EXPLAINER: Texas’ extraordinary move to impeach scandal-plagued GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton
After years of legal and ethical scandals surrounding Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives has moved toward an impeachment vote that could quickly throw him out of office.
The extraordinary and rarely performed maneuver takes place in the last days of the state’s legislature and sparks a bitter political struggle. It pits Paxton, who has been closely allied with former President Donald Trump and the state’s far-right Conservatives, against the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, who seem suddenly fed up with the misconduct allegations that have long dogged Texas’ top attorney.
Paxton said the charges were based on “hearsay and rumours, parroting long-debunked claims”.
Here’s how the impeachment process works in Texas and how the 60-year-old Republican faced the prospect of becoming only the third officer to be indicted in the state’s nearly 200-year history:
Under the Texas constitution and statute, impeachment of a state official is similar to the federal process: the impeachment begins in the state House of Representatives.
In that case, the five-member House Inquiry Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to send 20 counts of impeachment to the full chamber. The next step is a vote in the 149-seat House of Representatives, which will require a simple majority to approve the articles. Republicans control the chamber by an 85-64 vote.
The House of Representatives can call witnesses to testify, but the investigative committee did so before recommending impeachment. The panel met for several hours on Wednesday, listening to investigators who provided an extraordinary public account of Paxton’s years-long scandal and alleged violations of the law.
If the entire House of Representatives indicts Paxton, everything shifts to the State Senate, which is to hold a “trial” to decide whether Paxton should be permanently removed from office or acquitted. A two-thirds majority is required for dismissal.
A Sudden Threat
However, there is one major difference between Texas and the federal system: if the House of Representatives votes to impeach, Paxton is immediately suspended from office pending the outcome of the Senate case. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would have the option to appoint an interim replacement.
The GOP in Texas controls every branch of state government. Both Republican lawmakers and leaders, as of this week, have taken a cautious stance on the myriad examples of Paxton’s wrongdoing and alleged violations of the law that have surfaced in court filings and news reports over the years.
It’s unclear exactly when and why that changed.
In February, Paxton agreed to settle a whistleblower complaint brought by former employees alleging corruption. The $3.3 million payout is subject to House approval, and Republican Speaker Dade Phelan has said he doesn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House of Representatives began investigating Paxton.
REPUBLICANS ABOUT REPUBLICANS
The five-member committee that opened the investigation into Paxton is led by his Republican compatriots, contrasting the most prominent recent examples of impeachment trials in America.
Trump’s federal impeachment trials in 2020 and 2021 were driven by Democrats, who held a majority in the US House of Representatives. In both cases, impeachment trials approved by the House of Representatives failed in the Senate, where Republicans had enough votes to prevent conviction.
In Texas, Republicans control both houses by a large majority, and the state’s GOP leaders wield all the leverage. But that hasn’t stopped Paxton from mounting a partisan defense.
When the House investigation broke Tuesday, Paxton suspected it was a political attack by Phelan. He called for the “liberal” speaker’s resignation, accusing him of getting drunk during a marathon session last Friday.
Phelan’s office denied allegations that Paxton tried to “save face.” None of the state’s other top Republicans have expressed support for Paxton since.
Paxton issued a statement Thursday, describing the impeachment process as an attempt to disenfranchise voters who granted him a third term in November. He said that by taking action against him, the RINOs in the Texas Legislature “are now on the same side as Joe Biden.”
THE MARRIAGE folds
But Paxton, who served five terms in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate before becoming attorney general, will certainly still have allies in Austin.
A likely one is his wife Angela, a two-time senator who may find himself in the difficult position of voting on her husband’s political future. It’s unclear if she would or should take part in the Senate process, where the 31 members have a slim chance.
In a surprising twist, Paxton’s impeachment involves an extramarital affair he confessed to his coworkers years ago. Charges in the impeachment trial include bribing one of Paxton’s financiers, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who allegedly hired the woman he was having the affair with in exchange for legal counsel.
YEARS IN DEVELOPMENT
The impeachment dates back to 2015, when Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges, for which he has still not been brought to trial. Lawmakers accused Paxton of making false statements to state securities regulators.
But most of the articles stem from Paxton’s ties to Paul and a notable revolt by the senior attorney general’s chief executives in 2020.
That fall, eight senior Paxton employees reported their boss to the FBI, accusing him of bribing and using his office to help Paul. Four of them later filed the whistleblower lawsuit. The report sparked a federal criminal investigation, which was taken over in February by the US Department of Justice’s Washington-based Public Integrity Division.
The impeachment charges include myriad allegations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul. The allegations include attempting to interfere in foreclosure proceedings, improperly providing legal opinions on Paul’s behalf, and firing, harassing and harassing employees who reported on the proceedings. The bribery allegations stem from the affair and the fact that Paul allegedly paid for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
The uproar took a toll on the Texas attorney general’s office, which has long been one of the primary legal challengers to the Democratic White House administrations.
In the years since Paxton’s associates left for the FBI, the turmoil behind the scenes has disengaged his agency. Experienced attorneys have resigned over practices allegedly aimed at distorting legal work, rewarding loyalists and fomenting dissent.
Paxton may have already made history with his unprecedented request that the US Supreme Court overturn Joe Biden’s defeat by Trump in the 2020 presidential election. He could now make history in a different way.
Only twice has the Texas House of Representatives impeached an incumbent official.
Governor James “Pa” Ferguson was impeached in 1917 for misappropriation of public funds, embezzlement and diversion of a special fund. State judge OP Carrillo was ousted in 1975 for using public funds and equipment for his own needs and for filing false financial reports.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.