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AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry has formally pleaded not guilty to criminal charges of leveraging his power to try to oust a Democratic district attorney convicted of drunken driving, according to court documents obtained today.
The potential 2016 presidential candidate entered his plea in a Travis County court filing. He also waived an arraignment that had been set for Friday.
The waiver was no surprise given that Perry has signaled no intention of the felony charges interrupting a busy travel schedule to court GOP voters elsewhere. Perry was set to discuss immigration at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington on Thursday, followed by a two-day stop in New Hampshire.
Perry’s plea was filed with the court late Tuesday, shortly after the longest-serving governor in Texas history was fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken. He tweeted a picture of himself stopping for vanilla ice cream on the way back from his booking.
But what’s next for Perry isn’t so glib: His high-powered and pricey legal team will now quickly try to extinguish the case against him, which includes two felony charges stemming from his veto last summer of state funds for public corruption prosecutors.
Perry was already in campaign mode Tuesday when he arrived at the Travis County courthouse — just a block behind the governor’s mansion — for processing. He strode to a lectern in front of a phalanx of cameras and reporters, and his vows to fight the charges were interrupted by chants of “Perry! Perry!” from a few dozen supporters.
About the only time Perry didn’t seem in control was when he was instructed to remove his newly signature, black-framed glasses for the booking photo.
“The actions that I took were lawful, they were legal, and they were proper,” Perry said before entering the courthouse.
Perry was indicted last week on charges of coercion and official oppression for vetoing $7.5 million for the state public integrity unit, which investigates wrongdoing by elected officials and is run by the Travis County district attorney’s office. Perry threatened the veto if the county’s Democratic district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, stayed in office after a drunken driving conviction.
Lehmberg refused to resign and Perry carried out the veto, drawing an ethics complaint from a left-leaning government watchdog group.
Perry was indicted by a grand jury in Austin, a liberal bastion in otherwise mostly fiercely conservative Texas.
The atmosphere all around him Tuesday felt less like an undignified perp walk and more like a full-throated campaign rally. Perry’s detractors also waited to relish a glimpse of him walking into court to face processing. Among them was an attorney who is defending more than a dozen Texas abortion clinics set to close this month under a tough anti-abortion bill signed by Perry last year.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about the governor’s abuse of power,” said attorney Jan Soifer, who’s also a Democratic Party leader in Austin.
If convicted on both counts, Perry could face a maximum 109 years in prison — though legal experts across the political spectrum have said the case against him may be a tough sell to a jury. No one disputes that Perry has the right to veto any measures passed by the state Legislature, including any parts of the state budget.
But the complaint against Perry alleges that by publicly threatening a veto and trying to force Lehmberg to resign, he coerced her. The Republican judge assigned to the case has assigned a San Antonio-based special prosecutor who insists the case is stronger than it may outwardly appear.
The governor has hired a team of high-powered attorneys, who are being paid with state funds to defend him.
Perry is the first Texas governor to be indicted since 1917. Top Republicans have been especially quick to defend him, though, since a jail video following Lehmberg’s April 2013 arrest showed the district attorney badly slurring her words, shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell, and sticking her tongue out. Her blood alcohol level was also three times the legal limit for driving.