In an unprecedented move, a Texas House committee voted Thursday to recommend that Attorney General Ken Paxton be impeached and removed from office, citing a yearslong pattern of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking that investigators detailed one day earlier.
During a specially called meeting Thursday afternoon, the House General Investigating Committee voted unanimously to refer articles of impeachment to the full chamber. The House will next decide whether to approve the articles against Paxton, which could lead to the attorney general’s removal from office pending the outcome of a trial to be conducted by the Senate.
No Legislature has impeached an attorney general, an extraordinary step that lawmakers have historically reserved for public officials who faced serious allegations that they had abused their powers.
The decision came minutes after a representative from Paxton’s office demanded Thursday to testify in front of the House committee probing Paxton’s alleged criminal acts and decried the committee’s actions as “illegal.”
Chris Hilton, chief of general litigation for the attorney general’s office, interrupted the five-member panel’s brief meeting to demand to testify on behalf of Paxton’s office. State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, shook his head and moved forward with the meeting, which went into executive session almost immediately after gaveling in.
“The people deserve to hear from this office in the context of this investigation,” Hilton said. “The voters want Ken Paxton, and this committee — by investigating him, by not allowing us to be heard here today, by never reaching out to us at any time during this investigative process — is trying to thwart the will of the voters. We deserve to be heard here today.”
Hilton told reporters the committee’s actions were illegal under a section of Texas law that says a “state officer may not be removed from office for an act the officer may have committed before the officer’s election to office.”
Hilton argued that the statute meant “any impeachment can only be about conduct since the most recent elections.”
Once the committee returned from meeting in private, members voted to issue “preservation letters” directing the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Facilities Commission to protect pertinent information. The committee did not discuss what information it wanted preserved.
Committee members did not discuss the articles of impeachment during or after the meeting.
“Overturning elections begins behind closed doors,” Paxton said on Twitter in a post that included video of Hilton’s conversation with reporters.
The vote to adopt the articles of impeachment came one day after the committee listened to three hours of testimony detailing allegations pointing to a yearslong pattern of misconduct and questionable actions by Paxton, which included criminal charges for securities fraud and allegations by his former top deputies that Paxton used his office to benefit a friend and political donor.
Many of the allegations detailed Wednesday were already known, but the public airing of them revealed the wide scope of the committee’s investigation into the state’s top lawyer, a member of the ruling Republican Party. The investigative committee has broad power to investigate state officials for wrongdoing, and three weeks ago the House expelled Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, on its recommendation.
Only the Texas House can bring impeachment proceedings against state officials, which would lead to a trial by the Senate. Under the Texas Constitution, Paxton would be suspended from office pending the outcome of the Senate trial. The constitution also allows the governor to appoint an provisional replacement.
Removal from office would require the support of two-thirds of senators. This has happened only twice in Texas history, to Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
During Wednesday’s hearing, investigators told the committee’s three Republicans and two Democrats about allegations that Paxton had repeatedly abused his office to help a friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. They largely relied on claims made by four former senior employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit in 2022 arguing that Paxton improperly fired them after they reported concerns about Paxton’s actions to federal and state investigators.
The committee investigators said Paxton may have committed at least three felonies in an effort to help Paul with various legal troubles. These included spending $72,000 in staff labor on tasks that benefited the developer, providing Paul with an internal FBI file related to an investigation into Paul, and hiring an outside lawyer for $25,000 to conduct work that primarily benefited Paul.
Committee investigators also discussed criminal charges that have been pending against Paxton since 2015, when a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of felony securities fraud related to private business deals in 2011. According to those charges, Paxton solicited investors into Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney tech company was paying him to promote its stock.
Suddenly, the three-term incumbent Paxton found himself in the greatest political peril of his tenure — not because of the FBI, which began investigating him in 2020, but rather from a little-known legislative committee.
While the committee investigators said Paxton may have broken numerous laws, impeachment is ultimately a political process. House members will have broad leeway to decide what is an impeachable offense.
For Democrats, the calculus is simple. They have cast Paxton as corrupt for years and will likely be unanimous in support of impeachment. Some Democrats, including Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Richardson, began calling for impeachment Wednesday.
Republicans must wrestle with whether to indict a top state official in their own party, one who is popular with conservative voters and who survived a primary last year in which opponents tried to tar him with similar allegations of misconduct.
Paxton has positioned himself as a champion of far-right causes and an ally of former President Donald Trump. His unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election solidified his appeal in conservative legal circles, and Trump later endorsed his reelection bid. A path to Paxton’s survival could include rallying this base.
“Few in America have done more to advance the conservative legal movement,” former Trump adviser Stephen Miller tweeted Thursday. “Stand with Ken.”
Two other top Republicans, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have yet to come to Paxton’s defense, both declining to comment on the committee’s allegations against the attorney general.
But Paxton has alienated some House Republicans. He has repeatedly criticized House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and his leadership as insufficiently conservative. And hours before the investigative committee revealed Tuesday that it had secretly launched a probe into Paxton, the attorney general called on Phelan to resign, pointing to a video of the speaker slurring his words to accuse him of presiding over the House while drunk.
No Republican House members have yet called for Paxton’s impeachment. But Jeff Leach, R-Plano, urged the public to tune into Wednesday’s committee hearing, which he said would discuss “issues of vital importance.”
“Make no mistake,” Leach said on Twitter. “The Texas House will do our job and uphold our oaths of office.”
And Phelan, who in early May cited his role as the House’s presiding officer as the reason why he did not comment on sexual misconduct allegations against Slaton until after the chamber expelled him, has dropped that approach with Paxton. The speaker on Wednesday called the committee investigators’ report “extremely disturbing” and said Paxton “appears to have routinely abused his office for personal gain.”
Republicans for years have fended off questions about Paxton’s legal and ethical issues, variously deferring to courts to decide them and voters to determine if they were disqualifying. A key question is why the Republican-led House is acting against Paxton now.
Phelan said the House had an obligation to vet the whistleblowers’ claims because a proposed settlement between the four former employees and Paxton’s office would have cost $3.3 million — funds the Legislature would have to approve.
Murr expressed concern Wednesday that the settlement would help Paxton avoid a trial at which evidence of his alleged misdeeds would become public.
Lawyers for the whistleblowers said that while they valued the committee’s work, the Legislature’s job would not be complete until lawmakers approved the settlement for their clients.
“Paxton’s egregious conduct wouldn’t have come to light but for the bravery of our clients. As investigators noted yesterday they all lost their careers because of what they did,” said Joe Knight, an attorney for Ryan Vassar, one of the top deputies who was fired after reporting Paxton’s actions to the FBI. “The Legislature’s work is not done in my opinion if it merely impeaches Ken Paxton. It has to approve the settlement.”
This article was written by JAMES BARRAGÁN, ROBERT DOWNEN AND ZACH DESPART of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune— and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared at: https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/25/ken-paxton-impeachment-investigation/