Earlier this week, seemingly out of the blue, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton issued a statement calling one of the most powerful politicians in the state a drunk. Citing a video that was circulating of Dade Phelan, the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, stumbling over his words while presiding over the chamber, Paxton accused his fellow Republican of working “in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.” It was “with profound disappointment,” Paxton said, that he was asking Phelan to vacate his post at the end of the legislative session.
It is still not really clear what Phelan’s deal was in that clip; Phelan himself has not commented. But one thing was clear almost immediately: Paxton’s attack on Phelan was not really about a 15-second video of the legislative session. It was about his own political survival. Not long after Paxton issued his statement, Phelan dropped a bombshell of his own: The chamber’s House Committee on General Investigating was about to publicize the results of a lengthy investigation into Paxton, which had started after the AG asked the legislature to cover the cost of a $3.3 million wrongful-termination settlement of a lawsuit brought by four whistleblowers he had fired.
Now, after a damning, three-hour hearing in which a team of veteran investigators dissected in detail Paxton’s alleged crimes, abuses of power, and ethical breaches, Paxton is finally facing what he has managed to avoid for the better part of a decade: accountability. On Thursday, the five-member Republican-controlled committee voted unanimously to recommend Paxton be impeached, which could potentially lead to an extraordinary special session to decide his fate.
The hearing that preceded the impeachment vote was remarkable—less because of what it uncovered, but because of who was uncovering it. For nearly a decade, Republicans in Texas have been Ken Paxton’s enablers. He has been under indictment for a felony securities fraud-charge since 2015—accused of breaking a law that he himself helped pass. A significant number of Texas Republicans, it’s true, have at times backed primary challengers promising to clean house, but conservatives have ultimately been willing to look the other way—or even gleefully join Paxton’s cause—because he’s ruthless about using his power to advance the conservative agenda. But Wednesday’s hearing was something new: A detailed accounting of his petty corruption, unprofessionalism, and abuses of power, brought to life by the only people in Texas with the clout to rein him in—his fellow Republicans.
As I reported last year, the whistleblower lawsuit, and the events that triggered it, offered a vivid glimpse of how one of the most powerful and scandal-plagued lawyers in America—a backer of anti-democratic lawsuits and breathtakingly cruel anti-trans policies—operates behind the scenes. In 2020, a group of staffers in the attorney general’s office—all conservative Republicans—grew alarmed by what they considered a pattern of unusual and unethical behavior from Paxton on behalf of a real-estate developer and major donor named Nate Paul.
Paxton intervened in an ongoing lawsuit involving Paul, in a way that seemed designed to benefit him. Days before some of Paul’s foreclosed properties were set to be sold off, Paxton also got his office to issue a non-binding legal opinion to block the auction from happening. Paxton kept on trying to get his staff to start an investigation, on Paul’s behalf, into claims that the FBI had conducted an improper search of his properties—and when they made clear that they would not, Paxton hired a special counsel with no prosecutorial experience to do just that. At the same time, Paul had allegedly done a few things for Paxton personally—he had hired a woman that Paxton was allegedly having an affair with, and he had done some renovations at Paxton’s house. Believing that their boss might be operating “under duress,” these Paxton staffers reported the AG to the feds. Paxton promptly fired them.
That’s the short of it. In the ensuing two-and-a-half years, many more questionable things have happened. Weeks after his staff rebellion, Paxton attempted to get the Supreme Court to nullify the 2020 presidential election, which prompted speculation that Paxton was seeking a pardon from President Donald Trump for, well, something. He spoke on the National Mall on the morning of January 6th, 2021. His office subsequently released a 300-page inernal report that claimed to completely exonerate Paxton. Paul was sent to jail for contempt of court. Oh, and Paxton was re-elected by more than 800,000 votes.
The state house’s investigation largely served to corroborate, and to place into another public record, the various charges and allegations that have been lodged against Paxton for years. What revelations there were came largely on the margins. We learned, for instance, that the home renovation that Nate Paul was alleged to have done for Paxton was a full floor-to-ceiling renovation, and that Paxton’s wife, Republican state Sen. Angela Paxton, was unhappy with the granite countertops. Good to know. The investigators also shed some more light on that non-binding legal opinion that Paxton had seemingly conjured into existence to help Paul. The process for requesting and obtaining such guidance from the attorney general’s office can take about 180 days, they said; Paxton had gotten it done in two. While Paxton had claimed that the opinion had been requested by a state senator, Paul said that he had contacted Paxton about the matter. On the subject of the special prosecutor Paxton had hired, the investigators said it was “almost unheard of” for an AG’s office to tap an outside counsel for a criminal case, for a very obvious reason: The AG’s office is filled with prosecutors.
One of the most telling findings had to do with the process of the inquiry itself. The investigators interviewed 15 employees at the attorney general’s office. All but one, they said, expressed fear of retaliation for their cooperation. That’s a pretty striking finding for an investigation about a lawsuit filed by four wrongfully terminated whistleblowers. It also feels like a pretty rational fear. In this case, the four whistleblowers were not just fired, they were intimidated and smeared by Paxton’s office (one of the terms of the settlement was that Paxton would have to retract those claims). Later, his office argued in court that the attorney general was actually exempt from whistleblower protections entirely; the state’s chief law enforcement official, according to this legal theory, was literally above the law. It is not particularly surprising that people working for Paxton today think they might face reprisals for speaking out. But it was noteworthy to see the Republican-controlled state house of representatives publicly grapple with that reality.
Suffice to say, the legislature rejected Paxton’s request to cover the cost of his settlement, which throws the resolution of the lawsuit into question. But it has done far more than that. As the Texas Tribune reported, Republican state rep. Andrew Murr, who chairs the investigation committee, suggested that by allowing Paxton to settle the suit without going to trial or even being deposed, the legislature could be complicit in a coverup. What’s more, the investigators accused Paxton of breaking a number of laws relating to the misuse of public funds or powers by using his office to assist Paul. Although the investigations committee hasn’t released any articles of impeachment, those offenses—which are felonies—would likely form the basis for any removal vote.
In the past, Paxton has insisted that his legal troubles are really just politics. He said after the securities-fraud indictment that he was in a “spiritual battle” against people who wanted a conservative Christian to fail. And that’s worked for him, up to a point. But he’s facing the limits of that line now. The investigators who corroborated the claims of the whistleblowers and documented a pattern of unethical behavior were not “partisan Democrat lawyers,” as he said. They were deputized by members of a legislature that has propped him up for years. And now those Republicans hold Paxton’s future in their hands.