Fight still ahead for Texas’ Ken Paxton after historic impeachment deepens GOP divisions

Published: May. 28, 2023 at 7:43 AM HST|Updated: May. 28, 2023 at 3:08 PM HST
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The historic impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was just the first round of a Republican brawl over whether to banish one of their own in America’s biggest red state after years of criminal accusations.

Paxton and his allies, from former President Donald Trump to hard-right grassroots organizations across Texas, now wait to fight back in what Paxton hopes will be a friendlier arena: a trial in the state Senate.

It was still unclear Sunday when this will take place. The Republican-led Senate met to pass bills in the final days of the legislative session. But the chamber’s presiding officer, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, did not immediately address the Paxton impeachment.

Late Sunday, the House of Representatives investigating panel that initiated Paxton’s impeachment issued a dozen new subpoenas for testimony and records from Paxton associates, businesses, banks and financial trusts. It was unclear how quickly those records and testimony could be collected ahead of a Senate trial.

Paxton has said he has “full confidence” as he awaits a Senate trial. His conservative allies there include his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who has not said whether she will recuse herself from the proceedings to determine whether her husband will be permanently removed from office.

For now, Texas’ three-term attorney general is immediately suspended after the state House of Representatives on Saturday impeached Paxton on 20 articles that included bribery and abuse of public trust.

The decisive 121-23 vote amounted to a clear rebuke from the GOP-controlled chamber after nearly a decade of Republican lawmakers taking a mostly muted stance on Paxton’s alleged misdeeds, which include felony securities fraud charges from 2015 and an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption accusations.

He is just the third sitting official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to have been impeached.

“No one person should be above the law, least not the top law officer of the state of Texas,” said Republican state Rep. David Spiller, who was part of a House investigative committee that this week revealed it had quietly been looking into Paxton for months.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has remained silent about Paxton all week , including after Saturday’s impeachment. Abbott, who was the state’s attorney general prior to Paxton’s taking the job in 2015, has the power to appoint a temporary replacement pending the outcome in the Senate trial.

Final removal of Paxton would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Republican members are generally aligned with the party’s hard right. Patrick, the presiding officer, has served as state chairman for Trump’s campaigns in Texas.

A group of Senate Republicans issued identical statements late Saturday and Sunday saying they “welcome and encourage communication from our constituents.” But the group also said they now consider themselves jurors and will not discuss the Paxton case.

Before the vote Saturday, Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to Paxton’s defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process “a travesty” and saying the attorney general’s legal troubles should be left to the courts.

“Free Ken Paxton,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, warning that if House Republicans proceeded with the impeachment, “I will fight you.”

Paxton, 60, decried the outcome in the House moments after scores of his fellow partisans voted for impeachment. His office pointed to internal reports that found no wrongdoing.

“The ugly spectacle in the Texas House today confirmed the outrageous impeachment plot against me was never meant to be fair or just,” Paxton said. “It was a politically motivated sham from the beginning.”

Lawmakers allied with Paxton tried to discredit the investigation by noting that hired investigators, not panel members, interviewed witnesses. They also said several of the investigators had voted in Democratic primaries, tainting the impeachment, and that Republican legislators had too little time to review evidence.

“I perceive it could be political weaponization,” Rep. Tony Tinderholt, one of the House’s most conservative members, said before the vote. Republican Rep. John Smithee compared the proceeding to “a Saturday mob out for an afternoon lynching.”

Rice University political science professor Mark P. Jones said the swift move to impeach kept Paxton from rallying significant support and allowed quietly frustrated Republicans to come together.

“If you ask most Republicans privately, they feel Paxton is an embarrassment. But most were too afraid of the base to oppose him,” Jones said. By voting as a large bloc, he added, the lawmakers gained political cover.

To Paxton’s longstanding detractors, however, the rebuke was years overdue.

In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law, and a year later was indicted on securities fraud charges in his hometown near Dallas, accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He pleaded not guilty to two felony counts carrying a potential sentence of five to 99 years.

He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton’s office for Medicaid fraud. An additional $50,000 was donated by an Arizona retiree whose son Paxton later hired to a high-ranking job but soon was fired after displaying child pornography in a meeting. In 2020, Paxton intervened in a Colorado mountain community where a Texas donor and college classmate faced removal from his lakeside home under coronavirus orders.

But what ultimately unleashed the impeachment push was Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

In 2020, eight top aides told the FBI they were concerned Paxton was misusing his office to help Paul over the developer’s unproven claims about an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.

The impeachment accuses Paxton of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul. The bribery charges included in the impeachment allege Paul employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and that he paid for expensive renovations to the attorney general’s home. A senior lawyer for Paxton’s office, Chris Hilton, said Friday that the attorney general paid for all repairs and renovations.

Other charges, including lying to investigators, date back to Paxton’s still-pending securities fraud indictment.

Four aides who reported Paxton to the FBI later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, and in February he agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. The House committee said the probe was sparked by Paxton seeking legislative approval for the payout.

“But for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the panel said.

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Bleiberg reported from Dallas.