Former Texas governor and two-time presidential hopeful Rick Perry has been cleared of a first-degree felony charge, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday.
The charge dates back to 2013, when Mr. Perry publicly threatened – and then proceeded – to veto $7.5 million in state funding for a group of public corruption prosecutors with the Public Integrity Unit. The governor moved to veto the funding after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who headed the group of prosecutors, refused Perry’s requests to resign after she was convicted of drunk driving.
When following through with his threat, Perry said he could not distribute state funding “for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
But to critics, Perry’s actions suggested exactly what Ms. Lehmberg was trying to prevent: public corruption. Perry was charged with abuse of power and coercion of a public servant.
His coercion charge was dismissed in July, but it wasn’t until the court’s 6-2 ruling Wednesday that Perry was cleared of his second and final felony charge. If it is only a veto act that is being prosecuted, then “the prosecution itself violates separation of powers,” the court reasoned Wednesday.
The 15-year Republican governor has repeatedly dismissed the case as a "political witch hunt," but with the charges carrying a possible combined penalty of 109 years in prison, Perry is likely breathing a sigh of relief.
“It was a bunch of foolishness from the beginning,” Perry’s attorney Tony Buzbee told The Associated Press. “I feel bad for him because he was put through this for no reason.”
But supporters of both Lehmberg and Perry argue that the other’s actions were politically motivated.
Perry's "critics accused him of using Ms. Lehmberg’s arrest to dismantle a public-corruption squad that was unpopular with the state’s Republican leadership and to try to go after Ms. Lehmberg, a powerful Democrat in Austin,” explains The New York Times’ Manny Fernandez. “Mr. Perry’s supporters said the charges by a grand jury in liberal Travis County were a political witch hunt and amounted to the criminalization of ordinary hardball politics.”
Travis County is considered “an ideological outlier in the Lone Star State,” says the Houston Chronicle, home to the notoriously Democratic city of Austin.
Perry blames the lingering felony charge for his failed presidential campaign, straining both his reputation and finances.
The former Texas governor was the first Republican candidate to leave the 17-person race, formally ending his campaign in early September only three months after announcing his bid. But Perry never really registered in polls of early voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Lehmberg never resigned, and she remains in office.
This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.