Republican investigation finds that Texas Attorney General likely broke laws

May 24, 2023, 3:52 PM

FILE - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. Pa...

FILE - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. Paxton called Tuesday, May 23, 2023, for the resignation of the state's GOP House speaker Dade Phelan, accusing him of being intoxicated on the job in a statement that shook the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Republican-led investigation on Wednesday accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of committing multiple crimes in office — including felonies — during an extraordinary public airing of scandal and alleged lawbreaking that plunged one of the GOP’s conservative stars into new political and legal risk.

For more than three hours, investigators presented findings alleging 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 Investigating Committee that there was evidence that Paxton repeatedly broke the law over the years, including by misusing official information, abusing his official capacity and retaliation.

The dramatic turn of events in the Texas Capitol unleashed a new test of Paxton’s durability in a way he has not previously confronted despite a felony indictment in 2015 and an ongoing FBI investigation. The House committee’s investigation has been quietly going on for months and did not come to light until Tuesday.

The committee ended Wednesday’s hearing without acting on the findings. The panel is led by Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr, who afterward declined to discuss next steps or whether a recommendation to impeach or censure Paxton was possible.

The legislative session ends Monday and any action against Paxton would have to be taken by then, unless GOP Gov. Greg Abbott calls a special session. In Texas, unlike in the U.S. government, an official who’s impeached by the House is suspended from office pending the outcome of a Senate trial. The governor can appoint an interim to fill the vacant post.

Wednesday’s hearing amounted to a remarkable rebuke from Republicans in a building where Paxton has long maintained defenders and allies, including Abbott, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in to a third term in January.

Texas panel says lawmaker should be expelled for misconduct

Paxton called the hours of testimony by investigators “false,” accused the committee of misleading the public and attacked Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan as a “liberal.” Paxton also has claimed repeatedly since Tuesday that Phelan has been drunk on the job, something Phelan’s office has brushed off as an attempt by Paxton to “save face.”

“It is not surprising that a committee appointed by liberal Speaker Dade Phelan would seek to disenfranchise Texas voters and sabotage my work as Attorney General,” Paxton said in a written statement.

The hearing came as Paxton is seeking legislative approval for more than $3 million in taxpayer dollars to a settle a whistleblower lawsuit with top aides who accused him of corruption. The whistleblowers’ lawyers on Wednesday thanked the committee for recognizing that their clients “suffered real harm in retaliation” for accusing Paxton and called on lawmakers to fund the deal.

Accusations laid out by investigators surround actions by Paxton that previously have been uncovered by reporters or disclosed in court records. Despite the cloud that has hung over Paxton, he has remained popular with GOP voters in Texas and elevated his profile nationally through lawsuits against President Joe Biden’s administration and through his defense of former President Donald Trump.

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 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, 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.”

“That would be my opinion,” replied attorney Erin Epley, one of the investigators.

Lawyers for Paul did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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 Paxton.

Among the new revelations Wednesday were details of Paxton’s high-end home renovation, which previously came under FBI scrutiny, and that his affair continued longer than previously known.

It ended “briefly” in 2019 when Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, found out, “but then it resumed and was underway again by 2020,” said Epley, a former state and federal prosecutor.

That year, Paxton renovated his million-dollar Austin home. Epley said an attorney general’s employee overheard Paxton telling a contractor that his wife wanted granite countertops. According to Epley, the contractor replied that the counters would cost $20,000 and said, “I’ll have to check with Nate.”

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Republican investigation finds that Texas Attorney General likely broke laws