April 18, 2024

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton acquitted in impeachment trial

Austin, Texas  Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was acquitted Saturday in the GOP-controlled state Senate on all 16 articles of impeachment, which included counts of bribery, dereliction of duty and disregard of official duties.

Paxton, who has been suspended since May, when he was impeached by the Texas House, will be reinstated as attorney general.

Although more than 60 Republicans in the Texas House crossed party lines in May to impeach Paxton, his hold on the state Senate remained solid, and only two Republicans voted to remove him from office on any of the counts. After the vote, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presided over the Senate trial and is a close ally of Paxton, said, “Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on this impeachment,” and blasted the House for pushing through the impeachment.

“It should have never happened this year, and it should never happen again,” Patrick said, indicating the Texas Constitution should be amended.

After the verdict, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had remained mum throughout the impeachment process, issued a statement in support of Paxton. 

“The jury has spoken. Attorney General Paxton received a fair trial as required by the Texas Constitution. Attorney General Paxton has done an outstanding job representing Texas, especially pushing back against the Biden Administration,” Abbott said. “I look forward to continuing to work with him to secure the border and protect Texas from federal overreach.”  

Paxton is a former state senator and his wife, Angela Paxton, is currently a state senator. She was barred from voting in the proceedings, but since she attended the trial, the state still needed 21 of the 31 senators to vote to convict.

Texas Attorney General Impeachment
Texas state senators acting as jurors vote on the articles of impeachment against suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Austin, Texas.

Eric Gay / AP

Paxton had denied all wrongdoing. He did not attend the trial except for the first day, when he pleaded not guilty. He did not attend the final vote.

Paxton is a close ally of former President Donald Trump, and the former president posted ahead of the trial’s last day in support of Paxton, calling it a “shameful impeachment.”

What was Ken Paxton accused of?

In May, the Texas state House voted overwhelmingly to impeach Paxton on a  121-23 vote. The Senate decided to hear arguments on 16 of the articles of impeachment. After he was acquitted, the Senate voted to dismiss the other four articles of impeachment. 

The accusations stem from Paxton’s involvement with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who has been indicted in a separate case. 

Several aides in Paxton’s office came forward in 2020, alleging that Paxton influenced employees to get involved in legal disputes that would benefit Paul and his business. In return, they said Paul provided extensive favors for Paxton, including providing home renovations and employing a woman with whom Paxton was allegedly having an affair.

Paxton’s defense sought to prove his impeachment was just an attempt to settle a score by political opponents in the state House and his own former aides. In his closing argument, his lawyer, Tony Buzbee, accused the Bush family — in particular, George P. Bush, who challenged Paxton in a primary in 2022 — of manufacturing the impeachment allegations.

“The Bush era ends today in the state of Texas,” Buzbee said. “They can go back to Maine.”

After the whistleblowers came forward, some resigned, but others were fired. Those who were fired filed a lawsuit in November 2020 alleging that they had suffered retaliation. On Feb. 10, Paxton announced the attorney general’s office had settled the lawsuit for $3.3 million. On Feb. 21, Paxton put a line item in the budget for the $3.3 million to settle the lawsuit with taxpayer money. 

That request led the state House to open an investigation into Paxton. On May 23, the House General Investigating Committee went public about its probe into the proposed whistleblower settlement. According to the committee, the settlement would prevent a trial and the details from becoming public.

On Thursday, the defense called the attorney general’s director of human resources, Henry De La Garza, who testified that the whistleblowers were not fired for retaliation but rather for “egregious” policy violations. 

What happened at Paxton’s impeachment trial? 

The trial featured dramatic testimony from former top Paxton aides. All conservative Republicans, they testified that they were concerned about Paxton’s relationship with Paul. Paxton’s former top lieutenant, Jeff Mateer, testified that part of his job was to “protect the attorney general,” but he “failed.” 

Paxton publicly called the whistleblowers “rogue employees.” His lawyers questioned why the whistleblowers went to the FBI, rather than to Paxton, with their concerns.

