
Perry’s office has repeatedly said that his veto was appropriate and that he violated no laws.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa called on the governor to step down. Perry has "brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas," Hinojosa said in a statement.
The Austin-American Statesman reported in June that Perry would probably not testify before the grand jury, which has been meeting periodically for months, though several staffers from his office and from Travis County testified.
Last August, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to provide some of the funding to the public integrity unit.
Lehmberg declined to comment on the indictments.
Jay Root and Terri Langford contributed reporting.