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Perry's Legal Fray Clouds Presidential Launch

Perry's Legal Fray Clouds Presidential Launch

By Rebecca Berg - June 3, 2015

Rick Perry is bringing some baggage with him on the campaign trail. 

The former Texas governor, who will announce his second bid for president Thursday at an airport in Addison, Texas, near Dallas, still faces criminal charges stemming from an indictment last year, and the legal proceedings could dog Perry for months to come.

Perry is charged with abusing his power as governor when he used a veto threat to try to force an official to resign. When a judge in January refused to dismiss the case, Perry’s legal team appealed.

Now, the ongoing legal drama threatens to cast a pall on Perry’s campaign launch and distract from his candidacy.

“It's going to be a millstone around his neck,” said Dave Carney, a former longtime adviser to Perry.

So far, the case has not received the same magnitude of attention as other candidates’ scandals, namely the Bridgegate controversy that has upended New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s nascent presidential campaign, although Christie has not been directly linked to the incident. 

Perry’s indictment, by contrast, is outwardly more damning but has not appeared to weigh on his campaign — perhaps because Perry has consistently polled in the lower tier among a competitive Republican field, his “oops” moment during the 2012 election having left a lasting impression. Perry currently ranks 10th, with less than 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

But the outstanding charges against Perry, with the specter of a potential trial, might give top donors and activists some pause, in particular if the case extends into 2016. Indeed, if the appeals court does not dismiss the case, such a timeline is not farfetched.

Perry’s allies hoped, and many predicted, that the court battle would be quickly dispatched with and well in the rearview mirror by now.

At the heart of that conventional wisdom was an assessment that the charges brought against Perry are thin. He is accused of having tried to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign after she was arrested on a charge of drunken driving, threatening to veto funding for the district’s unit that deals with public corruption and fraud. When she refused to step down, Perry went through with the veto.

But Perry and his supporters say he was well within his right to use his veto power. In January, when the indictment was upheld, Perry said the case “directly targets every governor’s office in the nation.”

"I know my actions were right when faced with a public official's illegal, unethical, and embarrassing public behavior," Perry said.  

“The prosecution is essentially criminalizing utterly normal political behavior — somewhat hardball political behavior, but behavior that happens all the time between branches of government and levels of government,” said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and writer of “The Volokh Conspiracy” column at the Washington Post. 

Volokh joined with former Texas Solicitor General James Ho to pen an amicus brief supporting Perry. Signatories include former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr; Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general; famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz; and Michael Barone, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and writer for the Washington Examiner, among others.

On Thursday afternoon, when Perry announces his bid for president, the case will take on even greater meaning. But his campaign appears poised to stay the course for now, and within his team, the indictment remains more of an annoyance than a genuine concern.

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Rebecca Berg

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