(Reuters) - A Texas state appeals court on Friday dismissed one of two felony counts in an abuse-of-power case against former Governor Rick Perry stemming from a 2013 veto by the now-presidential candidate.
The Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin threw out a count of coercion of a public official, saying it violated Perry’s right to free speech. However, the court let stand an abuse of official capacity charge.
In a 97-page opinion, the court said the statute on which the “coercion of a public servant” violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced.
Perry was indicted in August by a grand jury in Travis County, a Democratic stronghold in a heavily Republican state, with abuse of official capacity, a first-degree felony, and coercion of a public official, a third-degree felony.
If convicted of a first-degree felony, he could face from five to 99 years in prison.
The charges relate to what many see as a threat by Perry in 2013 to veto $7.5 million in funding for an integrity unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s office. Many said Perry played hardball politics to force out county District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, after she pleaded guilty to drunken driving.
Since Lehmberg is an elected official in a different branch of government from Perry, the grand jury said his actions amounted to illegally attempting to use his office to influence the behavior of another elected official.
The abuse of official capacity count claims that by vetoing funding for Lehmberg’s office, Perry engaged in what amounted to misuse of government property.
“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.
“This thing is hanging by a thread and, in my view, is very near to being over,” Buzbee said.
The former governor has said he acted within the powers granted to him under the Texas Constitution.
Perry entered the 2016 Republican presidential campaign in June. He had sought the party’s nomination in 2012 but dropped out after a series of gaffes.
The case has political overtones because Texas Republicans have long complained that the Public Integrity Unit is used by officials of overwhelmingly Democratic Travis County to harass and intimidate Republican elected officials.
Reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Susan Heavey, Bill Trott and Ben Klayman