AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry made his first court appearance Thursday but left the dramatics to his attorneys, who argued strenuously that the felony charges against him should be thrown out on technicalities.
His high-powered defense team said the counts of abuse of official power and coercion of a public servant ought to be quashed since the special prosecutor bringing them was never properly sworn in and some paperwork wasn’t correctly filed.
Attorneys for the Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential hopeful sniped so frequently with the special prosecutor leading the case, Michael McCrum, that the proceedings often felt like a television drama — complete with a courtroom packed with reporters and carried live on the Internet.
“This whole proceeding, the whole way this came about, is a comedy of errors,” said Tony Buzbee, Perry’s lead defense attorney, who sometimes glared at McCrum as he paced the room.
McCrum said he followed procedure correctly, countering: “Mr. Perry, through his attorneys, can’t create or invent Texas law that’s not there.”
The presiding judge, San Antonio-based Republican Bert Richardson, said he planned to rule next week on whether the case can continue.
Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, is leaving office in January. He was indicted in August by a grand jury in Travis County, which includes Austin, a liberal enclave in otherwise fiercely conservative Texas. He is accused of publicly threatening — then making good on — a veto of $7.5 million in state funding last year for a public corruption division within the office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.
That came after Lehmberg, a Democrat, refused to resign following a conviction and jail time for drunken driving. Lehmberg has since recused herself from the Perry case.
Perry calls the indictment a “political witch hunt” and told reporters outside the courtroom, “I stand behind my veto and I would make that veto again.”
He’s eying another presidential run after his short-lived 2012 bid and, asked if this could mar that or his final months in office, Perry said, “I don’t have any question about being able to multitask and to get things done.”
The governor quietly conferred with his lawyers at points during Thursday’s proceedings, but mostly just watched while occasionally glancing down at the table in front of him and sipping water.
He was allowed to skip other pretrial hearings, but Richardson ordered him to appear this time. It also was Perry’s 32nd wedding anniversary, and though he Tweeted a wedding photo, his wife Anita wasn’t in court.
While making his arguments, Buzbee used slides, including a picture of and quotes form the Constitution.
“Dismiss this case immediately so Governor Perry can get on about his business,” Buzbee said. The defense has also sought to have the case tossed out on the grounds that Perry was within his constitutional rights as governor — but that motion has yet to be discussed in court.
McCrum, who called the governor only “Mr. Perry” since he said he was no different than any other defendant, called two witnesses. They were both court officials who testified that legal procedures in the matter were followed as normal.
Buzbee did a double-take, though, when it was divulged that court authorities created a special “cause number,” or filing classification, for the Perry case before charges were brought. He was told that was a housekeeping issue given the amount of paperwork the high-profile case was expected to generate.
Still, the only other time that happened was when the Travis County public corruption unit convicted former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on campaign finance charges — which were later overturned on appeal.
“Misplaced documents, special cause numbers for Republican governors in a very blue county?” Buzbee said, calling the case “a slam-dunk for dismissal.”
McCrum said that was “malarkey.”
“Judge, it’s amazing to me that (Buzbee) would put the court in the positon that if it rules against the defendant it’s against the Constitution,” he said. “It’s an assertion clearly made with media in the room.”