A Republican vs. Republican battle is dragging down the Texas GOP

A Republican vs. Republican battle is dragging down the Texas GOP

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the “Save America” rally with former President Donald Trump on October 22, 2022, in Robstown, Texas. | Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The investigation of Texas’s top prosecutor reveals Republican divisions.

Texas’s far-right attorney general Ken Paxton has been beset with legal troubles for the better part of a decade. But until Wednesday, it didn’t seem as though they would catch up with him. Now that they have, it has set up a heated intraparty fight.

A Texas House panel, which launched a secret investigation into Paxton in March, announced in a hearing that the state’s top prosecutor likely violated many state laws, abused the power of his office for his own gain, and squandered office funds. Lawmakers now have the option of pursuing his impeachment and removal from office, which they could exercise in the coming days before the legislative session ends.

The announcement came after Paxton — who counts former President Donald Trump as an ally and is known for leading splashy multi-state lawsuits against the Biden administration — called on Speaker Dade Phelan, more of a traditional conservative, to resign on the grounds that he was “in an obviously intoxicated state” while presiding over the House floor. Paxton was referencing a viral video posted by a far-right former lawmaker of Phelan slurring his words. Phelan has responded that Paxton is merely trying to distract from the House investigation.

It’s an unusually public display of intraparty rancor in a state as red as Texas, where Republicans have trifecta control. Now, even if Paxton isn’t impeached, the drama seems likely to surface broader divisions in the party and deal a blow to the far-right wing he represents.

“There’s an interesting reckoning going on in the Republican Party right now between the far right and the less extreme the members of the party,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy nonprofit that has called for Paxton’s resignation and impeachment.

Much of the misconduct alleged by the House panel was already known to the public. But the notion that the House dedicated resources to investigating Paxton — and listed a litany of crimes, including felonies, that he had likely committed — suggests that he has lost the backing of at least some Republican lawmakers. It comes after Paxton has publicly pressured them to pay $3.3 million in taxpayer funds to settle a whistleblower lawsuit against him, in which four former high-ranking officials in his office claim they were unlawfully fired in retaliation for accusing him of accepting bribes and other ethics violations.

Across several hours of testimony, the House panel laid out in excruciating detail the case that Paxton had committed felony offenses of abuse of official capacity, misuse of public information, and misapplication of fiduciary property. That’s for allegedly directing some of his senior staff to do $72,000 worth of taxpayer-funded work for his donor and friend, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul; providing Paul with an FBI file related to an investigation of him; and contracting $25,000 in outside counsel duties to the attorney general’s office to do legal work primarily for Paul.

“It really summed up just how much [Paxton] has disgraced the office — how his conduct has been essentially criminal for years,” Shelley said. “I think it’s obvious that he doesn’t have the confidence of lawmakers anymore.”

Will Paxton get impeached?

Phelan has suggested that he’s open to the idea of impeaching Paxton, who has long been seen as a liability for his party given his history of legal troubles. Just a few weeks ago, the House unanimously voted to expel Republican Bryan Slaton, who plied a 19-year-old aide with alcohol and had sex with her — the first time an expulsion has happened since 1927.

Shelley said that it’s likely that the House will vote to impeach, which would result in Paxton being immediately suspended from his duties as attorney general. To formally remove him from office, however, the Senate would have to vote to convict him, and it’s not yet clear that the votes are there. A two-thirds majority in both chambers would be required.

His office would be able to function without him before a successor chosen by the governor assumes office. And Shelley said that Texans would be better off that way.

“If he were immediately suspended from serving in the office, the day-to-day work of law enforcement would continue. The embarrassing and politically motivated actions of Paxton himself would come to a halt, which I think would serve the interest of Texans,” he said.

Paxton’s many legal troubles

Wednesday’s hearing marked the latest episode in Paxton’s long list of legal troubles.

In 2015, Paxton was accused by Byron Cook, a former Republican state legislator, and Florida businessman Joel Hochberg of encouraging them to invest $100,000 or more in a technology company called Servergy Inc., without notifying them that he would earn a commission if they did so. This is alleged to have happened in 2011, while Paxton was a member of the Texas House.

The indictment in that case alleges that Paxton “intentionally fail[ed] to disclose” that he had been given compensation in the form of 100,000 shares of Servergy stock, charging him with two counts of securities fraud. He was also charged with a failure to register with the state securities board. Paxton has denied the allegations in the case, which is still making its way through the courts eight years later.

In 2020, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the whistleblower claims that are the subject of the settlement that Paxton has pushed in the legislature.

The aides asserted that Paxton tried to get state employees to release government records to Paul that should have been kept confidential and that he issued a legal opinion that helped Paul avoid foreclosure sales on several of his properties during the pandemic. He also allegedly intervened in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin-based charity. And Paxton hired an outside attorney to review claims from Paul that he had been mistreated during an FBI raid on his property in 2019, complaints Paxton’s staff had already reviewed and dismissed. In return for all this, the aides claim, Paxton got Paul’s help with a home remodel and with finding Paxton’s alleged mistress a job.

Paxton has said that he’s done nothing wrong and has accused the FBI of infiltrating his office. No criminal charges have been filed.

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