Following years of scandal, criminal charges and corruption accusations, Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton finds himself on the brink of impeachment, with a panel led by his fellow Republicans heading the charge.
In a unanimous decision, the Texas House investigative committee that spent months quietly looking into Paxton recommended impeaching the state’s top lawyer Thursday on 20 articles, including bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust.
The House could vote on the recommendation as soon as Friday. If it impeaches Paxton, he would be forced to leave office immediately.
The move sets up what could be a remarkably sudden downfall for one of the GOP’s most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Biden’s election victory. Only two officials in Texas’ nearly 200-year history have been impeached.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor. He was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, but has yet to stand trial.
When the five-member committee’s investigation came to light Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by the House’s “liberal” Republican speaker, Dade Phelan. He called for Phelan’s resignation and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday. Phelan’s office brushed off the accusation as an attempt by Paxton to “save face.”
“It’s is a sad day for Texas as we witness the corrupt political establishment unite in this illegitimate attempt to overthrow the will of the people and disenfranchise the voters of our state,” Paxton said in a statement Thursday, calling the committee’s findings “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims.”
By moving against him, “the RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same side as Joe Biden,” Paxton said, using the epithet — which stands for “Republicans in Name Only” — that former President Trump and his supporters reserve for fellow GOP members who oppose them.
Impeachment requires a majority vote of the state’s usually 150-member House chamber, which Republicans now control 85-64, since a GOP representative resigned ahead of an expected vote to expel him.
It’s unclear how many supporters Paxton may have in the House, where he served five terms before becoming a state senator. Since the prospect of impeachment suddenly emerged Wednesday, none of Texas’ other top Republicans has voiced support for him.
The articles of impeachment issued by the investigative committee, which comprises three Republicans and two Democrats, stem largely from Paxton’s relationship with one of his wealthy donors. They deal heavily with Paxton’s alleged efforts to protect the donor from an FBI investigation and his attempts to thwart whistleblower complaints brought by his own staff.
The timing of a vote by the House is unclear. Rep. Andrew Murr, the Republican chair of the investigative committee, said he did not have a timeline, and Phelan’s office declined to comment.
Unlike in Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office until a trial is held in the Senate. Gov. Greg Abbott, who is also a Republican, could appoint an interim replacement. Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the impeachment counts.
Final removal would require two-thirds support in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife’s, Angela, is a member. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican and leader of the Senate, did not respond to requests for comment.
Paxton, 60, faces ouster at the hands of GOP lawmakers just seven months after easily winning a third term over challengers — among them George P. Bush, — who had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but discovered that many either didn’t know about Paxton’s litany of alleged misdeeds or dismissed the accusations as political attacks.
The attorney general characterized his potential impeachment as “a critical moment for the rule of law and will of Texas voters.”
Even with Monday’s end of the regular session approaching, state law allows the House to keep working on impeachment proceedings. It also could call itself back into session later. The Senate has the same options.
In one sense, Paxton’s political peril arrived with dizzying speed: The House committee investigation came to light Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of alleged criminal acts he committed as one of Texas’ most powerful figures.
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But to Paxton’s detractors, who now include a widening share of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the rebuke was years in the making.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law over not registering as an investment advisor while soliciting clients. A year later, Paxton was indicted on felony securities charges by a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas, which accused him of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony counts that 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 later hired to a high-ranking job but was soon fired after trying to make a point by displaying child pornography in a meeting.
What has unleashed the most serious risk to Paxton is his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton’s top aides in 2020 told the FBI that they had become concerned the attorney general was misusing the powers of his office to help Paul over unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties was afoot. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he has not been charged and his attorneys have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
The impeachment charges cover myriad accusations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul. The allegations include attempts to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and improperly issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul, and firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. The bribery charges stem from Paul allegedly employing the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
Other charges date back to Paxton’s still-pending 2015 felony securities fraud indictment, including lying to state investigators.
The eight aides who reported Paxton to the FBI were all fired or quit, and four later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, In February, Paxton agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. But the Texas House must approve the payout, and Phelan has said he doesn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the Texas House investigation into Paxton began. The probe amounted to rare scrutiny of Paxton in the state Capitol, where many Republicans have long taken a muted stance about the accusations that have dogged him.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached a sitting official: Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and state Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.