May 24, 2024

© Brandon Bell/Getty Images North America/TNS
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021, in Dallas.

AUSTIN, Texas – In an historic move that portends the ouster of one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, a House ethics panel on Thursday recommended the impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The move comes after House investigators, who conducted a monthslong ethics probe into the state’s top lawyer, alleged he abused his office and broke the law to help a campaign donor.

An impeachment vote of the full House could come as soon as this weekend and would force GOP lawmakers to decide whether to eject one of the state’s most high-ranking elected officials. If a majority of House members agree to impeach, the Senate would hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.

“I think we did the right thing,” GOP Rep. Charlie Geren, a member of the House Committee on General Investigating, said after the unanimous vote to recommend impeachment.

Paxton, 60, already is gearing up for a blow-out fight. An agency attorney stormed into the committee room on Thursday, demanding to be heard as a witness and calling the impeachment proceedings “illegal.”

Paxton expressed his displeasure on Thursday evening, calling Republicans in the Texas Legislature corrupt, and accusing them of being in league with Washington Democrats who want to stymie his agenda.

“They want nothing more than to sabotage our legal challenges to Biden’s extremist agenda by taking me out,” Paxton said in a statement tweeted by his agency’s official account.

“I am doing exactly what voters elected me to do,” he added. “It is a sad day for Texas as we witness the corrupt political establishment unite in this illegitimate attempt to overthrow the will of the people and disenfranchise the voters of our state.”

Representatives from his agency did not reply to a request for comment and further questions.

Once impeachment proceedings begin, Paxton would be barred from performing his official duties. It’s unclear whether Gov. Greg Abbott would appoint an interim attorney general in his stead or who would take the helm at an agency that acts as the state’s law firm.

The impeachment recommendation alone is rare in Texas. A state officeholder hasn’t been impeached and removed from office since 1975. Only two officials have suffered this fate in Texas history.

Paxton has been dogged by ethics scandals throughout his three terms as the state’s top lawyer. Shortly after taking office, he was indicted on felony securities fraud charges that have still not gone to trial. He has also been investigated, and cleared, of other bribery allegations.

Despite these legal troubles, Paxton has repeatedly won reelection and remains a close ally of former President Donald Trump. He rose to national prominence for fighting the 2020 presidential election result and has made a name for himself in Texas with relentless lawsuits against the Biden administration and a focus on culture war issues.

The House ethics probe began in March, around the time Paxton asked the Legislature to fund a $3.3 million settlement with a group of whistle-blowers who accused him of abusing his office to help Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer and campaign donor. In a lengthy hearing, the investigators alleged a pattern of misconduct by Paxton that crossed the line into criminal behavior.

They said evidence showed Paxton improperly used his office’s resources, money and time to help Paul on multiple occasions throughout 2020, raising alarm bells among his senior deputies who viewed Paxton’s personal interventions as highly unusual and unethical.

The instances included marshaling agency resources to aid Paul’s businesses in a legal conflict with a charitable foundation, and issuing a rushed opinion that Paul’s team used to fight a dozen foreclosures, investigators said. Paxton also hired an inexperienced outside attorney — who came recommended by Paul’s legal team — to investigate the real estate developer’s complaints after Paxton’s top deputies refused, the investigators said.

On behalf of the state agency, the outside lawyer allegedly obtained 39 grand jury subpoenas targeting banks linked to litigation with Paul and federal authorities who were investigating him, including a magistrate judge.

Paxton, they suggested, received an expensive kitchen upgrade and Paul hired a woman with whom the attorney general was allegedly having an affair.

After Paxton’s own senior staff took their concerns to law enforcement in late 2020, they were fired or left the agency. Many of the allegations are outlined in the whistle-blower lawsuit that four former employees recently settled with Paxton. The FBI is also investigating the claims, but has not filed any charges.

Paxton has denied wrongdoing. An impeachment trial in the Senate could be the first time Paxton has to answer to those allegations in a public setting.

On Thursday afternoon, the House Committee on General Investigating convened on Thursday and went into a closed door session.

The committee is made up of five lawmakers who can look into complaints of misconduct, malfeasance, misfeasance, abuse of office, incompetency and workplace conduct by state officers and employees. Its current members are Geren, Ann Johnson, a Democrat; Andrew Murr, a Republican; Democrat Oscar Longoria, and David Spiller, a Republican.

They emerged a short time later and voted unanimously to recommend impeachment. There was no debate, and the panel members did not elaborate.

Murr, the chairman, is filing the formal resolution Thursday evening.

Before the vote, a high-ranking Paxton deputy interrupted the proceedings and demanded to present testimony to the hearing.

General Litigation Division Chief Chris Hilton said the committee did not contact Paxton’s agency during its investigation and accused it of trying to subvert the attorney general’s right to weigh in on the allegations.

The committee rejected Hilton’s request and instead proceeded to meet privately in executive session. Hilton proceeded into the hallway outside the hearing room, where he told reporters that state law only allows officials to be impeached for conduct committed since the last election.

Paxton was reelected in November 2022.

“These accusations were against General Paxton, have been against him for years,” Hilton said. “The voters have rejected these smears. They’ve rejected these attacks. And this committee is trying to undermine the will of the voters by investigating him without so much as reaching out to us to participate in the process.”

He said case law supported his interpretation of the impeachment process but would not answer about what precedent to which he was referring. Hilton also did not answer questions about whether he was sent to officially represent Paxton or whether Paxton planned to testify himself.

After a few minutes of questions, Hilton and Paxton special adviser Suzanna Hupp said they had to leave. Reporters were physically blocked from pursuing them up the stairs of the Capitol.

Asked whether anyone from Paxton’s agency was invited to speak to the committee during the investigation, Geren said he did not know.

Lawyers for one of the whistle-blowers lauded the committee’s work but urged lawmakers to approve funding for his client’s settlement. The Legislature is poised to block the $3.3 million payment, along with other whistle-blower claims.

“It is impossible to comprehend how the legislature could continue to hang the whistle-blowers out to dry by refusing to fund the settlement that would pay the wages and other damages they suffered because of their brave, selfless actions when those actions led to this result,” said TJ Turney, who represent the agency’s former Director of Law Enforcement David Maxwell.

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