By PAUL J. WEBER
(AUSTIN, Texas, AP) — In the week since he was indicted for abuse of power and public coercion, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his supporters have insisted the charges against the Republican governor are politically motivated. Perry has pleaded not guilty and continues to campaign in advance of the 2016 presidential race.
As Perry heads to New Hampshire for the weekend, here are five things to know about his case:
THE PUBLIC INTEGRITY UNIT
The indictments stem from Perry’s veto last year of $7.5 million in funding for the unit responsible for investigating public corruption in Texas. The Public Integrity Unit is part of the Travis County district attorney’s office, which is headed by a Democrat, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.
Lehmberg was arrested in 2013 for drunken driving. Perry insisted she resign because she had lost the public’s confidence. When she refused, Perry made good on a threat to cut off the only funding to her office that was within his power to veto: funding for the ethics unit.
The veto forced the unit to lose about a third of its staff. But county government officials made up some of the difference to keep the office running.
THE CANCER-FIGHTING AGENCY
Perry’s veto came as the ethics unit was investigating alleged corruption involving one of the governor’s key projects, a $3 billion taxpayer-supported effort to find a cure for cancer.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, known as CPRIT, quickly unraveled following revelations that some lucrative contracts were awarded without proper scrutiny and oversight. The biggest was an $11 million award to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, which is backed by Perry donors.
The agency’s top three officials resigned in 2012, and one was later indicted on felony corruption charges. On Thursday, Perry’s lawyers produced an affidavit from a former Public Integrity Unit investigator, Chris Walling, who stated that neither Perry nor anyone in the governor’s office was a target of that investigation.
Austin is a liberal bastion in an otherwise fiercely conservative Texas, which gives Democrats a big edge for the elected office of Travis County district attorney. That has long fueled accusations among Republicans that the ethics unit within the DA’s office has a vendetta against conservatives.
Republicans have certainly been the biggest names ensnared by the unit: former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and now Perry. Hutchison was acquitted and DeLay was convicted, though he later won on appeal.
But Democrats have also run afoul of the unit: In 2010, a popular Democratic state lawmaker was convicted on charges of records tampering and perjury.
IT’S ALL POLITICS?
Perry has rebuked the indictment as grandstanding politics, saying “we don’t settle political differences with indictments in this country.” He said his detractors are trying to do in court what they could never do at the ballot box in his record 14 years as Texas governor.
But the case against Perry wouldn’t have reached a grand jury had it not been for Republican Judge Bert Richardson, who assigned a special prosecutor, Michael McCrum, to investigate the original complaint filed by a left-leaning group. It’s McCrum — and not Lehmberg or anyone in Travis County — who is pursuing the case against Perry. McCrum, who garnered support from both Republicans and Democrats when he was nominated for a U.S. attorney post in 2009, has refused to discuss specifics of the case but insists that it’s stronger than might outwardly appear.
What evidence investigators have against Perry remains the big question. McCrum interviewed more than 40 witnesses and called several top Perry aides to testify before the grand jury. Perry did not appear.
Perry’s attorneys said Thursday that McCrum has yet to turn over evidence he presented to the grand jury. Neither McCrum nor grand jurors have disclosed what was presented behind closed doors. But four grand jurors, in interviews with The Houston Chronicle this week, defended their decision to indict and denied politics played any role.
Most legal experts say proving that Perry broke the law by invoking his right to veto will be difficult. No one disputes that Perry has the right to exercise vetoes, but the issue is whether his public threat to do so beforehand constituted coercion by trying to force a public official to step down.
If convicted on the two felony charges, Perry could face a maximum 109 years in prison.
Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report.
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