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Lone Star Project Report

Can Rick Perry charge taxpayers for his criminal defense?

Threats to Travis County DA could be Perry's (and Abbott’s) undoing

News that Rick Perry has retained a high profile criminal defense attorney is a clear signal that he knows he’s in serious trouble.

Largely overlooked is that Perry is using taxpayer money to pay for his high-priced attorney. If Perry is ultimately indicted by the Travis County grand jury currently looking into his improper actions, his legal fees could easily climb into the millions.

And ordinary Texans will be paying his bills.

Is it even legal for Perry to charge taxpayers for his personal criminal defense? Did the Governor get the go-ahead to do this from Attorney General Greg Abbott? If so, under what authority did Abbott give Perry permission to spend taxpayer dollars on his personal defense?

Here’s why Perry is in serious trouble

Back during the 2013 legislative session, Rick Perry acted like he was invincible. Despite his failed 2012 presidential campaign, Rick Perry was still riding high among powerful Austin insiders. Over the years, he'd appointed allies to virtually every significant agency and board position and he had the support of Tea Party activists who had become the strongest wing of the Texas GOP. State House and Senate Republicans pushed forward his agenda and whatever passed that Perry didn't like—he simply vetoed.

In one instance, though, he did more than just veto an appropriation—he tried to take control of the investigative body tasked with looking into corruption by state elected officials—like Rick Perry.

Standing between Perry and control of the Texas Public Integrity Unit was Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg.

What improper actions did Perry take?

Perry saw his opening when Lehmberg was arrested for a DWI. Just months after her arrest, Perry publicly threatened to withhold state funding for the Public Integrity Unit unless Lehmberg resigned. If she resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor.

When she refused, Perry carried out his threat and cut $7.5 million in state funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

Perry has reason to be concerned about what the state's public corruption unit was looking into — especially the ongoing investigation into corruption at the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

There, cronies of both Rick Perry and Greg Abbott had been given millions in grant money without ever having to meet suitable grant standards.

Perry’s veto of funding for the investigation into CPRIT, combined with meetings and messages and other communications meant to pressure the DA into resigning could add up to an illegal threat to a public official—a crime in Texas.

Texans for Public Justice, the state's most credible and respected ethics watchdog, quickly filed a complaint. Perry’s actions were so outrageous that a judge and a special prosecutor all were named and empowered within 90 days. 

An examination of the facts and an investigation into Perry’s action are now underway.

Which laws were broken?

The potential for criminal prosecution is quite serious for Rick Perry. The special prosecutor has said he is “very concerned” about Perry’s conduct—a clear signal to Perry that he may indeed need a hotshot criminal lawyer.

Perry has potentially violated the following state laws within the Texas Penal Codes:

  • Section 36.03 – Coercion of a Public Servant
  • Section 39.02 – Abuse of Official Capacity, and Bribery
  • Section 39.03 – Official Oppression

The offenses range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class 2 felony.

Perry's acts not protected by Texas Constitution

Perry has tried to brush aside the charge by claiming he acted under his veto authority included within the Texas Constitution. However, Perry's actions may well have gone beyond just issuing a veto. If Perry or his emissaries also engaged in ongoing threats and coercion of the Travis County DA before or after the veto, these coercive actions are certainly not protected under our state Constitution.

What does it mean for Greg Abbott and did he “green-light” payment for Perry’s defense lawyer?

Greg Abbott is the state’s top law enforcement official. It's his duty to make sure that laws are followed—by him and other elected officials like Governor Perry. The potential criminal case against Rick Perry, along with the ongoing investigation into corruption at the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) puts Abbott smack in the middle of what could become one of the biggest corruption scandals in Texas history. 

Both Perry and Abbott are enmeshed in the CPRIT scandal. As attorney general, Greg Abbott was supposed to provide oversight at CPRIT. One of the charges now under investigation centers on several grants made to some of Abbott's big money supporters and donors. The investigation into the one CPRIT related indictment handed down so far was delayed by Perry’s funding cuts to the Public Integrity Unit.

As the State’s lawyer, Abbott must review and approve the retention of outside legal counsel for most state agencies. Since Perry’s lawyer was hired for the purpose of defending him personally, Perry may not be exempted from the requirement that he gain approval from Abbott to hire an outside lawyer with taxpayer funds. Did Perry seek and receive Abbott’s permission. If not, why not? 

Greg Abbott has enjoyed the benefit of Rick Perry’s electoral coattails since 2002. Now Perry's problems may drag Abbott down as well. Both men face more scrutiny in the months ahead than they ever have in all their years in power.