Has time run out for Ken Paxton?

by | May 27, 2023 | Paxton Scandal, Texas Legislature

No matter what else we can say about Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General has a peculiar set of survival skills. Despite indictments, sex scandals, and federal investigations, Paxton has continued to get re-elected to one of the top posts in Texas government, largely powered by his status as a hard-charging, pro-Trump conservative. 

Despite his moral or legal failings, by hook or by crook, the guy can win a Republican primary. 

While his political acumen has helped him stay one step ahead of a 2015 indictment for securities fraud (Paxton and his team have diligently worked to delay any trial) and allowed him to sidestep a federal investigation into his misdeeds while dispatching a member of Texas royalty when he beat George P. Bush in the 2022 primary, time may finally be running out for Paxton.

At 1 PM on Saturday May 27th, the Texas House will begin four hours of debate on 20 articles of impeachment brought against Paxton by the House Committee on General Investigating.

The committee, comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats, hasn’t been particularly well known in recent sessions, but has been having a banner year. They led the investigation into disgraced former State Rep. Bryan Slaton, and worked hard to get the House to take up a vote to expel the married Republican former youth pastor for providing alcohol to a 19-year-old intern in his office with whom he had sex after she reached a point of intoxication she told investigators made her dizzy.

The committee urgently moved to resolve issues with Slaton, but what we didn’t know at the time was that they had also begun an investigation into Paxton’s efforts to help an Austin real estate developer and donor sully an investigation into their real estate holdings and business dealings.

Here is everything you need to know about Paxton’s potential impeachment before the vote starts this afternoon.

Whistleblower settlement leads to an investigation

Earlier this year, Paxton agreed to pay a $3.3 million settlement from the Office of the Attorney General to a group of whistleblowers who were illegally forced out of his office after they reported inappropriate and illegal activity that Paxton had engaged in to benefit the real estate developer and donor, Nate Paul. 

The whistleblowers filed suit against Paxton and his office over the issue, and Paxton’s efforts to settle the case with a multi-million dollar payment would have prevented additional information from being disclosed in that court case, including the exact nature of the crimes Paxton is alleged to have committed, potentially keeping Paxton out of even more serious hot water.

There was only one catch: because Paxton wanted to pay the settlement with public funds, it needed to be approved by the Texas Legislature. 

Paxton, his lawyers, and his allies all knew that going in, and the whistleblowers have said they were given assurances that Paxton and his team would work to ensure that the settlement would be approved during the current legislative session. If that failed to happen, the whistleblowers could have to wait until 2025 for the legislature to finally approve the payment, allowing Paxton to evade accountability while also skipping out on the bill.

The accusations the whistleblowers, a group of lifelong Republican operatives and lawyers, made against Paxton are as staggering as they are serious. They allege that Paxton abused his power as Attorney General to benefit Paul, who had donated to his 2018 campaign. 

That donation doesn’t really seem to be the heart of the matter, as in the years that followed Paul became a much better friend to Paxton, allegedly conducting extensive renovations to the home Paxton shares with his wife, Texas State Senator Angela Paxton, for free while also employing a woman Paxton is alleged to have had a years-long affair with after she left a job in a different Republican state senator’s office.

In exchange, Paxton is alleged to have appointed an inexperienced special prosecutor to investigate Paul’s ongoing issues with federal authorities and supposedly went so far as to provide Paul with FBI documents related to one of his cases, among a wide range of other misdeeds.

Paxton has not yet been charged with any crimes related to the scandal with Paul, though reports suggest he’s been under federal investigation related to the case since 2020.

Committee hearing as event television

The House Committee on General Investigating laid out the case against Paxton over several hours on Wednesday, May 24th. At the hearing, investigators appointed by the committee walked the committee through each of Paxton’s actions, potential motivations, and legal implications.

The hearing took place over three hours, and it was readily apparent from the opening gavel that Paxton was in for a world of pain. The committee had appointed a group of veteran prosecutors and a former member of the Houston Police Department to conduct interviews, review documents and conduct other investigative functions.

The prosecutors themselves are all highly regarded as prosecutors and investigators, and all of them had professional backgrounds working for or supporting Republicans, including former President Donald Trump (we’ll explain why this matters in just a moment).

They laid out their case for the committee in exceptional detail. Members of the committee, including some of the most conservative members of the Texas House, were aghast at the information being presented. At times members audibly gasped, at other times they could be heard chuckling incredulously at some of the decisions made by Paxton.

When all was said and done, the committee voted unanimously to throw the book at Paxton. The committee distributed a memo to every member of the House laying out their findings and explaining the impeachment process. 

Paxton circles the wagons

Paxton did not take this news lying down. He’s spent most of the past week locked in a spat with House Speaker Dade Phelan, who he accused of presiding over the House in an apparent state of intoxication last Friday night. Phelan, who reserved comment on the investigation into Slaton while it was ongoing, has notably hung Paxton out to dry like an old bar rag, openly calling the accusations against Paxton deeply troubling to members of the media.

Paxton has done everything that he can to paint the impeachment process in the House as a political maneuver being carried out as part of some liberal agenda at the hands of President Joe Biden (yes, he’s really saying that). 

That assertion is, of course, laughable at best. Paxton has racked up a decade-long history of controversy and accusations of impropriety and was attempting to use the legislature and state money to cover up his crimes.

