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For nearly a decade, Texas Republicans largely looked the other way as Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal problems piled up.
That abruptly changed this week.
In revealing it had been secretly investigating Paxton since March — and then recommending his impeachment on Thursday — a Republican-led state House committee sought to hold Paxton accountable in a way the GOP has never come close to doing. It amounted to a political earthquake, and while it remains to be seen whether Paxton’s ouster will be the outcome, it represents a stunning act of self-policing.
“We’re used to seeing partisans protect their own, and in this case, the Republicans have turned on the attorney general,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It’s really surprising.”
The House General Investigating Committee voted unanimously Thursday to recommend impeachment of Paxton, citing a yearslong pattern of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking. The vote included all three Republicans who make up a majority on the panel — and it launched a process that will likely force every other Republican in the Legislature to go on the record.
That is something most Texas Republicans have avoided since Paxton was first elected as the state’s top legal official in 2014. Months into his first term, he was indicted on state securities fraud charges, a criminal case 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, like the revelation that he cheated on his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.
For the most part, Republican state leaders and lawmakers stayed quiet throughout. If they spoke, it was usually to demur and say they wanted to see the legal processes play out.
For example, when the whistleblower claims first surfaced, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both expressed concern but said they would not comment further until any investigation was complete. They never weighed in again.
After the securities fraud indictment, Paxton was reelected in 2018 without a single fellow Republican challenging him. 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, primary runoff voters appeared unfazed by Paxton’s scandals and renominated him over Bush by a wide margin. Patrick endorsed Paxton in the runoff.
There have been some exceptions to the silence on 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 of a willingness to scrutinize Paxton than most in the Texas GOP. Cornyn told reporters in Dallas on Thursday that he had watched some of the House committee hearing and found it “deeply troubling.”
“The fact that this has come this far with the Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate and a Republican attorney general tells you that this is serious enough that people are looking past party labels to try to see what we need to do to preserve the public trust and integrity of the institution,” Cornyn said.
The big question: Why now?
The years of alleged misconduct by Paxton raise the question: Why now?
House leaders have said the committee’s investigation was prompted by a $3.3 million settlement that Paxton reached with the whistleblowers in February. Paxton needed the Legislature to approve the use of state funds to settle the lawsuit — and quickly encountered resistance.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, was the first Republican in the Legislature to come out against using taxpayer dollars to pay for the settlement. A Phelan spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday that Paxton “made this demand of 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 first conducting a full and thorough investigation into the matter,” said the Phelan spokesperson, Cait Wittman.
To be clear, the 20 articles of impeachment are broader than the whistleblower claims at the center of the settlement. Some of them focus on the securities fraud charges.
Phelan’s intraparty critics say the settlement is a smokescreen for the impeachment effort. Paxton comes from a wing of the Texas GOP that frequently 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 direction of our state,” Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi said in a statement Friday.
For Paxton’s Democratic critics, his possible impeachment is evoking feelings of gratitude and vindication. Justin Nelson, the 2018 Democratic nominee who came the closest to beating Paxton, said in a statement that it was “long 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 is going to hold him responsible for conduct unbecoming of a public official, it’s going to have to be the Republican power structure.”
As for the timing of the House’s actions, Jaworski added: ”Well, you can’t say Ken Paxton didn’t have this investigation coming to him when you ask the Texas Legislature to pay a $3.3 million settlement of a disputed whistleblower claim that he derided every chance he had.”
Fellow Republicans start to weigh in
As an impeachment vote nears on the House floor, Paxton is about to learn how many Republican friends he really has, both inside the Capitol and outside.
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. And in a TV interview Thursday, Patrick declined to stick up for Paxton, pointing out that he may have to preside over a Senate trial.
“We will all be responsible as any juror would be, if that turns out to be, 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 against Paxton by supporting his primary challengers in 2022. Sen. Mayes Middleton of Galveston personally funded two of Paxton’s rivals to the tune of six figures. But for the rest, this will be the first time they have to publicly render 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 approve a resolution containing the articles of impeachment. While all 64 House Democrats can be expected to vote to impeach Paxton, early 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 argument that it would be an “illegal” action. Toth predicted impeachment would lead to a protracted court battle that would cause “paralysis of our attorney general at a time when we should be fighting the Biden administration.”
Rep. Matt Schaefer, a Tyler Republican who supported one of Paxton’s 2022 primary challengers, questioned Phelan on the floor about how much access lawmakers will have to the evidence supporting the articles of impeachment. Phelan repeatedly deferred to the chair of the House General Investigating Committee, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction. Schaefer appeared unsatisfied.
“Process matters,” he tweeted afterward.
Another House Republican, freshman Rep. Carl Tepper of Lubbock, said late Friday night that he had watched the committee hearing and the “witnesses seemed quite credible and testimony damning.”
“Of course, the AG deserves a defense but that doesn’t happen until the trial,” Tepper said on Twitter. “In this case that’ll be in the senate if the impeach resolution prevails. We’ll take this seriously.”
On Friday morning, Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, called in to a Dallas radio show and said he was undecided on how he would vote. But he raised multiple questions about the process so far and said that while the allegations against Paxton are “very concerning,” he may be even more worried 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 do not hold the current attorney general in very high regard.”
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 complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune