On April 13, 2013, Rosemary Lehmberg was pulled over for dangerous driving. She was found with an open bottle of vodka in the car, which is against the law, and her blood-alcohol level was .239 percent. (The legal limit is .08 percent. As a rule of thumb, at .1 you’re happy, at .2 you’re drunk, at .3 you’re passed out, and at .4 you’re dead. In other words, to use the technical term, she was blotto.) Taken to the police station, she was abusive and uncooperative to the point of being put in handcuffs and leg irons. She pled guilty to DWI and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and a $4000 fine. She served 20 days. Her license was suspended for 180 days.
This sort of thing happens every night in every city in the country. What made this unusual was that Lehmberg is the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, which is the county where Austin, the state capital, is located. That gives the district attorney of Travis County a lot of power to investigate public corruption. Indeed she heads the state’s Public Corruption unit.
Governor Rick Perry, not unreasonably, thought she had disgraced herself and should resign her office. She refused. To force her out, he threatened to veto the appropriation for the Public Corruption unit and, when she stilled refused, vetoed it.
For this the governor was indicted by a special prosecutor on two felony counts that, in theory, could send him to jail for the rest of his life. He is charged with, “misus[ing] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant’s custody or possession by virtue of the public servant’s office or employment.” According to the special prosecutor, threatening a veto is a “misuse.” Since a veto is neither a person nor a thing, it’s hard to see how this applies.
Further, he is accused of, “influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influenc[ing] or attempt[ing] to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.” The statute excepts, “an official action taken by the member of the governing body.” But, again, the prosecutor argues that while issuing a veto is an official action, threatening to do so is not.”
I imagine every chief executive in the history of the country has, at one time or another threatened a veto in order to get what he or she wanted. That’s called politics. President Obama has threatened a veto dozens of times in his five and half years in office.
This is about as blatantly a political indictment as can be imagined. Jonathan Chait, no fan of Rick Perry, calls it unbelievably ridiculous. Even David Axelrod called the indictment “pretty sketchy.” Indeed the blow back from left, right, and center is so intense that Perry may well be the first public official to actually gain political clout from being indicted.
This is by no means the first time that the Travis County District Attorney has misused his power for political purposes. In 1993, he indicted Kay Bailey Hutchinson, newly elected to the United States Senate, for misuse of her office as Texas State Treasurer. The case collapsed in minutes after the trial began and the judge ordered the jury to find her innocent. In 2005, he indicted U. S. Representative Tom Delay, the majority leader of the House, for misusing campaign funds and money laundering. The judge threw out one charge, but the jury convicted on the other two. Last year, the state appeals court reversed the trial court and acquitted Delay.
Nor is it just Travis County, Texas. The Democratic district attorney of Milwaukee tried to go after Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska had his conviction for bribery overturned after a farrago of misconduct by the prosecutors was revealed. This is part of what Rick Hasen calls, “the criminalization of politics.” It is, to put it mildly, a disturbing trend and a mortal threat to American democracy.”