And the Texas House certainly is not a bastion of liberal thought, despite what Paxton and the most conservative members of the Texas Senate want you to believe. Phelan is a pretty standard-issue conservative Republican, and his membership has only grown more extreme over the past two election cycles. While a handful of conservative Senate priorities stalled out in the House, Phelan has presided over two of the most conservative sessions in recent memory.

Paxton called a press conference on Friday to push back on the groundswell of support for his impeachment, trying to cast himself as a conservative warrior being victimized by members of the Texas House who are sympathetic to Biden’s agenda, which overlooks the irrefutable fact that there isn’t a single Republican member of the Texas House that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 that we’re aware of.

Paxton and his team are also staking his political future on an arcane legal argument, claiming that the impeachment statutes in Texas law can only be applied to actions that an elected official has taken since their most recent election.

By that argument, Paxton couldn’t be impeached for anything he may or may not have done before winning re-election in 2022, essentially wiping away any law-breaking or illegality that he’s engaged in while drawing a salary and serving the people of Texas.

The House Committee on General Investigating disagrees with that interpretation, which was intended to apply to local elected officials and not statewide constitutional offices. Because the impeachment process exists in the Texas Constitution, it can be applied to any of Paxton’s misdeeds.

Paxton takes pages out of Trump’s insurrection playbook

Paxton has also boldly claimed that the effort to impeach him is nothing more than an attempt to use the legislature to do what voters did not and remove Paxton from office, that this is all a political agenda being driven to overturn the results of Paxton’s most recent election.

That is exceptionally rich coming from Paxton, who played a leading role in actually trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. Paxton, in an effort to further ingratiate himself to Donald Trump, filed a challenge to the election results in Pennsylvania, a state he does not represent. 

The Supreme Court rejected the challenge, noting that Paxton had no authority to challenge elections in a state other than his own, and Paxton eventually spoke before Trump at the January 6th rally that immediately preceded the insurrection attempt in 2021. 

Paxton dogmatically deploying Trump’s election denial talking points might play well on conservative radio shows, but his fate now rests in the hands of the 150 members of the Texas House, a body that Paxton has been savaging in press comments all week. 

What happens from here?

Debate on the 20 articles of impeachment against Paxton will begin at 1 PM CT. The investigating committee will have 40 minutes to provide opening statements and lay out their case, and the debate will be evenly divided between members speaking in favor of impeachment and those speaking against it. The committee will also have 20 minutes for closing statements before the vote is held.

It seems likely that Democrats in the House will vote unanimously in favor of Paxton’s impeachment, but the most telling details to watch for during this debate are who speaks on behalf of impeachment, and which members have the gumption to stick up for Paxton.

Voting against impeachment, or being bold enough to speak in opposition in an effort to aide Paxton, is a massive political risk in an election cycle fraught with moral conundrums for Texas conservatives. Can you really claim to be tough on crime, or hold any moral authority, if you fought to give Ken Paxton a pass? 

With Donald Trump at this point still holding on as the likely Republican nominee, how does Trump’s presence combine with their stance on Paxton hurt them in a general election? Trump posted the two worst performances for a Republican presidential candidate from Texas in generations, and his unpopularity imperiled Republicans up and down the ballot in 2018. Paxton’s ties to Trump and significant legal and moral challenges could be a potent force that drives more conservatives to walk away from Paxton.

Most of the lege observers we’ve talked to since Wednesday’s hearing feel confident that Paxton’s impeachment is the most likely outcome, at which point Paxton will be suspended from office and the impeachment will be sent to the Texas Senate for a trial.

Paxton is hoping that the Texas Senate, with fewer members representing more conservative districts, will save him from being removed from office. Paxton’s right-wing rhetoric, including trashing the Texas House, would largely be welcome in the Texas Senate, but Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has played his cards close to his chest, giving Paxton no indication that life will be his desired shade of peachy in the Senate chamber.

What happens in Paxton is impeached?

If the House votes to impeach Paxton, he will immediately be suspended from his duties as attorney general until a verdict is reached in the Texas Senate. If the Senate votes to convict, Paxton is removed from office and Governor Greg Abbott, the last person to occupy the AG’s office before Paxton, has the power to appoint an interim replacement.

Early rumors indicate that Abbott could appoint one of Paxton’s opponents from the 2022 primaries, with either former Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who Paxton routed in the runoff, or Eva Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who finished third in the primary, being mentioned as possible choices.

Abbott could also reach deeper into his Rolodex for the appointment. As a former attorney general himself, Abbott has worked closely with a number of conservative attorneys who could easily step in as an interim replacement with no interest in running for the office in the future. 

A placeholder appointment like that would probably be the easiest solution for Abbott, but it may be hard for the governor to pass up an opportunity to gain more political power by appointing an ally with the chops to win a statewide race in 2026.

What happens if Paxton survives impeachment?

Lord, help Texas.

Paxton is widely regarded to be one of the more vindictive Republicans in statewide office. If he manages to escape impeachment, he’ll probably get active in a hurry to support primary challengers to the Republicans that he feels are hanging him out to dry, including Phelan. 

And where will things stand between Paxton and his colleagues in statewide office? Abbott hasn’t had much to say thus far, and Patrick’s cautious comments to the media this week leaned in favor of a fair trial.

Rifts often exist between the top three statewide elected officials in Texas, but if Paxton hangs onto his office through all of this, the conflict between the three could quickly become biblical, with Paxton positioning himself as either a political martyr or survivor either way.

We’ll be keeping our eyes on all things impeachment today. Follow along on Twitter for updates throughout the day.

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