House probe could force GOP leaders to discuss Texas AG Paxton’s problems head on

With just days before the legislative session ends, a House ethics panel recommended the impeachment of the attorney general.

AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s political career has been marked by a longstanding securities fraud indictment, an FBI probe and feeble attempts to oust him at the ballot box.

Now, attempts inside the Texas Legislature to hold Paxton accountable for alleged crimes have brought a tighter focus on the attorney general’s controversial actions.

On Thursday, a House ethics panel recommended the impeachment of the attorney general. An impeachment vote of the full House could come this weekend. If a majority of House members agree to impeach, the Senate would hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.

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The panel’s recommendation for impeachment followed a Wednesday meeting where members released a scathing report on an alleged bribery scheme developed by Paxton.

The House inquiry, even as it offers little new information, has forced Republican leaders to discuss Paxton’s problems head on, instead of allowing voters to determine whether he is fit for office.

“The hearing [Wednesday] morning in the House was clearly a new level of attention and a new level of detail,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

With just days before the legislative session ends, Paxton and Texas political observers will wait to see if the House acts on the ethics panel’s recommendation.

House Ethics Committee investigators say Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton improperly used his office’s resources to help real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul on multiple occasions throughout 2020. (2017 File Photo/The Associated Press)(Tony Gutierrez / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“What’s next is to see what the House does with this,” Henson said, adding that Texans would be waiting to hear what top Republicans say about the House investigation.

Dallas-based conservative radio talk show host Mark Davis, who on Wednesday interviewed Paxton, said top Republicans leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick didn’t want to be brought into a public debate about the attorney general. In 2020, Abbott called bribery allegations against Paxton concerning, but has said little else since then.

“They don’t want to talk about this at all,” he said. “They know that whatever they say, they’re going to make a large segment of Republicans mad.”

According to House Ethics Committee investigators, Paxton improperly used his office’s resources to help real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul on multiple occasions throughout 2020, raising concern among his aides who viewed Paxton’s personal interventions.

The investigation occurred after Paxton’s agency asked the state for $3.3 million to settle a whistleblower case with four former employees who brought the alleged corruption to law enforcement officials, according to investigator Erin Epley, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Appealing to the right

In response to the House investigation, Paxton is already throwing punches. He accused the “liberal House leadership” of seeking to “sabotage” his work on election and border issues.

“They have demonstrated nothing but contempt for the traditional values of conservative Texans,” he said via Twitter.

Paxton is also reiterating accusations, which he first raised Tuesday, that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, recently presided over the House while intoxicated.

“I think everybody knows he was drunk,” Paxton told Davis, referencing a video that circulated on social media in recent days showing Phelan muddling his words toward the end of a 14-hour session.

“The video speaks for itself,” he said.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the House at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday May 23, 2023. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has called for the resignation of the state’s GOP House speaker and accused him of being intoxicated on the job. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)(Jay Janner / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Cait Wittman, a spokesperson for Phelan, said Tuesday that “Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounts to little more than a last ditch effort to save face.”

Judging from the past, it’s doubtful that conservative voters who have powered Paxton’s political rise, including three terms as attorney general, will be moved by the House probe.

He was reelected last year after winning a primary runoff against former Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the GOP primary and defeating Democrat Rochelle Garza in the general election.

“Paxton is very popular with the grassroots folks. He showed that with his reelection last year,” said Jeremy Bradford, a GOP consultant and former executive director of the Tarrant County Republican Party. “There’s somewhat of a disconnect between the grassroots and the Republican establishment.”

Tom Washington, a Denton County Republican, said grassroots Republicans would back Paxton, not Phelan.

“I don’t think there’s any good outcome to this,” he said. “Lawmakers are supposed to be finishing up the most important bills that they’re trying to pass, and they’re wasting time with this.”

He said House Republicans were risking angering GOP activists.

“If anybody’s going to get hurt from this with the hardcore of the Republican Party, it’s going to be Speaker Phelan,” Washington said.

Davis agreed.

“It has not hurt [Paxton] yet in any primary. It has not hurt him in the general elections, so it’s tempting to say this is just another example of people who don’t like him trying to bring him down,” he said. “It’s difficult to see how it succeeds.”

Davis acknowledged, however, that a regurgitation of the bribery allegations is not a good look for Paxton. “Nobody wants to get impeached,” he said, adding that a successful criminal conviction, which Paxton has avoided, is far worse.

Paxton has been under indictment for securities fraud since 2015. That case is stuck in the legal system.

Davis said Paxton will continue with a similar strategy, which involves making Phelan a villain with conservatives.

“He insists that the bold conservative things that he is doing have made him a lightning rod for attempts to silence him, to ruin him, to discredit him,” Davis said. “He’s increasingly aware that a portion of the Republican Party in Texas doesn’t like him and are interested in getting in their licks, as well.”

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