Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Saturday that his indictment on abuse-of-power charges is a "farce of a prosecution" and amounts to "partisan political theatrics."
"We don't settle political differences with indictments in this country," the three-term Republican governor said in his first appearance since charged by a grand jury Friday.
Perry is accused of abusing his office by vetoing funds for the Travis County district attorney, a Democrat. A grand jury convened by a special prosecutor handed up the indictment late Friday.
Perry said he blocked the $7.5 million line item because the head of the office, Rosemary Lehmberg, was convicted of drunken driving and refused his calls to step down. Lehmberg also runs the state agency responsible for investigating corruption in state government, and the funding Perry vetoed was specifically for the public integrity unit.
"Just as I have following every legislative session during my service as governor, I exercised this authority to veto funding for an office whose leadership had lost the public's confidence by acting inappropriately and unethically," Perry said.
Whether or not that veto could be a crime is a difficult case to make, and would depend on whether the governor was trying to obstruct a specific investigation into himself or his administration, said David Kwok, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
"This is not clear from the indictment, so I don't have any insight into what the grand jury heard," he said. "This is not a slam dunk case against Gov. Perry."
Perry said he would continue to serve out his final term as governor but did not address his future plans. He was a 2012 candidate for the GOP presidential nomination and has not ruled out a run in 2016.
Perry is the fourth governor with White House ambitions to face legal and ethical problems this year, joining Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York. Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican who also once had higher aspirations, is on trial this month on corruption charges.
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor who studies political scandals, said Perry's troubles don't seem as serious by comparison — but indictments are always dangerous.
"The indictment seems dubious at first glance absent additional evidence, but we should never underestimate the power of criminal charges to taint someone's reputation even if they are ultimately dismissed," he said.
Court proceedings can also turn up additional damaging information. "I doubt it will change the key facts of the case, but you never know what will come out," Nyhan said.
While the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party has called for Perry to step down, national Democrats have been slower to condemn the governor.
"Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy," said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, in a tweet Saturday.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been something of a rival to Perry as the two have jockeyed for influence within Texas and the Republican Party. He defended Perry in a statement Saturday.
"Rick Perry is a friend, he's a man of integrity — I am proud to stand with Rick Perry," Cruz said. "The Texas Constitution gives the governor the power to veto legislation, and a criminal indictment predicated on the exercise of his constitutional authority is, on its face, highly suspect."
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