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For nearly a decade, Texas Republicans have largely looked the other way as Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal troubles pile up.
That changed abruptly this week.
By revealing it had been secretly investigating Paxton since March, then recommending his impeachment Thursday, a Republican-led state House committee sought to hold Paxton accountable in a way the GOP has never has come to do It was a political earthquake, and while it remains to be seen whether Paxton’s ouster will be the result, it represents an impressive act of self-policing.
“We’re used to seeing partisans protect their own, and in this case, Republicans have rejected the attorney general,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It’s really amazing.”
The House General Investigative Committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend Paxton’s impeachment, citing a years-long pattern of alleged misconduct and law-breaking. The vote included the three Republicans who make up the majority on the panel, and launched a process that will likely force every other Republican in the Legislature to go on the record. The Texas House is expected to debate the resolution of impeachment starting at 1:00 p.m. Saturday.
That’s something most Texas Republicans have avoided since Paxton was first elected as the state’s top law enforcement official in 2014. Months into his first term, he was indicted on fraud charges state securities, a criminal case against which he is fighting to this day. And in 2020, senior officials in his office asked the FBI to investigate allegations that he had abused his authority to help a wealthy friend and donor. Those claims led to a whistleblower lawsuit alleging Paxton retaliated against his former deputies.
Along the way, there have been other scandals, such as the revelation that he cheated on his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.
For the most part, state leaders and Republican lawmakers remained silent throughout the process. If they spoke, it was usually to reprimand and say they wanted to see how the legal processes played out.
For example, when the whistleblower’s claims surfaced, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed concern but said they would not comment further until an investigation was completed. They never weighed again.
After the securities fraud indictment, Paxton was re-elected in 2018 without a Republican challenger. That changed four years later, after the whistleblower claims, when he drew a lineup of prominent primary challengers, including then-land commissioner George P. Bush.
Still, runoff voters were unfazed by Paxton’s scandals and renominated Bush by a wide margin. Patrick endorsed Paxton in the runoff.
There have been some exceptions to the silence about Paxton among Texas Republicans. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican who once worked for Paxton, called on him to resign after the whistleblower allegations surfaced in 2020.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, has also shown more willingness to scrutinize Paxton than most of the Texas GOP. Cornyn told reporters in Dallas on Thursday that he had watched some of the House committee hearings and found it “deeply troubling.”
“The fact that this has come this far with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate and a Republican attorney general tells you that this is serious enough that people are looking beyond party labels to try to see what we do to preserve the public trust and integrity of the institution,” Cornyn said.
The big question: why now?
Paxton’s years of alleged misconduct beg the question: Why now?
House leaders have said the committee’s investigation was prompted by a $3.3 million settlement Paxton reached with whistleblowers in February. Paxton needed the Legislature to approve the use of state funds to settle the lawsuit, and he quickly met resistance.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, was the first Republican in the Legislature to speak out against using taxpayer dollars to pay for the deal. A spokesman for Phelan said in a statement Wednesday that Paxton “made this demand to the Legislature without providing sufficient information or evidence.”
“As a result, Speaker Phelan has maintained that it would be irresponsible for the Legislature to appropriate this extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars without conducting a full and thorough investigation into the matter,” said Phelan’s spokeswoman, Cait Wittman.
To be clear, the 20 articles of impeachment are broader than the whistleblower claims at the heart of the settlement. Some of them focus on securities fraud charges.
Critics within Phelan’s party say the deal is a smokescreen for the impeachment effort. Paxton comes from a wing of the Texas GOP that often criticizes the House as too moderate, and his supporters say chamber leaders are now striking back in extreme fashion.
“The impeachment proceedings against the attorney general are but the latest front in the Texas House’s war against Republicans to stop the conservative leadership of our state,” said Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi , in a statement Friday.
For Paxton’s Democratic critics, his potential impeachment is evoking feelings of gratitude and vindication. Justin Nelson, the 2018 Democratic candidate who came closest to beating Paxton, said in a statement that it was “way past time for Mr. Paxton to go.”
Joe Jaworski, a Galveston attorney who ran in the Democratic primary for attorney general last year, called the House investigation “better late than never.”
“Texas is a Republican state,” Jaworksi said in an interview Wednesday before the House committee recommended impeachment. “If anyone holds him accountable for conduct unbecoming of a public official, it will have to be the Republican power structure.”
Regarding the timing of the House’s actions, Jaworski added, “Well, you can’t say Ken Paxton didn’t get this investigation when you’re asking the Texas Legislature to pay a $3.3 million settlement d “a disputing whistleblower who claimed he was mocked every chance he got.”
Republican colleagues are starting to intervene
As an impeachment vote approaches in the House, Paxton is about to learn just how many Republican friends he really has, both inside and outside the Capitol.
Paxton has closely aligned himself with Donald Trump over the years, but the former president has yet to come to the attorney general’s defense. Yen an interview Thursday with WFAAPatrick declined to defend Paxton, noting that he might have to preside over a Senate trial.
“We’re all going to be held accountable as any jury would be, if that comes out, and I think the members will do their duty,” Patrick said.
While Patrick ultimately endorsed Paxton in 2022, it came after The Texas Tribune reported that the lieutenant governor was meddling in the primary and working against Paxton.
A handful of Republicans in the Legislature have already sided with Paxton by supporting his primary challengers in 2022. Sen. Mayes Middleton of Galveston personally funded two of Paxton’s challengers into six figures. But for the rest, this will be the first time they will have to publicly pronounce judgment against the scandal-plagued attorney general.
To send the matter to a trial in the Texas Senate, a majority of the 149-member House must pass a resolution containing the articles of impeachment. While all 64 House Democrats can be expected to vote to impeach Paxton, initial reaction among House Republicans was mixed Thursday night and Friday morning.
During a Facebook Live broadcast from the House floor Thursday night, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, opposed impeachment, echoing Paxton’s contention that it would be an action ” illegal”. Toth predicted that impeachment would lead to a protracted court battle that would result in “paralysis of our attorney general at a time when we should be fighting the Biden administration.”
Rep. Matt Schaefer, a Tyler Republican who has backed one of Paxton’s primary rivals in 2022, questioned Phelan about how much access lawmakers will have to the evidence supporting articles of impeachment. Phelan was repeatedly awarded to the chairman of the House General Investigative Committee, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction. Schaefer looked unsatisfied.
“Process is important,” he tweeted afterward.
Another House Republican, freshman Rep. Carl Tepper of Lubbock, said Friday night that he had watched the committee hearing and that the “witnesses seemed pretty credible and damning testimony.”
“Of course the AG deserves a defense, but that doesn’t happen until trial,” Tepper said on Twitter. “In that case, it will be in the Senate if the resolution of impeachment prevails. We take this seriously.”
On Friday morning, Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, called into a Dallas radio show and said he was undecided about how he would vote. But he raised multiple questions about the process so far, saying that while the allegations against Paxton are “very troubling,” he may be even more concerned that the House is fueling the perception that it is trying to “criminalize political opposition.” .
Asked if there were enough House Republicans willing to join Democrats in impeaching Paxton, Harrison declined to make a prediction.
However, he said: “I think it’s fair to say that there are a large number of my colleagues who don’t think very highly of the current attorney general.”
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a full list of them here.
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