AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – After years of legal and ethics scandals swirling around Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives is headed toward an impeachment vote that could quickly oust him from office.
The extraordinary and rarely used maneuver comes in the final days of the state legislative session and is sparking a fierce political battle. It pits Paxton, who has aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump and the state’s hard-right conservatives, against the House Republican leadership, which seems suddenly fed up with accusations of wrongdoing that have long dogged the Texas attorney general.
Paxton said the allegations were based on “hearsay and gossip, repeating long-debunked claims.”
Here’s how the impeachment process works in Texas, and how the 60-year-old Republican faced the possibility of becoming just the third official to be impeached in the state’s nearly 200-year history:
Under the Texas Constitution and law, the impeachment of a state official is similar to the process at the federal level: the action begins in the State House.
In this case, the five-member General Investigative Committee of the House of Representatives voted unanimously on Thursday to send the 20 articles of impeachment to the full chamber. The next step is a vote by the 149-member House of Representatives, where a simple majority is needed to pass members. Republicans control the chamber 85-64.
The House can call witnesses to testify, but the investigative committee has already done so before recommending impeachment. The commission met for several hours Wednesday, listening to investigators make an extraordinary public airing of Paxton’s years of scandal and alleged violations of the law.
If the full House impeaches Paxton, it goes to the state Senate for a “trial” to decide whether to permanently remove Paxton from office or acquit him. Removal requires a two-thirds majority vote.
But there’s a big difference between Texas and the federal system: If the House votes to impeach, Paxton is immediately suspended from office pending the outcome of the Senate trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would have the opportunity to name an interim replacement.
The Texas GOP controls every branch of state government. Until this week, Republican lawmakers and leaders have taken a muted stance on the countless examples of Paxton’s misconduct and alleged violations of the law that have surfaced in legal filings and news reports over the years.
It is unclear exactly when and why this changed.
In February, Paxton agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former associates who accused him of corruption. The $3.3 million payment must be approved by the House of Representatives, and Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said he does not think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began.
REPUBLICAN TO REPUBLICAN
The five-member committee that launched the investigation into Paxton is led by his fellow Republicans, standing up to the most high-profile recent examples of impeachment in America.
Trump’s federal impeachments in 2020 and 2021 boosted Democrats who held majority control of the US House of Representatives. In both cases, impeachment charges approved by the House failed in the Senate, where Republicans had enough votes to block a conviction.
In Texas, Republicans control both houses by large majorities, and state GOP leaders hold all the levers of influence. But that didn’t stop Paxton from trying to rally a partisan defense.
When the House inquiry came up on Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by Phelan. He called for the resignation of the “liberal” speaker and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday.
Phelan’s office denied the allegations while Paxton tried to “save face.” Since then, none of the state’s other top Republicans have expressed support for Paxton.
Paxton issued a statement Thursday in which he portrayed the impeachment process as an attempt to disenfranchise the voters who gave him a third term in November. He said that by moving against him, “the RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same side as Joe Biden.”
But Paxton, who served five terms in the House and one in the Senate before becoming attorney general, certainly still has allies in Austin.
It is likely his wife, Angela, a two-term senator who may be in an awkward position to vote on her husband’s political future. It is unclear whether she would or should participate in the trial in the Senate, where 31 members have a narrow margin.
In a twist, Paxton’s impeachment deals with an extramarital affair he admitted to members of his staff years earlier. The impeachment charges include bribing one of Paxton’s donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who allegedly hired a woman with whom he had an affair in exchange for legal help.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
The allegation dates back to 2015, when Paxton was charged with securities fraud for which he has yet to be tried. Lawmakers accused Paxton of making false statements to state securities regulators.
But most of the articles stem from Paxton’s ties to Paul and the remarkable 2020 revolt of top deputy attorneys general.
That fall, eight of Paxton’s top aides reported their boss to the FBI, accusing him of bribery and abuse of office to help Paul. The four later filed a whistleblower lawsuit. The report prompted a federal criminal investigation that was taken over in February by the US Department of Justice’s Washington-based Public Integrity Division.
The impeachment charges cover a myriad of allegations related to Paxton’s relationship with Paul. The allegations include attempting to interfere with foreclosure actions and improperly issuing legal opinions in favor of Paul, and firing, harassing and obstructing staff who reported what was happening. The bribery allegations stem from the affair, as well as Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s home in Austin.
The wrangling has taken its toll on the Texas attorney general’s office, which has long been one of the main legal challengers to the Democratic administration in the White House.
In the years since Paxton’s staff left for the FBI, his agency has shed behind-the-scenes disarray, with veteran lawyers resigning over practices they say are aimed at undermining legal work, rewarding loyalists and stoking dissent.
Paxton has probably already been noted in the history books for his unprecedented request to have the US Supreme Court overturn Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential election. He may now go down in history in a different way.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached an incumbent.
Governor James “Pa” Ferguson was removed from office in 1917 for misuse of public funds, embezzlement and diversion of a special fund. State Judge OP Carrillo was forced to resign in 1975 for using public money and equipment for personal use and submitting false financial statements.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.