Republican presidential contender Rick Perry can breathe a little easier after a Texas appeals court on Friday dismissed one of two felony counts against him for abuse of power allegations originating from a veto in 2013 when he was governor of Texas.
The court ruled that the charge of “coercion of a public official” violated Mr. Perry’s First Amendment free speech rights. The second count, a first-degree felony charge of abuse of official capacity was allowed to continue onto the trial stage.
"One down and one to go," Tony Buzbee, Perry's lead attorney told Reuters after Friday's ruling. "We believe the only remaining count is a misdemeanor and raises the question of whether the exercise of a veto can ever be illegal in the absence of bribery.
Special prosecutor Michael McCrum told the Austin-American Statesman that he expects a trial before the end of the year and is currently weighing whether he will appeal Friday’s court decision. Prosecutors maintain that the remaining charge should be treated as a felony. If convicted of a first-degree felony, Perry could face five to 99 years in prison.
The charges stem from a threat that Perry made to veto $7.5 million in funding for the Travis County District Attorney's Office Public Integrity Unit unless the county’s District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg stepped down. Ms. Lehmberg was arrested for driving drunk and video was released that showed her acting aggressively and belligerently to law enforcement. She eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
She refused to resign and Perry followed through with his veto.
As the district attorney for the state capital, Lehmberg also headed the Public Integrity Unit, which investigated claims of wrongdoing by state officials. The unit has previously been accused by Republicans of intimidating state officials by using criminal investigations as a political tool.
Perry was indicted in August by a grand jury in Travis County, a Democratic stronghold in a heavily Republican state. The grand jury accused Perry of unduly using his power by trying to influence the actions of Lehmberg, a member of another branch of the state’s government.
Perry and his lawyer have claimed that the criminal indictments are political retribution for threatening the veto. Commentators from both sides of the aisle were concerned that the criminal charges were an overreach of the Public Integrity Unit’s authority.
Former Republican majority leader Tom DeLay, previously the subject of his own ethics probe, called the indictments a “conspiracy” and “politically motivated.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, the editorial board of The New York Times characterized Perry’s veto as a “bad idea” but not one rising to the level of criminal activity.
“Governors and presidents threaten vetoes and engage in horse-trading all the time to get what they want, but for that kind of political activity to become criminal requires far more evidence than has been revealed in the Perry case so far,” wrote the editorial board when the indictments were announced.
The ruling comes as Perry is seeking to shoulder his way ahead of a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders. Currently the Texan is polling near the bottom of the pack with less than 2 percent of likely voters pulling for him.
Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal activist group whose complaint originally sparked the investigations, told the Statesman that even with the recent ruling, the case is harmful for Perry's ambitions for the Oval Office.
“This doesn’t help him on his career path at the moment,” Mr. McDonald said. “To be only half guilty is not a good thing in the presidential debate. He isn’t going to be able to lift that weight for several months if not a year to come. It’s a difficult burden that he is going to have to carry. This ruling doesn’t help him at all.”
This report includes material from Reuters.