By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune
“Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton acquitted on all 16 articles of impeachment” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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The Texas Senate on Saturday acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton of 16 articles of impeachment alleging corruption and bribery, his most artful escape in a career spent courting controversy and skirting consequences of scandal.
No article received more than 14 of the required 21 votes to convict. Only two of 19 Republican Senators, Bob Nichols of Jacksonville and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, voted in favor of convicting for any article — a stark contrast to the nearly 70% of House Republicans who impeached the attorney general in May.
Paxton, who attended just two days of the trial and was not present to witness his exoneration, was characteristically defiant.
“The sham impeachment coordinated by the Biden Administration with liberal House Speaker Dade Phelan and his kangaroo court has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, disrupted the work of the Office of Attorney General and left a dark and permanent stain on the Texas House,” Paxton said in a statement. “The weaponization of the impeachment process to settle political differences is not only wrong, it is immoral and corrupt.”
The dramatic votes capped a two-week trial where a parade of witnesses, including former senior officials under Paxton, testified that the attorney general had repeatedly abused his office by helping his friend, struggling Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, investigate and harass his enemies, delay foreclosure sales of his properties and obtain confidential records on the police investigating him. In return, House impeachment managers said Paul paid to renovate Paxton’s Austin home and helped him carry out and cover up an extramarital affair with a former Senate aide.
In the end, senators were unpersuaded.
“This should have never happened,” Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, told reporters outside the chamber. He criticized what he called a rushed and flawed investigation by the House.
The not guilty verdicts immediately restored Paxton to office, lifting the automatic suspension triggered by the House vote in May to impeach him. The votes sealed the failure of a risky gambit by House Republicans who began in secret in the spring to investigate, and then purge, a leader of their own party.
And they came after sustained pressure on senators from grassroots groups, conservative activists and the leader of the state Republican Party who vowed retribution at the ballot box if Paxton was convicted.
Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was on hand to witness his acquittal. Required to attend but barred from deliberating and voting because of her relationship with the accused, she listened stone-faced during the trial as multiple witnesses testified about the attorney general’s infidelity, exposing as a lie his 2018 declaration to his wife and senior aides that the affair was permanently over.
After the acquittal, she hugged her husband’s lead lawyer, Tony Buzbee, and shook hands with the defense team.
The Senate also voted 19-11 to dismiss the remaining four articles of impeachment that the chamber had agreed to set aside prior to the trial. Those articles dealt with Paxton’s long-running securities fraud case, which is expected to go to trial early next year.
Despite the victory, Paxton’s troubles are far from over. He faces trial on charges of securities fraud dating back to 2015.
More dangerous to Paxton is a federal investigation that began when the attorney general’s senior aides reported him to the FBI in 2020, alleging crimes that mirror the impeachment charges. That case has reached a grand jury in San Antonio. A new criminal indictment carries far higher stakes than impeachment. Campaigning to stay in office is one thing; fighting to remain out of prison is another entirely.
Even in the long, sordid history of Texas political scandals, Paxton stands out. The accusations leveled against him in 21 years of public life ranged from felonious to farcical: that he duped investors to whom he sold stock, profited from inside information on a land deal, made false claims in court about the 2020 presidential election, and purloined another lawyer’s expensive pen.
Other episodes gave grist to criticism that Paxton considered himself above the law, like when he fled his home last year, in a truck driven by his wife, to avoid being served a subpoena.
Association with scandal has not appeared to chasten Paxton, who has often claimed he is being persecuted by political opponents. Nor did it dissuade voters, who reelected him as recently as 2022, picking him over three prominent primary challengers including then-Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
To critics, the lack of accountability emboldened him.
In February, he asked the Texas House to pay for a $3.3 million settlement his office negotiated with four of the whistleblowers who alleged they were improperly fired for reporting him to the FBI. The agreement, which was rejected by the Legislature, would have eliminated the need for a public trial.
The request spurred House members, concerned they were being asked to participate in a cover-up, to begin a secret investigation in March to determine whether the whistleblower claims against Paxton of bribery and corruption had merit.
The findings of the House investigative committee, released in May, were explosive: that Paxton had likely broken numerous state laws, misspent office funds and misused his power to benefit Paul, his friend and political donor. Hours before the hearing, in an apparent attempt to preempt it, Paxton accused House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, of presiding over the chamber while drunk and demanded he resign.
The House, including more than two-thirds of Republican members, voted to impeach Paxton three days later. The articles included allegations that Paxton hired an outside counsel who helped Paul investigate his enemies in business and law enforcement, pressured employees to issue a rushed legal opinion that helped Paul delay foreclosure sales of several properties and intervened to Paul’s benefit in a lawsuit between a charity and the investor — all while prioritizing Paul’s case over more pressing state issues.
“Mr. Paxton turned the keys of the office of attorney general over to Nate Paul,” impeachment manager Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, said on the first day of the trial Sept. 5.
Paul, who did not testify, was indicted in federal court in June on charges alleging that he lied to financial institutions to obtain loans for his businesses.
