Rick Perry's Legal Trouble: The Line Between Influence And Coercion The Texas governor is charged with abuse of office and coercing a public official, but he claims he was just doing what governors do: Vetoing a budget item.
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Rick Perry's Legal Trouble: The Line Between Influence And Coercion

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Rick Perry's Legal Trouble: The Line Between Influence And Coercion

Rick Perry's Legal Trouble: The Line Between Influence And Coercion

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has pushed back against allegations that he misused the power of his office. Mr. Perry's been indicted on charges that he tried to pressure the Austin district attorney into resigning by threatening to veto some of her office's funding if she did not resign after being arrested for drunk driving. The governor says that under state law he can veto what he wants to. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports on whether the charges will hold up.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The day he was booked, Rick Perry gave a big smile for his mug shot, which was then printed up on T-shirts to demonstrate just what a farce the indictment was. In a press conference, the scorn dripped from Perry's voice as he took up the sword, defender not of himself, but of the state's Constitution.

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GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: We don't settle political differences with indictments in this country. It is outrageous that some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state's Constitution.

GOODWYN: Perry has fired up his base, but like it or not, his future will be decided not in the court of public opinion but inside the Texas legal system. So after an initial weeklong artillery volley, Tony Buzbee, Perry's lead lawyer, is taking a softer tone.

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TONY BUZBEE: You know, I think that we're taking it seriously and we're going to defend it in court. We're going to be careful about not attempting to try the case in the press. But it think it raises very serious constitutional issues. It raises issues with regard to the constitutional right of the governor to veto legislation.

GOODWYN: The case revolves around Perry's attempt to oust the Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she had an embarrassing drunk driving conviction. At the time, Lehmberg's public integrity unit was in the middle of a corruption investigation involving a state agency near to Perry's heart. The Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas hands out billions of dollars in state grants to recruit cancer research and biotech companies to Texas. But the agency was accused of doling out grants to companies whose owners were better known for giving campaign contributions to Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. And that's why when Perry said he'd veto the public integrity unit's budget if Lehmberg didn't resign immediately, it raised a few eyebrows - after all, the governor would have picked a replacement. And so it all played out. Limburg did refuse to resign and Rick Perry did veto her budget. And those are the actions that brought the indictment - coercion of a public official. But the governor's lawyers argue it doesn't matter what Perry threatened or when he threatened it. If he wants to veto the PIU's budget, that's it. He gets to. Its an appropriation. He's the governor. Tony Buzbee.

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BUZBEE: To suggest that if he says something before the veto versus after it, that that's coercion is criminalizing something that the governor is frankly required to do under the Constitution.

GOODWYN: Where do you draw the line between permissible influence and illegal coercion of a public official? Is there one? Retired State Judge John Creuzot believes there is a line and that Perry may have crossed it when he both made his veto threats to Rosemary Lehmberg and then carried them out.

JOHN CREUZOT: For example, had he never said anything at all about her, about her DWI, and just vetoed that particular legislation for the funds, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation right now.

GOODWYN: For Creuzot, Perry's threat raises the question of coercion, not that it necessarily was, but Creuzot thinks a Texas jury should hear the case. But over at SMU, criminal law professor Chris Jenks thinks there's a chance the case may never even get to trial.

CHRIS JENKS: I believe that a Texas court likely wants nothing to do with this case for a variety of reasons. This case represents separation of powers issues. I do think there are both free speech and a constitutionally overbroad statute.

GOODWYN: Earlier this week, lawyers for the governor filed a writ arguing the charges are unconstitutional and asking for them to be dismissed. A judge is expected to rule on that application in the next few weeks. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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