By Carolyn Barta
Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton is the first Texas statewide elected official in 106 years to face an impeachment trial and the first to beat the charges. On Sept. 16, 2023, after a historic 10-day trial, the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton on 16 allegations of abuse of office, bribery and obstruction of justice. Another four articles were dismissed.
Paxton was returned to office after being suspended when the Texas House voted 121 to 23 to send impeachment charges to the Senate on May 29, 2023, with 60 of 85 Republicans voting to impeach. Unlike in the House, the Senate voted to acquit largely along party lines. Twenty-one senators had to approve at least one article to convict him. The closest votes — on 12 articles — were 14 to convict and 16 for acquittal. Only two Republicans voted with Democrats.
Republican Sens. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville attributed their votes to testimony and evidence. Others, however, said the prosecution failed to prove its case based on whistleblower accusations. There was no “smoking gun.”
Political analysts suggested other reasons for the acquittal. They included Paxton’s ties to Republicans in the Senate where he once served and his wife served during the trial, fear of political retribution by hard-right allies of Paxton and former President Trump in the next GOP primary, and allegiance to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who announced his personal views after the trial.
A Historic Event
Texas does not have a long history of impeachments. In 1917, Gov. James (Pa) Ferguson was impeached for misuse of power and misapplication of funds. Though not elected statewide, District Judge O.P. Carrillo, a Duval County political boss, was impeached in 1976 on charges of fraud, evading income taxes, and misuse of county equipment and personnel.
After announcing the Paxton verdict, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer and trial judge, delivered a scorching admonishment of the House, saying the House “rammed through” the impeachment in a flawed process.
He called for a state constitutional amendment requiring witnesses to be placed under oath, the accused to be present and allowed to cross examine witnesses, and at least two weeks for consideration of impeachment charges in the House. He also demanded a full audit of this impeachment’s cost.
House Speaker Dade Phelan, a fellow Republican often at odds with the lieutenant governor, fired back, saying Patrick was “confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s House on full display.” Phelan said the outcome appeared to have been orchestrated from the start, “cheating the people of Texas of justice.”
The exchange between the leaders of the two chambers deepened the rift between the two houses that developed over the regular January–May legislation session and special summer sessions of 2023. The trial was expected to have other political implications, possibly leading to a GOP civil war or emboldening Paxton to seek higher office.
The trial had all the earmarks of a tantalizing made-for-TV “whodunit,” linking politics, money, intrigue, legal and moral issues, and unresolved questions concerning sex and personal relationships.
Allegations against Paxton stemmed mostly from his relationship with Austin real estate investor and campaign donor Nate Paul. Paxton was accused of providing Paul with political favors and special treatment in exchange for a kitchen remodel and employment of a woman with whom the attorney general was accused of having an affair.
Witnesses who formed the senior management team at the A-G’s office testified that the attorney general repeatedly used his office to help Paul, to investigate and harass Paul’s enemies, delay foreclosure sales of his properties and obtain confidential records on police investigating Paul. Paxton justified some actions by saying he did not trust law enforcement because the Texas Department of Public Safety had conducted a “corrupt investigation” of his own securities fraud case, one of several legal issues that had plagued the attorney general for years.
House managers built their case around the testimony of senior A-G staff members who went to the FBI in September of 2020 with their concerns that Paxton was using his office to benefit his friend, despite their pushback. All subsequently quit or were fired. The whistleblowers claimed retaliation and alleged they were improperly fired. Four filed a lawsuit against Paxton.
In February of 2023, Paxton asked the Texas House to pay for a $3.3 million settlement with the whistleblowers who sued. The request prompted a House committee investigation that resulted in articles of impeachment.
Paxton, who built a reputation as a Christian conservative/ family values Republican and staunch Donald Trump advocate, showed up only on the first day to plead not guilty and on the day of closing arguments. He was defiant in a statement upon his exoneration.
“The sham impeachment coordinated by the Biden Administration with liberal House Speaker Dade Phelan and his kangaroo court has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, disrupted the work of the Office of Attorney General and left a dark and permanent stain on the Texas House,” he said.
Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was required to attend the trial but banned from voting. On the first day, she blew kisses to supporters in the gallery. Sen. Paxton personified the country tune, “Stand by Your Man,” supporting her husband through various political and legal travails. At one GOP function, she sang a version of an old honky-tonk song with these words, “I’m a pistol packin’ mama and my husband sues Obama.”
Atty. Gen. Paxton brought various suits against the Obama and Biden administrations and spearheaded a failed lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 election. He spoke at the Jan. 6, 2021, Trump rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol, with Angela at his side.
High-profile Texas lawyers argued both sides of the case. Among them were legendary Houston lawyers Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin for the prosecution and Tony Buzbee, Dan Cogdell and Mitch Little for defense.
Lawyers for the House managers cast their witnesses as movement conservatives concerned by Paxton’s repeated attempts to use the A-G’s office to intervene in Nate Paul interests. They disagreed with their being called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), establishing their bona fides as highly qualified lawyers with solid right-of-center credentials and conservative Christian affiliations.
The defense team tried to paint the prosecution witnesses as part of a senior management cabal rushing to judgement, going to the FBI without corroborating evidence and without informing Paxton.
Among top former aides who took the stand were Jeff Mateer, first attorney general; Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant; Ryan Vassar, deputy general counsel, and David Maxwell, director of law enforcement.
