By ACACIA CORONADO and JAKE BLEIBERG (Associated Press)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton found himself on the brink of impeachment Thursday after years of scandals, criminal charges and allegations of corruption that the state’s Republican majority has so far kept quiet.
In a unanimous decision, the Republican-led House Investigative Committee, which has been quietly investigating Paxton for months, recommended impeachment of the state’s attorney general on 20 counts, including bribery, unfitness to hold office and abuse of public trust. The House may vote on the recommendation as early as Friday. If Paxton is impeached, he will be forced out of office immediately.
The move sets up what could be an extremely sudden fall for one of the GOP’s most prominent rights activists, who in 2020 asked the US Supreme Court to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Only two officials in the nearly 200-year history of Texas have been impeached.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over allegations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately charged with securities fraud in 2015 but has yet to stand trial.
When the five-member commission’s investigation was revealed on Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, a “liberal” speaker. He called for Phelan’s resignation and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday. Phelan’s office dismissed the allegation as Paxton trying to “save face.”
“This is a sad day for Texas as we watch a corrupt political establishment unite in this illegal attempt to subvert the will of the people and deprive our state’s voters of their votes,” Paxton said in a statement Thursday, calling the committee’s findings “rumor and gossip, repeating claims that have long since been disproved.”
Opposing him, Paxton said, “The RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same side as Joe Biden.”
Impeachment requires a majority vote in the regular 150-member state House of Representatives, which is now controlled by Republicans 85-64, as the GOP representative resigned ahead of an expected vote to oust him over allegations of sexual misconduct with an intern.
It is unclear how many Paxton supporters there may be in the House of Representatives. No other top Texas Republican has expressed support for Paxton since the prospect of impeachment suddenly emerged Wednesday.
The articles of impeachment issued by the investigative committee, which includes three Republicans and two Democrats, mostly relate to Paxton’s relationship with one of his wealthy donors. Those 20 counts largely concern Paxton’s alleged efforts to shield a donor from an FBI investigation and his own attempts to thwart whistleblower complaints filed by his own employees.
The timing of the vote in the House is also unclear. Representative Andrew Moore, the Republican chairman of the Investigative Committee, said he did not have a timeline, and Phelan’s office declined to comment.
Unlike Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office pending a trial in the Senate. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott may appoint a temporary replacement. Final removal would require two-thirds support in the Senate, of which Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a member.
Paxton, 60, faces impeachment by GOP lawmakers just seven months after narrowly winning a third term over challengers including George W. Bush, who urged voters to reject the embattled incumbent but found many unaware of Paxton’s litany of alleged crimes or dismissed the allegations as political attacks.
Even as the regular session ends Monday, state law allows the House of Representatives to continue working on impeachment proceedings. It can also call itself back into the session later. The Senate has the same possibilities.
In some ways, Paxton’s political peril has arrived with startling speed, with the announcement of a House committee investigation on Tuesday followed by an unusual public release of alleged wrongdoing he committed as one of Texas’ most powerful figures the next day.
But for Paxton’s detractors, who now include a growing share of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the rebuke has been years in the making.
In 2014, he pleaded guilty to violating Texas securities laws by failing to register as an investment adviser when soliciting clients. A year later, a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas indicted Paxton on securities crimes, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a technology startup. He pleaded not guilty to the two counts, which carry a potential sentence of five to 99 years in prison.
He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton’s office for Medicaid fraud. An additional $50,000 was donated by an Arizona retiree whose son Paxton was later hired for a top job but soon fired after trying to prove his point by showing child pornography at a meeting.
The biggest danger for Paxton is his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several top Paxton aides said in 2020 that they were concerned that the attorney general was abusing the authority of his office to help Paul over unproven allegations of an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million from his estate. Paul’s home was searched by the FBI in 2019, but he has not been charged and his lawyers have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told officers that he had been having an affair with a woman who, it was later revealed, worked for Paul.
Paxton’s aides accused him of corruption and all were fired or fired after reporting him to the FBI. The four sued under Texas whistleblower laws, accusing Paxton of wrongful retaliation, and in February agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. But the Texas House must approve the payout, and Phelan said he doesn’t believe taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House began investigating Paxton. The investigation has drawn rare scrutiny of Paxton at the state Capitol, where many Republicans have long taken a muted stance on the allegations that have followed the attorney general.
The Texas House of Representatives has only twice impeached an incumbent: Governor James Ferguson in 1917 and State Judge OP Carrillo in 1975.
This story has been corrected to reflect that impeachment requires a majority, not a two-thirds, vote of the Texas House of Representatives.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporters Paul J. Webber and Jim Vertuno contributed from Austin.