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The weirdest part of the Rick Perry indictment

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,Texas,Rick Perry,Law

It didn't take long for it to become widely accepted — and not just among conservatives — that Friday's indictment of Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, rests on a razor-thin legal premise. MSNBC host Ari Melber called the case "very weak" while Jonathan Chait of New York magazine declared the indictment "unbelievably ridiculous." Even former senior advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod, wrote on Twitter that the indictment seemed "pretty sketchy." But perhaps the weirdest part about the indictment isn't just that it's without merit, but that the underlying dispute it highlights actually makes Perry look good.

Typically, in politically motivated prosecutions, even if there isn't enough evidence to convict a politician, the case may highlight behavior that, while not illegal, is politically embarrassing.

For instance, the case that's been most compared to the Perry indictment is the prosecution of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, because both cases originated from Travis County and targeted prominent Republicans. DeLay's conviction was overturned last fall for lack of sufficient evidence — eight years after he was initially indicted. But the long ordeal of the case did embarrass DeLay by bringing attention to the often ugly world of campaign finance.

Yet in an attempt to portray Perry as abusing his power, prosecutors went after an example that's likely to make most Texans sympathize with his position.

Christopher Hooks of the Texas Observer explained the origin of the matter:

Like many schemes, it started with vodka. Rosemary Lehmberg had been serving as Travis County DA for a little more than four years when, late on the night of April 12, 2013, she was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin. Police found an open vodka bottle in the car and arrested her. She verbally berated the arresting officers, and she didn’t stop the verbal abuse when she got to jail. Lehmberg was strapped into a restraining chair. Hours after her arrest, she blew a .239, almost three times the legal limit.

Lehmberg, a Democrat who also oversees the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates ethics complaints against politicians, refused calls to resign, as Democrats didn't want Perry to be able to appoint her replacement. So Perry first threatened to line-item veto funding for the unit's budget unless she resigned. And when she refused to resign, he followed through. That, prosecutors charge, represented an abuse of power.

But it's hard to defend Lehmberg, somebody tasked with holding public officials accountable, who put other drivers in danger by driving a car well over the legal limit. A video taken after her arrest, posted by Slate's Dave Weigel, shows a belligerent and clearly under the influence Lehmberg mouthing off to cops and brandishing her public position to try to get special treatment. Eventually, she was put in a restraint chair.

A lot of the instant analysis among political reporters has revolved around how headlines containing the name Rick Perry and the word "indicted" will affect any presidential prospects. But this is likely one of those rare cases in which the issue at the heart of the indictment actually makes the accused politician look better.

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