By Paul J. Weber and Will Weissert
AUSTIN — A Texas judge selected a second grand jury Monday in an investigation into whether Gov. Rick Perry abused his power by vetoing funding for public corruption prosecutors, and this time the Republican has retained a high-profile defense attorney to represent him.
At issue is Perry’s veto of $7.5 million for the state Public Integrity Unit after the prosecutor whose office oversees it refused to resign following a drunken driving arrest. A political watchdog group filed a complaint alleging Perry tried to coerce Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to leave office.
At nearly 14 years in his job, Perry is the longest-serving governor in state history but is not seeking re-election in November. He is mulling a second run at the White House after his 2012 presidential bid flamed out — but what happens in the ongoing investigation could mar those plans.
Special State District Judge Bert Richardson oversaw the impaneling of 12 jurors and two alternates in Austin. The investigation began in the fall and another grand jury was eventually impaneled last year, but its term expired.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said the governor’s office had hired Austin lawyer David Botsford “to ensure the special prosecutor receives the facts in this matter.”
“The facts will show this veto was made in accordance with the veto power afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution,” Nashed said in an email. “As we have from the beginning, we remain ready and willing to assist with this inquiry.”
Michael McCrum, the special prosecutor investigating Perry, has said he has specific concerns about the governor as part of the investigation, though he has refused to elaborate. He has yet to ask for formal charges against Perry and says he may not ever do so depending on the investigation. But Texans for Public Justice, a left-leaning group that monitors transparency in state government, alleges that Perry committed coercion of a public servant, abuse of official capacity and official oppression, as well as potentially bribery.
McCrum attended Monday’s jury selection but refused to comment beyond saying “I am proceeding forward with the investigation.” No evidence was presented in the case before the assembled jury headed into closed proceedings. Botsford also appeared for jury selection, but left without speaking to reporters.
Perry’s political opponents wasted little time pouncing. The state Democratic Party noted that no Texas governor has faced possible indictment since 1917. Then-Gov. James E. Ferguson was convicted of 10 charges, impeached and removed from office for vetoing appropriations for the University of Texas after objecting to some members of the faculty.
The Public Integrity Unit is based in Austin, part of Travis County. It investigates wrongdoing by public officials statewide, and its high-profile efforts include the 2010 prosecution of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and an ongoing investigation into the state’s embattled, $3 billion cancer research agency.
After Perry’s veto wiped out state funding, Travis County commissioners voted to give about $1.7 million to the office and almost $735,000 from forfeited assets were also diverted to it. From an original staff of 35, two unit employees were laid off and 18 others retired or moved on to other jobs.
Lehmberg, a Democrat, took office in 2009. Her latest term expires at the end of 2016 and she says she won’t run again. After her arrest in April 2013, Lehmberg served about half of a 45-day prison sentence and entered a treatment program — but ignored calls by Perry and high-profile Republicans statewide to quit.
At the jail, a video showed Lehmberg shouting orders to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell and sticking her tongue out at deputies videotaping her. That led to an investigation by a grand jury, which decided she should not be removed for official misconduct.
“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 in a statement upon vetoing the funding.