Texas’ attorney general under sudden Republican scrutiny at state Capitol
May 24, 2023, 9:11 AM
(Jay Janner /Austin American-Statesman via AP)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday faced sudden new risks to his political future as an investigative state House committee laid out an extraordinary public airing of scandal and alleged lawbreaking that has long trailed one of Texas’ top Republicans.
For more than two hours, investigators presented findings alleging that Paxton sought to hide an affair, misused his office to help a donor, skirted protocols “grossly outside” norms and built a culture of fear and retaliation in his office. Investigators told the GOP-led House General Investigative Committee that there was evidence that Paxton had committed multiple felonies and misdemeanors over the years, including misuse of official information, abuse of official capacity and retaliation.
The dramatic turn of events in the Texas Capitol unleashed a new test of Paxton’s durability in a way the conservative firebrand has not previously confronted despite a ongoing FBI investigation. The House committee’s investigation has been quietly going on for months and did not come to light until Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear how the House General Investigative Committee might act on the findings. The committee’s hearing began as Paxton sought legislative approval of more than $3 million in taxpayer dollars to a settle a whistleblower lawsuit with top aides who accused him of corruption. Republican House leaders have signaled unease with approving the payout. The legislative session ends Monday.
The forum alone amounted to a remarkable rebuke from Republicans in a building where Paxton has long maintained defenders and allies, including GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in to a third term in January.
Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the hearing. During a radio program Wednesday morning, he repeated his claim made a day earlier that Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan of had been drunk on the job. Phelan’s office has brushed off the accusation as an attempt by Paxton to “save face.”
Paxton’s former staff members reported him to the FBI in 2020 on accusations of breaking the law to help a campaign contributor. The donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, employed a woman with whom Paxton acknowledged having had an extramarital affair. In February, the U.S. Justice Department’s Washington-based Public Integrity Section took over the federal criminal investigation of Paxton.
Since April, the House committee has issued at least 12 subpoenas for testimony and information to people and entities as part of its probe of Paxton’s office, according to meeting minutes that note the parties were left anonymous to “prevent reprisal and retaliation.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat and vice chair of the committee, asked whether “it was fair to say” that the attorney general’s office “was effectively hijacked for an investigation by Nate Paul through the attorney general, Ken Paxton.”
“That would be my opinion,” replied attorney Erin Epley, one of the investigators.
Paxton expressed surprise and frustration over the hearing during an appearance on The Mark Davis Show.
“This is unprecedented for what they’re doing,” Paxton said. “This is a level that is shocking to me, especially from a Republican House. This is what they have time to do as opposed to some of the important things like school choice.”
Each of Paxton’s accusers later quit or was fired. In the years since, his agency has come unmoored by disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned lawyers quitting over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent. But until now, GOP lawmakers had shown little appetite for looking into a member of their party who’s kept up a steady stream of constrictive legal challenges to Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.