AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton teetered on the brink of impeachment Thursday after years of scandals, criminal indictments and corruption allegations that the state’s Republican majority has largely met with silence.
In a unanimous decision, the Republican-led House investigative committee that has been quietly studying Paxton for months recommended the impeachment of the state attorney general. The House could vote on the recommendation as early as Friday. If Paxton is impeached, he would 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 legal fighters, who in 2020 asked the US Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory. Only two officials in Texas’ nearly 200-year history have been impeached.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over allegations he used his office to help a donor and was separately charged with securities fraud in 2015 but has yet to stand trial.
Since the House committee’s investigation came to light this week, Paxton has suggested it was a politically motivated attack by “liberal” Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, who he also accused of being drunk on the job. Phelan’s office dismissed Paxton’s accusation as an attempt by Paxton to “save face.”
One of Paxton’s criminal attorneys, Philip Hilder, said Thursday that Paxton’s alleged wrongdoing should be left to the courts.
“These issues are appropriate for resolution in the judicial system, not the political system,” Hilder told The Associated Press.
Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the 150-member House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a commanding 85-64 majority. It’s unclear how much support Paxton has in the House. Since the impeachment possibility suddenly loomed Wednesday, none of Texas’ other top Republicans have expressed support for Paxton.
It is also unclear when the vote will take place. Rep. Andrew Murr, 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 Senate trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could name an interim replacement.
That means Paxton faces ouster by GOP lawmakers just seven months after he easily won a third term over challengers — including George P. Bush — who urged voters to reject the embattled incumbent but found that many they were unaware of Paxton’s litany of alleged wrongdoing or dismissed the allegations as political attacks.
In one sense, Paxton’s political peril came at breakneck speed: House Republicans didn’t reveal they were investigating him until Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of alleged crimes he committed as one of Texas’ most powerful figures.
But to Paxton’s detractors, who now include a growing share of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the rebuke has been seen as years in the making.
In 2014, he pleaded guilty to violating Texas securities law by failing to register as an investment adviser while soliciting clients. A year later, a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas indicted Paxton on a securities crime charge, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He pleaded not guilty to two felonies 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 was later hired into a top job but soon fired after he tried to show child pornography at a meeting.
What posed the most serious risk to Paxton was his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton’s top aides in 2020 said they had grown concerned that the attorney general was abusing the power of his office to help Paul with unproven claims that an elaborate plot was underway to steal $200 million from his estate. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he was not charged and his lawyers denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had been having an affair with a woman who, it turned out, worked for Paul.
Paxton’s associates accused him of corruption and all were fired or quit 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 payment, and Phelan said he doesn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began. The investigation represented a rare check on Paxton at the state Capitol, where many Republicans have long taken a muted stance on the charges that followed the attorney general.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached an official: Governor James Ferguson in 1917 and State Judge OP Carrillo in 1975.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed to this report from Austin.