Witnesses said that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as Texas promoted a policy of opening up, Paxton allegedly rewrote the state’s policy to exclude foreclosure sales — a policy that appeared to benefit Paul. Former deputy first assistant Ryan Bangert testified that Paxton’s insistence was “bizarre,” and he was “acting like a man with a gun to his head.”

“I believed, based on my experience over the previous nine months, that the attorney general had abandoned his obligation to work on behalf of the interests of the people of Texas to serve the interests of one person — Nate Paul,” Bangert said.

Former Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, meanwhile, testified that Paxton pressured him and Bangert to provide legal opinions that would have prevented foreclosure on some of Paul’s property amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What does this have to do with Paxton’s alleged affair? 

Paxton’s defense tried to separate the affair allegations from the articles of impeachment. The ninth count alleged Paxton “benefited from Nate Paul’s employment of a woman with whom Paxton was having an extramarital affair.” Paxton was acquitted on that count 18-12. 

On Friday, defense attorney Tony Buzbee said, “We know why they mentioned Laura Olson,” the woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair. “They want to shame him.” 

“If this impeachment is about marital impropriety, then line up,” Buzbee said.

Olson herself was called to the stand on Wednesday morning, although her appearance was then postponed and then canceled for reasons that were not disclosed.

Mateer, the former top aide to Paxton, testified that the alleged affair is “relevant” to the allegations because it “answered one of the questions I kept struggling with.”

“Why would General Paxton jeopardize all this great work that we’ve been doing in the Office of the Attorney General,” Mateer continued. “Why would he be engaged in these activities on behalf of one person, all these different things?” 

Paul allegedly hired the woman with whom Paxton had an affair, and Paxton allegedly paid for an apartment in Austin for her. 

Paxton’s former chief of staff, Katherine “Missy” Cary, testified in the trial’s second week about the impact of Paxton’s alleged affair on the attorney general’s office. 

“The ethics advice in 2018 was when you try to keep things secret when you are a statewide elected official who is running for office, it can be ethically, legally and morally challenging — and it was beginning to bleed over to people in the office,” Cary said. 

According to Cary, around 2018, there were complaints in the office from security and travel details about hours and conducting non-state business, such as the alleged affair. Further, Cary said Angela Paxton used to call the office regularly to ask about her husband’s schedule or his whereabouts, which led to complaints from the office staff members that they were “uncomfortable.” 

Cary said that during lunch one day, she ran into Paxton, who was with the woman with whom he allegedly had an affair, and he referred to her as his realtor. Cary also testified that in the summer of 2018, she confronted Paxton, who confirmed the affair. She said he was “contrite” and “listened to what I had to say very carefully” about the “ethical implications” of having an affair.

“There’s ethical risks, there’s political risks, there’s legal risks … these things can open one up to bribery and misuse of office, misuse of state time,” she said.

Cary recalled the 2018 meeting with Paxton and his wife with top aides. Cary said “my heart broke” for Angela Paxton. Cary told senators she believed he had ended the affair, but she learned in 2019 that it was still going on. Cary testified that she spoke to him again about the alleged affair, but Paxton was “frantically upset” and said he “still loved” the woman with whom he was allegedly having an affair. 

“Imagine if we impeached everyone here in Austin that had had an affair — we’d be impeaching for the next 100 years,” Buzbee said. Cary declined to respond. “Just because someone had an affair doesn’t mean that they’re a ‘criminal,’ does it? That would be incredibly hypocritical, would it not, if somebody said ‘this guy is a criminal because he had a marital indiscretion?'”

Cary replied that she wouldn’t say something like that. 

Paxton’s former top assistant Andrew Wicker, described as a “second son” to Paxton, testified on Thursday about the alleged affair. 

What are the criminal charges against Paxton, and is that case affected by the impeachment?

Paxton was indicted in 2015 by a Collin County, Texas, grand jury on two first-degree felony charges of securities fraud and a third-degree felony charge of failure to register. He has pleaded not guilty, and he has successfully delayed a trial in the case while he’s in office.

The impeachment case is completely separate from those allegations, and Paxton still faces a trial on those charges. 

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