Prosecutors were repeatedly interrupted by defense objections. Attorneys were frequently called to the dais for conversations with Patrick and his legal advisor, former Judge Lana Myers. Since Patrick had no legal experience, he turned to Myers, a well-respected former justice on the 5th Circuit of Appeals and state district court judge in Dallas, to assist.
Prosecutors spent considerable time with early witnesses but both sides were limited in time by trial rules. The House called 13 witnesses, the defense only four, relying largely on tough cross-examination.
Mateer, the agency’s second in command who resigned in October 2020, explained why he went to the FBI. “I concluded that Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good-faith belief that it was illegal.”
Maxwell, an iconic Texas Ranger with 50 years in law enforcement, said he refused to investigate actions against Paul and warned his boss.
“I told him Nate Paul was a criminal, that he was running a Ponzi scheme that would rival Billie Sol Estes and that if he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was gonna get himself indicted.” (Billie Sol Estes was an infamous Texas conman who was convicted of stealing millions of dollars in federal crop subsidies in the 1960s.)
Mateer confirmed he was disturbed upon hearing that Paxton (when faced with a contrary staff) had hired a young and inexperienced outside lawyer, Brandon Cammack of Houston, to do an independent investigation on Paul’s behalf, including serving subpoenas as a representative of the agency. Cammack testified later that he worked with Paul’s lawyer, he reported only to Paxton, that he never received any credentials, and that he eventually was told to “cease and desist” and never paid.
The whistleblowers painted a picture of an office distracted from other priorities, such as responses to Covid, by the focus on Paul, and some actions seemed contrary to policy. Prior to a scheduled auction of some of Paul’s properties, Bangert said he was instructed by Paxton to draft an opinion stating outdoor foreclosures should not proceed, contrary to other instructions in the state.
Andrew (Drew) Wicker, Paxton’s personal assistant and executive travel aide, testified that he overheard Paxton telling a contractor renovating his home that he wanted granite countertops in the kitchen and the contractor replied: “I’ll have to check with Nate.”
Lawyer Buzbee responded with photographs that showed there had been no changes to the countertops. Paxton later had a check drawn on his private trust to pay $121,617 to a construction firm. The prosecution noted that the date the payment was made was the same day that the whistleblowers reported Paxton to the FBI.
Katherine (Missy) Cary, Paxton’s former chief of staff, brought up reports of Paxton’s extramarital affair. She said senior staffers were invited to a meeting at Paxton’s 2018 campaign headquarters where he admitted the affair and apologized.
By summer 2019, Cary, who worked at the A-G’s office for more than 20 years, testified that she became aware the affair was “ongoing.” She said Paxton’s security detail and aides complained to her about being asked to work odd hours and staff events that weren’t state business.
The woman involved, identified as Laura Olson, was called to testify but did not end up taking the stand after Patrick said both sides had agreed that she had been deemed “unavailable to testify.”
Briefly addressing the affair, lawyer Buzbee opined: “We all have sinned and fallen short,” and said if infidelity warranted removal from public office there would be “a lot of impeachment in this city.”
Forceful and flamboyant, Buzbee contended in his close that prosecutors failed to prove their case and offered only a “bunch of suppositions, mights, maybes and what could have beens.“
Paxton, he said, was “come after by a group of misinformed without evidence.” Speaking largely in a Texas vernacular and often raising his voice, Buzbee charged that Paxton had been convicted in the press and “there ain’t no evidence to support it.”
Buzbee also suggested that the impeachment was part of a conspiracy to return the Bush dynasty to office. He noted that in the 2022 GOP primary, Paxton defeated former land commissioner George P. Bush (son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President and Gov. George W. Bush). “The Bush era ends today,” he said.
Buzbee said the Bushes “can go back to Maine,” but Paxton appeared to be the one going to Maine, announcing on social media that his after-trial destination was Maine, where he would be interviewed by conservative media personality Tucker Carlson.
Rep. Andrew S. Murr of Junction, an attorney and rancher with a signature handlebar mustache (whose grandfather was Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson), offered the prosecution’s close. Murr was chair of the House Committee on General Investigations and became chair of House impeachment managers.
In a methodical and analytical close, Murr contended that despite being elected by 4.2 million votes, Paxton was “serving only himself.” He said Paxton put together an exceptional management team, whose members were unabashed conservatives, the “best and brightest” to help run his office, who were committed to the rule of law. But, he said, the desire to deliver results for Nate Paul “tore apart” his office.
He reminded jurors they had sworn on the Bible of Sam Houston and brought up the well-known quote from the former president of the Republic of Texas: “Do right and risk the consequences.”
Murr also co-opted a phrase first used by Buzbee that became an oft-repeated phrase by both sides and a hit on social media. Listing a number of damning coincidences, Murr ended with what came to be seen as the trial’s favorite and perhaps most memorable phrase: “There are no coincidences in Austin.”
The other closer was Rep. Jeff Leach of Collin County, who noted he had loved Ken Paxton for a long time. A fellow Republican from Collin County, he said they had gone to church, ball games and travelled together. Both were Baylor student body presidents. It was hard for him to vote for impeachment, he said. But he was troubled that Paxton had rejected 12 invitations to appear before the House committee to answer questions about the $3.3 million settlement the Legislature was asked to fund.
Paxton’s legal problems were not over after the trial. He still faced state securities fraud charges in a case that began shortly after he took office in 2015 and was moved to Harris County. The case stemmed from his 2011 efforts to solicit investors in a McKinney tech company without disclosing that the company was paying him. He also remained under investigation by the FBI.
Carolyn Barta is a former political writer for The Dallas Morning News and retired journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.