A Texas judge said Thursday he plans to have a special prosecutor review allegations that Gov. Rick Perry abused the powers of his office and broke the law over a veto that cut funding for state public corruption investigators.
Judge Robert Richardson said he expects to select someone in the coming days to look at a two-page complaint filed by a watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice. The special prosecutor could quickly deem the complaint meritless or decide it warrants further investigation.
Perry’s office denies wrongdoing.
The complaint stems from the April drunken-driving arrest of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, whose office houses the Public Integrity Unit that is the state’s criminal ethics arm. Its high-profile cases include the 2010 prosecution of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and an ongoing investigation into the state’s $3 billion cancer research agency.
Lehmberg pleaded guilty after her arrest and served half of a 45-day jail sentence. But she refused calls from Republicans to resign, including from Perry, who publicly said he would eliminate $3.7 million in annual state funding if she did not step down.
Lehmberg stayed in office, and Perry vetoed the money in June.
In a two-page complaint filed shortly after Perry’s veto, the head of Texans for Public Justice accused Perry of possibly violating laws regarding coercion of a public servant, bribery, abuse of official capacity and official oppression.
“Governor Perry violated the Texas Penal Code by communicating offers and threats under which he would exercise his official discretion to veto the appropriation,” wrote Craig McDonald, the group’s executive director, in the June 26 complaint.
Perry spokesman Josh Havens said Thursday he was not aware of any contact from investigators concerning the veto.
Havens said Perry “exercised his constitutional veto authority through line item vetoes in the budget” as he does each session. He went on to point to Perry’s statement following the veto of the prosecution unit dollars.
“Despite the otherwise good work the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” Perry said.
The appointment of a special prosecutor is less reflective of the allegations’ possible merits than the unique circumstances of the complaint.
The complaint from the Austin-based watchdog group was originally filed with Lehmberg’s office, where investigators would normally review the complaint and determine whether it was worth pursuing. But Lehmberg recused herself and the complaint eventually trickled to Richardson, a former state district judge, who is now finding his own prosecutor to review the complaint.
Following Perry’s v eto, Travis County commissioners originally voted to send layoff notices to nearly three dozen staff members in the public corruption office. They have since approved a reduced budget for the unit that trims the staff cuts to 10.
As part of the reduced budget, the unit will also drop at least 54 of its more than 400 active cases.