Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton teetered on the brink of impeachment Thursday after years of scandal, criminal charges and corruption accusations that the state's Republican majority had largely met with silence until now.
In an unanimous decision, a Republican-led House investigative committee that spent months quietly looking into Paxton recommended impeaching the state's top lawyer. The House could vote on the recommendation as soon as Friday. If it impeaches Paxton, he would be forced to leave office immediately.
The move sets set up what could be a remarkably sudden downfall for one of the GOP's most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn 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 accusations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, but has yet to stand trial.
When the five-member committee's investigation came to light Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by the House's “liberal” Republican speaker, Dade Phelan. He called for Phelan’s resignation and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday. Phelan’s office has brushed off the accusation as Paxton attempting to “save face.”
One of Paxton's criminal defense attorneys, Philip Hilder, said Thursday that his client's alleged wrongdoing should be left to the courts.
“These matters are appropriate for resolution in a judicial system, not in a political system,” Hilder told The Associated Press.
Impeachment requires a majority vote of the state’s 150-member House chamber, which Republicans control 85-64. It’s unclear how many supporters Paxton may have in the House. Since the prospect of impeachment suddenly emerged Wednesday, none of Texas other top Republicans have voiced support for Paxton.
Committee members did not reveal details about the articles of impeachment when they voted to approve them in open session and a copy had not been made public by Thursday evening.
The timing of a vote by the House also is unclear. Rep. Andrew Murr, the Republican chair of the investigative committee, said he did not have a timeline and Phelan’s office declined to comment.
Unlike in Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office until a trial is held in the Senate. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could appoint an interim replacement.
It means Paxton faces ouster at the hands of GOP lawmakers just seven months after easily winning a third term over challengers — among them George P. Bush — who had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but discovered that many didn't know about Paxton's litany of alleged misdeeds or dismissed the accusations as political attacks.
Even with Monday’s end of the regular session approaching, state law allows the House to keep working on impeachment proceedings. It also could call itself back into session later. The Senate has the same options.
In one sense, Paxton's political peril arrived with dizzying speed: The House committee investigation came to light Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of alleged criminal acts he committed as one of Texas' most powerful figures.
But to Paxton's detractors, who now include a widening share of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the rebuke was years in the making.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law over not registering as an investment advisor while soliciting clients. A year later, Paxton was indicted on felony securities charges by a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony counts 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 later hired to a high-ranking job but was soon fired after trying to make a point by displaying child pornography in a meeting.
What has unleashed the most serious risk to Paxton is his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton's top aides in 2020 said they became concerned the attorney general was misusing the powers of his office to help Paul over unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties was afoot. The FBI searched Paul's home in 2019 but he has not been charged and his attorneys have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
Paxton's aides accused him of corruption and were all fired or quit after reporting him to the FBI. 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 payout and Phelan has said he doesn't think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began. The probe amounted to rare scrutiny of Paxton in the state Capitol, where many Republicans have long taken a muted posture about the accusations that have followed the attorney general.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached a sitting official: Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and state Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.