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Rick Perry indicted for abuse of power by grand jury

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Texas Governor Rick Perry was indicted Friday by a grand jury on abuse of power charges stemming from his battle to defund a state-funded bureau of anti-corruption investigators.

The suit originated from a standoff between Perry and Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after she was arrested for drunk driving in April 2013 and subsequently pleaded guilty.

Perry publicly demanded that Lehmberg, a Democrat, resign from office or he would block funding for the Public Integrity Unit, the state anti-corruption division run out of the Travis County District Attorney’s office. She refused and Perry, as promised, took action.

The Public Integrity Unit was a politically sensitive target because it was associated with high-profile investigations that had sometimes roped in high-ranking Republicans. It famously indicted then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in 2005 on fundraising-related charges.   

A group called Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint in June 2013, arguing that Perry’s threat to veto the funding was political retribution and constituted an illegal abuse of power and coercion of a public servant. A judge appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter and the investigation eventually led to Friday’s charges.

In a statement released on Friday, Perry said he was "outraged and appalled" by the grand jury's decision to indict.

"This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision. The facts of this case conclude that the governor's veto was lawful, appropriate and well within the authority of the office of the governor," Perry said.

“We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail," Mary Anne Wiley, Perry’s general counsel, said in a separate statement. 

The progressive group Battleground Texas applauded the jury's indictment. “Rick Perry's indictment for abuse of official capacity and coercion is just the latest example of Republicans failing to work for Texans. Whether it’s Rick Perry's indictment, Greg Abbott's sweetheart deals for campaign contributors, or Dan Patrick's blistering anti-immigrant rhetoric – the GOP has shown time and again they put politics and their friends ahead of Texas communities," they wrote in a statement.

Special prosecutor Michael McCrum told NBC News affiliate KXAN that Perry faces two counts of abuse of power.

"The grand jury's spoken that at least there's probably cause to believe that he committed two crimes, two felony crimes. For count one it's 5 to 99 years in prison and for count two it's 2 to 10 years in prison," said McCrum.

"There's been an immense amount of work that has gone into my investigation up to this point, I have interviewed over 40 people that were related in some way to the events that happened," he added.

In May, Perry told NBC News he didn't regret vetoing the money for the public integrity office and insisted that neither he nor anyone in his office had committed a crime. "I know the Constitution and the duties of the governor. vetoing a line item is certainly within the rights and the law and the Constitution of the state of Texas," Perry said.

Perry also told NBC News that he considered the agency "ill-run," which influenced his decision.

Perry’s term was set to end at the start of next year, but he’s been exploring a potential presidential run in 2016 after an unsuccessful White House bid in 2012. Recently he raised his national profile by sending National Guard troops to the border to monitor an influx of Central American migrant children and families.

The indictment threatens to hobble his ambitions, but he’s not alone when it comes to ambitious governors dealing with legal issues. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential stock dropped last year after the closing of traffic lanes on a major bridge prompted a series of investigations into his administration.