By ACACIA CORONADO, JIM VERTUNO and JAKE BLEIBERG (Associated Press)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Republican-led Texas House of Representatives has set a historic Saturday vote to possibly impeach embattled state Attorney General Ken Paxton and suspend him from office, just as some prominent conservatives began to rally around him.
Paxton, a 60-year-old Republican, finds himself on the brink of impeachment after years of scandal, criminal charges and corruption accusations. The House will begin considering a resolution calling for Paxton’s impeachment at 1 p.m. Saturday, according to a statement released Friday by the House Committee on General Investigating.
If impeached, Paxton would be forced to leave office immediately. He would be just the third person in the state’s nearly 200-year history to be impeached and the first statewide officer since former Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917.
The GOP-led committee spent months quietly looking into Paxton and recommended his impeachment Thursday on 20 articles including bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust.
Paxton has called it an attempt to “overthrow the will of the people and disenfranchise the voters of our state.” He has said the impeachment charges are based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims.”
Prominent conservatives had been notably quiet on Paxton, but some began to rally around him late Friday morning. The chairman of the state Republican Party, Matt Rinaldi, criticized the process as a “sham” and urged the GOP-controlled Senate to acquit Paxton if he stands trial in that chamber.
“It is based on allegations already litigated by voters, led by a liberal speaker trying to undermine his conservative adversaries,” Rinaldi said, echoing Paxton’s criticism of Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan. He said the Senate will have to “restore sanity and reason for our state.”
First will come a vote in the House, where the committee proposed five hours of debate and opening and closing statements starting at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Paxton faces grim math in the House, where he served five terms before becoming a state senator.
It’s unclear how many supporters Paxton may have in the House. A simple majority is needed to impeach. That means only a fraction of the 85 Republican members would need to vote against Paxton, if all 64 Democrats did.
The move to impeach Paxton sets 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 President Joe Biden’s victory. The committee said Friday that it was Paxton’s own request for funds to settle a whistleblower lawsuit that brought it about. Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor. He 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 Phelan, accusing the speaker of being drunk on the House floor and calling for his resignation. Phelan’s office brushed this off as Paxton attempting to “save face.”
The articles of impeachment stem largely from Paxton’s relationship with one of his wealthy donors, his alleged efforts to protect the donor from an FBI investigation and his attempts to thwart whistleblower complaints brought by his own staff.
Unlike in Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office pending a trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could appoint an interim replacement.
Final removal would require two-thirds support in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife’s, Angela, is a member.
Paxton faces ouster at the hands of GOP lawmakers just seven months after easily winning a third term. His challengers, including George P. Bush, had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but discovered that many didn’t know about Paxton’s litany of alleged misdeeds or dismissed them as political attacks.
Even with Monday’s end of the regular session approaching, state law allows the House to keep working on impeachment proceedings. Both it and the Senate could call themselves back into session later.
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 his alleged criminal acts.
But to Paxton’s detractors, including 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 carrying 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 displaying child pornography in a meeting.
But 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 told the FBI that they were 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.
The impeachment charges cover accusations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul, including attempts to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits; improperly issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul; and firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. The bribery charges stem from Paul allegedly employing the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
Other charges date back to Paxton’s still-pending 2015 felony securities fraud indictment, including lying to state investigators.
The eight aides who reported Paxton to the FBI were all fired or quit, and four later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, In February, Paxton agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million, which must be approved by the House. The investigative committee said Friday that it was Paxton seeking the payout that brought about their probe.
“We cannot over-emphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment by the House,” the panel said.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed from Austin, Texas.