Long-indicted and long-serving Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) drew national attention this week both as the lodger and subject of various wild claims of impropriety.
On Tuesday, Paxton accused Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) of being drunk in public while presiding over a session of the state legislature.
On Wednesday, the House’s Committee on General Investigating presented a report detailing corruption allegations against Paxton, accusing him of undertaking a series of potentially illegal favors for a troubled friend and political donor.
What’s beneath this Texas two-step? Is it all about the longstanding allegations against Paxton? Here are five points to make sense of the mess.
Paxton broke through the national political media cacophony on Tuesday with a simple claim: Phelan presided over a session of the Texas House “in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.” Paxton called on Phelan to resign.
Paxton was referring to a video of Phelan speaking with a lack of clarity while swaying on the House floor. Local media said it came at the end of a long day of legislating.
But that explanation, or desire to offer the benefit of the doubt to a member of his own party, did not stop Paxton from pressing the case. He filed a complaint with the House Investigating Committee, again calling Phelan “obviously intoxicated” in the letter.
Of course, it’s far from clear that Phelan was “intoxicated.”
The House speaker himself issued a statement describing the drunkenness allegations as a “last-ditch effort to save face” by Paxton before impending corruption allegations (more on that below) — allegations that would soon be fleshed out by the same committee to which Paxton made the intoxication referral.
Phelan added that Paxton had received a document preservation letter related to his “alleged illegal conduct on the same day that he made the accusations.
The Allegations Against Paxton
Paxton has been dogged by allegations of graft for years. He’s been under state indictment for securities fraud since July 2015, but has somewhat miraculously managed to put off the trial.
But it’s the substance of allegations that’s reportedly led to a federal criminal investigation which the House Committee has been investigating.
The probe focused on Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, a contributor to Paxton’s electoral campaigns.
Paxton allegedly received favors from Paul, including a “floor to ceiling renovation” of the AG’s home and employment for a woman with whom Paxton was allegedly having an affair.
In exchange, investigators told the panel, Paxton helped Paul by accessing information about an FBI investigation into Paul which included searches executed at Paul’s home and office. Paxton’s office allegedly issued a “no opinion” finding in response to an open records request for the information, allowing Paul to obtain sensitive law enforcement records, the Houston Chronicle reported. His office also allegedly issued an opinion which complicated Austin-area foreclosure sales just as multiple Paul properties were about to hit foreclosure auctions.
Paxton, witnesses said, also hired an attorney at Paul’s request in an effort to probe the FBI officials investigating Paul.
Four former top Paxton aides sued their old boss, alleging that they were retaliated against as whistleblowers for describing the above.
That appears to have been what caused the Texas House investigation.
They’re Not That New
Per investigators, Paxton signaled in February that he would settle a lawsuit brought by the whistleblowers for $3.3 million.
Here’s the rub: to make the payout and end the litigation, Paxton needed approval from the state legislature to disburse that amount. The legislative session ends next week.
The panel said on Wednesday that it opened the investigation in secret in March.
State Rep. Andrew Murr (R) said at the hearing that “it’s alarming and very serious having this discussion when millions of taxpayer dollars have been asked to remedy what is alleged to be some wrongs,” adding that Paxton was asking the legislature to fund a $3.3 million payment which would help the AG avoid further embarrassing details from being revealed at trial.
Many of these allegations were first revealed in the whistleblower suit, which was filed in February 2022. The case has been frozen as the state legislature mulls — or investigates — the circumstances that led to Paxton essentially asking it to bail him out.
But Could Lead To Paxton’s Impeachment
What’s new is the fact that the Texas House, after hearing the results of the investigation, appears to be considering an impeachment proceeding against Paxton.
Those presenting from the investigative team included a number of local Republican stalwarts, including multiple former former prosecutors in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, and a former Houston Police Department investigator. Committee Chair Rep. Murr (R) noted that the panel’s top investigative counsel had worked with Ryan Patrick, the Trump-appointed former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas and son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Investigating and substantiating the allegations that the whistleblowers made was at the center of the investigation, the team told the panel.
“Each of these four men is a conservative Republican civil servant,” Erin Epley, the panel’s lead investigative counsel, said. “Interviews show that they wanted to be loyal to General Paxton and they tried to advise him well, often and strongly, and when that failed each was fired after reporting General Paxton to law enforcement.”
Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican on the panel, said that the committee would “do our job and uphold our oaths of office.”
Per the Texas Tribune, the state House has only impeached and removed two officials in its history — a governor and a judge, most recently in the 1970s.
Is Phelan a RINO?
It’s far from clear that the GOP-controlled Texas House will spend the time and effort on impeaching an official who, at the fade of day, belongs to the same party as them.
Refusing to pay out a $3.3 million settlement that would stop Paxton from being further humiliated in public is one thing, but mustering support for a trial and the subsequent two-thirds majority necessary for a conviction is another.
Which brings us back to where the story began: House Speaker Dade Phelan (R).
Far-right Republicans have rejected Phelan in the past as a RINO, with state GOP chair Rep. Alan West (R) refusing in 2020 to support his bid to become speaker.
That isn’t a reflection of reality necessarily: Phelan has shepherded a flock of hard-right legislation through the chamber this session.
But it’s a note that Paxton was happy to play as the hearing began to unfold. He called into Dallas right-wing talk radio host to say it was “shocking” and “unprecedented,” “especially from a Republican House,” while denigrating Phelan in the harshest possible terms: denouncing him as a “liberal.”
“Every allegation is easily disproved, and I look forward to continuing my fight for conservative Texas values,” Paxton added.
Correction: Ryan Patrick was referenced as a former employer of Epley’s, and not as a member of the investigating committee.