By Acacia Coronado and Jake Bleiberg | Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton teetered on the brink of impeachment Thursday after years of scandal, criminal charges and corruption allegations that the state’s Republican majority had kept at bay silent until now.
In a unanimous decision, a Republican-led House investigative committee that spent months quietly investigating Paxton recommended firing the state’s top attorney. The House could vote on the recommendation as soon as Friday. If he fires Paxton, he would be forced out of office immediately.
The set of measures set up what could be a remarkably sudden fall for one of the GOP’s most prominent legal fighters, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Only two officials in Texas’ nearly 200-year history have been impeached.
Paxton has been investigated by the FBI for years over allegations he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, but has yet to stand trial.
When the five-member committee’s investigation came to light on Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by “liberal” House Republican Speaker Dade Phelan. He called for Phelan’s resignation and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday. Phelan’s office has denied the allegation as Paxton tried to “save face.”
One of Paxton’s criminal defense attorneys, Philip Hilder, said Thursday that his client’s alleged wrongdoing should be left to the courts.
“These matters are appropriate to be resolved in a judicial system, not a political system,” Hilder told The Associated Press.
Impeachment requires a majority vote of the state’s 150-member House chamber, which Republicans control 85-64. It’s unclear how many supporters Paxton may have in the House. Since the prospect of impeachment suddenly emerged Wednesday, none of Texas’ other top Republicans have expressed support for Paxton.
Committee members did not disclose details about the articles of impeachment when they voted to approve them in open session, and a copy had not been made public as of Thursday evening.
The timing of the House vote is also unclear. Rep. Andrew Murr, the Republican chairman of the investigative committee, said he did not have a timeline, and Phelan’s office declined to comment.
Unlike Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office pending a Senate trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could name an interim replacement. Outright removal would require two-thirds support in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a member.
Paxton faces impeachment at the hands of Republican lawmakers just seven months after easily winning a third term over opponents including George P. Bush, who had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but found that many did not know about Paxton’s alleged litany. offenses or dismissed the accusations as political attacks.
Even as the end of Monday’s regular session approaches, state law allows the House to continue working on impeachment proceedings. You could also log back in later. The Senate has the same options.
In one sense, Paxton’s political peril came with breakneck speed: The House committee’s investigation came to light on Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of alleged criminal acts he committed as one of the most powerful figures in Texas.
But for Paxton’s detractors, who now include a growing portion of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the disapproval was years in the making.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law by failing to register as an investment adviser while soliciting clients. A year later, Paxton was indicted by a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded not guilty to two felonies that carry a possible sentence of five to 99 years in prison.
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 for a top job but was soon fired after trying to make a point by showing child pornography at a meeting.
What has triggered the most serious risk for Paxton is his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton’s top aides in 2020 said they worried the attorney general was abusing his office’s powers to help Paul over unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy was afoot to steal $200 million dollars from their properties. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he has not been charged and his lawyers have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
Paxton’s aides accused him of corruption and all were fired or resigned after reporting him to the FBI. Four sued under Texas whistleblower laws, accusing Paxton of wrongful retaliation, and in February agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. But the Texas House must approve the payment, and Phelan has said he doesn’t believe taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began. The investigation brought Paxton rare scrutiny at the state Capitol, where many Republicans have taken a silent stance on the indictments that have followed the attorney general.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached a sitting official: Governor James Ferguson in 1917 and State Judge OP Carrillo in 1975.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporters Paul J. Weber and Jim Vertuno contributed from Austin.