Ken Paxton has held onto the Texas attorney general’s office. But his legal worries are far from over

For years, the powers and protections that come with being Texas’ top lawyer have helped Ken Paxton fend off ethics complains, criminal charges and an FBI investigation

Jake Bleiberg
Saturday 16 September 2023 21:10 BST
Paxton's lawyers speak after impeachment acquittal

For years, the powers and protections that come with being Texas’ top lawyer have helped Ken Paxton fend off ethics complains, criminal charges and an FBI investigation.

With the Texas Senate’s Saturday vote to acquit Mr Paxton of corruption charges at his impeachment trial, the Republican has once again demonstrated his rare political resilience. And he retains the shield of the attorney general's office in legal battles still to come.

After being cleared, Mr Paxton, 60, thanked his lawyers for “exposing the absurdity” of the “false allegations” against him, and he promised to resume doing legal battle with the administration of President Joe Biden.

"The weaponisation of the impeachment process to settle political differences is not only wrong, it is immoral and corrupt," he said in a statement. “Now that this shameful process is over, my work to defend our constitutional rights will resume.”

Back in office, Mr Paxton nonetheless still faces serious risk on three fronts: an ongoing federal investigation into the same allegations that led to his impeachment; a disciplinary proceeding over his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election; and felony securities fraud charges dating to 2015.

Here's what to know about each:

The federal investigation

Mr Paxton came under FBI investigation in 2020 when eight of his top deputies reported him for allegedly breaking the law to help a wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

The former deputies' accusation that Mr Paxton abused his power to help Mr Paul were at the core of Mr Paxton's impeachment. Lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives say it was the still-open question of funding a $3.3m settlement in a lawsuit brought by four of the deputies that sparked the impeachment investigation.

Several of Mr Paxton's former deputies took the witness stand against him. They recounted going to the FBI and testified that the attorney general tried to help Mr Paul fend off a separate FBI investigation

They also testified that Mr Paul employed a woman with whom Mr Paxton had an extramarital affair. Another former employee, Drew Wicker, said Mr Paxton’s second-in-command later discouraged him from speaking with the FBI.

Mr Paul was indicted in June on charges of making false statements to banks. He has pleaded not guilty and was not called to testify at the impeachment trial.

The federal investigation of Mr Paxton has dragged on for years and was shifted in February from prosecutors in Texas to ones in Washington DC. In August, federal prosecutors began using a grand jury in San Antonio to examine Mr Paxton and Mr Paul's dealings, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of secrecy rules around grand jury proceedings.

One said the grand jury heard from Mr Wicker, Mr Paxton’s former personal aide. At the impeachment trial, Mr Wicker testified that he once heard a contractor tell Mr Paxton he would need to check with “Nate” about the cost of renovations to the attorney general’s Austin home.

Mr Paxton has consistently denied wrongdoing. One of his defence attorneys, Dan Cogdell, acknowledged in August that authorities were still interviewing witnesses but said the “case will go nowhere at the end of the day.”

The securities fraud case

In 2015, Mr Paxton was indicted on charges of defrauding investors in a Dallas-area tech startup by not disclosing he was being paid by the company, called Servergy, to recruit them. He faces five to 99 years in prison if convicted and has pleaded not guilty.

The indictments were handed up just months after Mr Paxton was sworn in as attorney general. He won second and third terms despite them.

Mr Paxton's trial has been delayed by legal debate over whether it should be heard in the Dallas area or Houston, changes in which judge would handle it and a protracted battle over how much the special prosecutors should get paid.

Weeks after the Republican-led Texas House voted to impeach Mr Paxton, the state's high criminal court ruled his trial would proceed in Houston. The judge overseeing it said in August that she would set a trial date after the impeachment trial.

Mr Cogdell said that month that if Mr Paxton were removed from office it would open the possibility of him making a plea agreement in the case.

The disciplinary hearing

Also on hold during Mr Paxton's impeachment trial was an ethics case brought by the state bar.

In 2020, Mr Paxton asked the US Supreme Court to, effectively, overturn then-President Donald Trump's electoral defeat by Joe Biden based on bogus claims of fraud. The high court threw out the request.

Afterward, the State Bar of Texas received a series of complaints alleging that Mr Paxton and a deputy had committed professional misconduct with the suit. The bar didn't initially take up the complaints but later launched an investigation.

Last year, the bar sued seeking unspecified discipline for Mr Paxton and his second-in-command, alleging they were “dishonest" with the Supreme Court.

Mr Paxton dismissed the bar's suits as “meritless” political attacks. The attorney general's office has argued that because it is an executive branch agency and the bar is part of the judicial branch, the cases run afoul of the separation of powers under the state constitution.

A judge overseeing the bar's case against the deputy, Brent Webster, accepted this argument. But he was reversed on appeal in July. That month, another court scheduled arguments in the disciplinary case against Mr Paxton only to delay them when it became clear they would fall in the middle of his impeachment trial.

The attorney general's office continued to defend Mr Paxton in the case even after he was suspended from office. If he's found to have violated ethics rules, Mr Paxton faces the prospect of disbarment, suspension or a lesser punishment.

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