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Perry responds to indictment, calls it a political 'farce,' vows to defend himself

Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry responded Saturday to the weekend indictment in which he is accused of abusing his power of office, calling it a political “farce” and vowing to explore “every legal avenue” to combat the prosecution.

Perry, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate with potential 2016 aspirations, was indicted Friday for allegedly abusing his power by vowing to veto $7.5 million in state funds for an agency run by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, after she pleaded guilty to drunken driving in April 2013 and refused to resign.

Perry vetoed the money after Lehmberg, a Democrat, videotaped acting erratically during her arrest, refused to resign.

“I think Americans and Texans who have seen the video would agree that this is not the type of individual who should be heading up an office that we want to fund,” Perry said during a brief news conference in Texas. “I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto … I will explore every legal avenue to expedite this matter and bring it to a swift conclusion. I am confident ... this farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is.”

The governor said he would take the same action again, given the same facts and circumstances. He also made clear that he would have funded the ethics unit under Lehmberg had she resigned.

Mo Elleithee, Democratic National Committee communications director, said after Perry's press conference: "For a guy who prides himself on being Mr. Law & Order, he seems to have little respect for the rule of law. This isn’t a partisan witch hunt. It’s our legal process."

Within hours of the indictment being announced late Friday afternoon, Democrats and Republicans began supporting or attacking Perry and the politically-charged decision. 

“Rick Perry is a friend, he's a man of integrity,” said GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who also appears to have 2016 White House aspirations. “I am proud to stand with Rick Perry. The Texas Constitution gives the governor the power to veto legislation. And a criminal indictment predicated on the exercise of his constitutional authority is, on its face, highly suspect.”

The outspoken first-term senator also called the indictment “highly-questionable” and argued that the Travis County District Attorney's Office that indicted Perry has a “sad history” of engaging in politically-motivated prosecutions.

Perry also got support from Louisiana GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal and appeared to get support from one of the country's most powerful Democrats and former President Obama political advisers, David Axelrod.

"Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy," Axelrod tweeted.

Democratic lawmakers appear to be staying out of the dispute, or at least for now.

But the DNC is already on the attack, much like it was when another potential 2016 GOP White House candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was answering questions about his connection to a staff member and political appointees in Sept. 2013 ordering the unannounced closure of toll lanes on the George Washington Bridge, causing traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., whose mayor didn’t endorse Christie’s successful re-election bid.

On Saturday morning, DNC spokeswoman Lily Adams posted on Twitter a picture of a banner newspaper headline that read: “Perry Indicted for Veto Threat” underneath her tweet: “What Perry woke up to.”

The tweet was one of several on the DNC’s Twitter feed regarding the indictment.

The Texas Democratic Party has already called on Perry to resign, calling the situation "unbecoming" of a Texas governor.

"Governor Rick Perry has brought dishonor to his office, his family and the state of Texas. Texans deserve to have leaders that stand up for what is right and work to help families across Texas," party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. 

State GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri of Houston said “a politically motivated prosecution” yielded the indictment.

“It’s not unusual for people in cases involving politics to move forward with an indictment and ultimately … the case doesn’t go anywhere or the person is eventually exonerated,” he said, according to Politico.

CLICK TO READ THE INDICTMENT. 

Mary Anne Wiley, general counsel for Perry, said late Friday the governor's actions were allowed under the law.

“The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution," she said. "We will continue to aggressively defend the governor's lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail.”

Perry's defense attorney David L. Botsford, whose $450-per hour fees are being paid for by state funds, said he was "outraged and appalled" at the decision.

"This clearly represents political abuse of the court system and there is no legal basis in this decision," he said in a statement.

CLICK TO READ THE FULL STATEMENT FROM PERRY'S ATTORNEY.

Several top aides to Perry appeared before grand jurors in Austin, including his deputy chief of staff, legislative director and general counsel. Perry himself wasn't called to testify.

Perry was indicted by an Austin grand jury on felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant. Maximum punishment on the first charge is five to 99 years in prison, and two to 10 years on the second.

The indictment comes toward the end of Perry’s final term in office. In office since 2000 and already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry isn't seeking re-election in November. But he was thought to be weighing a possible presidential run in 2016.

"I took into account the fact that we're talking about a governor of a state — and a governor of the state of Texas, which we all love," said Michael McCrum, the San Antonio-based special prosecutor who got the indictment. "Obviously that carries a lot of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law."

McCrum said he'll meet with Perry's attorney Monday to discuss when he will come to the courthouse to be arraigned. McCrum said he doesn't know when Perry will be booked.

Accusations have flown on both sides in the legal showdown.

Perry originally said Lehmberg, who is based in Austin, should resign after her arrest. The video recording made at the jail showed Lehmberg shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell and sticking out her tongue. Lehmberg faced pressure from other high-profile Republicans in addition to Perry to give up her post. Her blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit for driving.

Lehmberg served about half of her 45-day jail sentence but stayed in office, despite Perry's assertions that her behavior was inappropriate. The jail video led to an investigation of Lehmberg by a separate grand jury, which decided she should not be removed for official misconduct.

Her office is the same office that indicted U.S. Rep. Tom Delay as part of a finance probe.

No one disputes that Perry is allowed to veto measures approved by the Legislature, including part or all of the state budget. 

However, the left-leaning Texans for Public Justice government watchdog group filed an ethics complaint accusing the governor of coercion since he threatened to use his veto before actually doing so in an attempt to pressure Lehmberg to quit.

Lehmberg oversees the office's public integrity unit, which investigates statewide allegations of corruption and political wrongdoing. Perry said he wouldn't allow Texas to fund the unit while Lehmberg remained in charge. He used his line-item veto power to remove funding for the unit from the Texas budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.