Rich Lowry: Free Rick Perry

It tells you much about the laughable indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry that it has made him a figure of bipartisan sympathy.

Perry was indicted last week for the offense of vetoing an appropriations bill. Not vetoing an appropriations bill in exchange for a bribe. Not vetoing an appropriations bill as a favor to a donor. Not vetoing an appropriations bill in excess of his lawful authority. But simply vetoing an appropriations bill.

That Perry could, in theory, face more than 100 years in prison stemming from this veto is so mind-bogglingly stupid that even Democrats and mainstream journalists have been taken aback.

The whole matter has its roots in the drunken-driving arrest last year of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat. Police pulled her over for driving erratically. Video of the stop shows Lehmberg failing all manner of roadside tests, and nearly tipping over as the polite officers try to keep her upright.

By the time she’s at the jail, she’s a parody of an entitled public figure. She blusters. She whines. She belittles. She threatens. She kicks and bangs. Her behavior is so outrageous that she has to be restrained like Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Her blood alcohol level was about three times the legal limit, and she ended up pleading guilty and serving jail time. Gov. Perry thought, not unreasonably, that Lehmberg should resign. Her office houses the state’s Public Integrity Unit, and she no longer seemed a fit leader of it, for obvious reasons.

Lehmberg disagreed. This created what is known in America and other free societies as a political dispute. They happen all the time. Lehmberg exercised her power to stay in her position, and Perry exercised his power to veto funding for her Public Integrity Office as long as she did. You can disagree with one or both of them, but no one was committing a crime.

It was left to a special prosecutor of the very same Travis County District Attorney’s Office to concoct one, and manage to get a grand jury to fall for it. The indictment — running barely two pages long — is as substantive as a fifth-grader’s book report, and about as legally sophisticated.

The two counts against Perry are that he “misused government property” and engaged in the “coercion” of a public servant. This makes it sound like he used the $7.5 million of vetoed funds to buy a vacation house, and blackmailed Lehmberg into indicting people on his whim.

He, of course, did nothing of the kind. The indictment collapses under the slightest scrutiny. As legal blogger Eugene Volokh points out of the first count, Texas laws requires that the official be in possession of the misused funds. Perry never controlled the funds he vetoed. As for the second count, Volokh points to an appeals-court decision that held that “coercion of a lawful act by a threat of lawful action is protected free expression.”

The Travis County special prosecutor must think he’s witnessing the political equivalent of an episode of “The Sopranos” every time he hears news that the president of the United States has made a “veto threat.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone thinks that these charges will stand up in court. But that’s not the point. The indictment is an undisguised attempt to wound Perry, to create bad headlines, to distract him. On cue, Texas Democrats absurdly called on Perry to resign. The indictment itself is, in short, a naked abuse of power.

The Travis County District Attorney’s Office is infamous for this kind of thing. Lehmberg’s predecessor, Ronnie Earle, launched failed prosecutions of Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison and Tom DeLay. These acts were as blatantly partisan and as audaciously substanceless as the indictment of Rick Perry.

Forget vetoing funding for this office. If there were any justice, it would be shuttered and razed to the ground.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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