A historic trial
Testimony brought to life the nearly 4,000 pages of evidence the prosecution had published. The whistleblowers described being befuddled for months in the spring and summer of 2020 about why Paxton was devoting so much of the agency’s attention to Paul and his complaints about law enforcement while ignoring their concerns that this was improper.
They grew troubled that Paxton shared Paul’s distrust of police and brushed off their warnings to distance himself from the real estate investor, whose business empire was crumbling and who was the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
“I told him that Nate Paul was a criminal,” testified David Maxwell, former head of the agency’s criminal division. “And that if he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was going to get himself indicted.”
Paxton’s former top deputy said his boss’s bizarre behavior “finally made sense” when he realized Paul had hired the woman with whom he was having an affair, which allowed her to move to Austin where he could more easily see her. This discovery, coupled with the realization that an outside lawyer hired by Paxton, without their knowledge, had sent subpoenas to banks that had made loans to Paul’s businesses, prompted the whistleblowers to report the attorney general to the FBI.
“We considered it sort of a crisis moment,” said Jeff Mateer, Paxton’s former top deputy. “Everything regarding Mr. Paul was coming to a head.”
The outside lawyer, Brandon Cammack, testified that Paxton never told him of his friendship with Paul and then reneged on paying for his work after the whistleblowers exposed their arrangement.
Paxton’s defense team attempted to brand the whistleblowers as insubordinate, disloyal opportunists who jumped to conclusions based on incomplete information in staging what amounted to a palace coup. Buzbee, Paxton’s lead lawyer, said the former deputies owed it to the attorney general to share their concerns with him before going behind his back to the FBI.
Paxton’s team — and his supporters outside the Capitol — also seized on witnesses’ answers about how much evidence they had before reporting Paxton to the FBI. After one whistleblower, Ryan Vassar, testified that they “took no evidence” to the FBI, House lawyer Rusty Hardin had to coach him through a clarification, asserting his witness account was evidence itself.
Some of the defense’s arguments bordered on conspiratorial, hinting at a broader divide within the Republican Party between Paxton’s far-right faction and the establishment wing including Phelan, Abbott and Patrick.
Buzbee at one point insinuated that Bush, Paxton’s erstwhile rival, may have been in cahoots with the whistleblowers because he requested to reactivate his law license the same day they went to the FBI. The implication was that he did so in preparation for being appointed Paxton’s replacement.
“You ever hear that old saying, ‘there are no coincidences in Austin?’” Buzbee said, referencing a saying few had ever heard.
While Paxton blasted the impeachment as an illegitimate proceeding led by Democrats and liberal Republicans, the whistleblowers’ conservative bona fides challenged that framing. All hired by Paxton, they included a champion of religious liberty whom Trump nominated to a federal judgeship, a longtime federal prosecutor and a decorated former Texas Ranger.
Paxton’s team also tried to tap into the conservative vein of mistrust in federal law enforcement. Dan Cogdell, another of the attorney general’s lawyers, said Paul’s complaint that he was mistreated by Department of Justice employees who executed a raid on his home and business in 2019 deserved scrutiny.
Cogdell got the young lawyer to concede that the attorney general’s primary directive was for him to “find the truth” — hardly, he argued, the kind of instruction likely to be found at the heart of a conspiracy to help Paul.
As for the bribery claim that Paul paid to renovate an Austin home owned by the Paxtons, the defense provided documents purporting to show the couple paying for work done there.
Buzbee poked a hole in the testimony of Paxton personal aide Drew Wicker, who said he’d overheard a conversation where the attorney general told a contractor he wanted granite countertops in the kitchen, to which the contractor replied he’d have to “check with Nate.”
On cross-examination, he got Wicker to confirm that photographs taken before the renovation in 2020 and last month showed no changes to the kitchen. Buzbee offered to take senators on a bus ride to the Tarrytown house to settle the issue once and for all.
The prosecution countered by offering evidence that Paul communicated directly with the contractor about repairs elsewhere in the home. And impeachment lawyer Erin Epley noted that the day that Paxton allegedly paid for the work was the same day the whistleblowers reported him to the FBI, suggesting Paxton wired the $121,617 once he realized law enforcement was involved.
In a tense moment toward the end of the trial, the House attempted to call Paxton’s alleged lover, Laura Olson, who had never spoken publicly about their relationship. Olson waited in the Capitol’s legislative library but Patrick ultimately declared her unavailable to testify after her lawyers said she would assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
She could have helped the prosecution prove its second bribery claim: that Paul hired her in return for the favors Paxton was providing. But that bombshell moment never came, and that same afternoon the prosecution rested its case.
“All of this foolishness that they’ve accused this man of is false,” Buzbee said in his closing argument. “The question I have in my mind is whether there is … courage in this room to vote the way you know the evidence requires. I think there is. I hope there is. I pray there is.”
In the end, a majority of senators agreed.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/16/ken-paxton-acquitted-impeachment-texas-attorney-general/.
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