AUSTIN, Texas – After years of legal and ethics scandals surrounding Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives is headed for an impeachment vote that could quickly remove him from office.
The extraordinary and rarely used maneuver comes in the final days of the state legislative session and sets off a bruising political battle. It pits Paxton, who is closely associated with former President Donald Trump and the state’s right-wing conservatives, against House Republican leadership that appears to have suddenly had enough of the allegations of wrongdoing that have long dogged the Texas attorney general.
Paxton said the allegations were based on “hearsay and hearsay that parrot long-denied claims.”
Here’s how the impeachment process works in Texas, and how the 60-year-old Republican faced the prospect of becoming the third impeached official in the state’s nearly 200-year history.
Under the Texas constitution and law, the impeachment of a state official is similar to the process at the federal level; the action begins in the State House.
In that case, the five-member House Investigative Committee voted unanimously Thursday to send 20 articles of impeachment to the full chamber. The next step is a vote by the 149-member chamber, where a simple majority is needed to approve the articles. Republicans control the House 85-64.
The House can call witnesses to testify, but the investigative committee has already done so before the impeachment motion. The panel spent several hours Wednesday listening to investigators make an unusually public broadcast about the Paxton years of scandal and alleged law-breaking.
If the House of Representatives impeaches Paxton, the matter goes to the state Senate for a “trial” to decide whether to permanently remove Paxton from office or acquit him. Removal requires a two-thirds majority vote.
A sudden threat
But there is a significant difference between the Texas and federal systems. If the House votes to impeach him, Paxton is immediately suspended pending the outcome of the Senate trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will have the opportunity to appoint a temporary replacement.
The Republican Party of Texas controls all branches of state government. Republican lawmakers and leaders have remained silent until this week on the many examples of Paxton’s misconduct and alleged violations of the law that have surfaced in legal filings and news reports over the years.
It is unclear exactly when or why this changed.
In February, Paxton agreed to settle a lawsuit by his former aides who accused him of corruption. The $3.3 million payment must be approved by the House of Representatives, and Republican Speaker Dade Phelan said he does not believe taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, a House investigation into Paxton began.
Republican or Republican?
The five-member panel that organized Paxton’s investigation is led by his fellow Republicans, contrasting America’s best-known examples of impeachment.
Trump’s federal impeachment in 2020 and 2021 was led by Democrats who controlled the majority of the US House of Representatives. In both cases, impeachment charges approved by the House of Representatives failed in the Senate, where Republicans had enough votes to block conviction.
In Texas, Republicans have majority control of both chambers, and state GOP leaders wield all the leverage. But that hasn’t stopped Paxton from trying to rally the party’s defense.
When the House investigation came to light on Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by Phelan. He called for the resignation of the “liberal” speaker and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday.
Phelan’s office denied the allegation because Paxton was trying to “save face.” None of the state’s other top Republicans have endorsed Paxton.
Paxton issued a statement Thursday, portraying the impeachment process as an attempt to disenfranchise voters who gave him a third term in November. He said that by moving against him, “RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same page as Joe Biden.”
But Paxton, who served five terms in the House and one term in the Senate before becoming attorney general, is confident he will still have allies in Austin.
The likely candidate is his wife, Angela, a two-term state senator who may be in an uncomfortable position to vote on her husband’s political future. It remains unclear whether he will or should have participated in the Senate trial, where the 31 members are running tight margins.
Paxton’s impeachment relates to an extramarital affair he admitted to members of his staff years ago. The impeachment charges include bribing one of Paxton’s donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, by allegedly hiring a woman with whom he had an affair in exchange for legal assistance.
Years of creation
The impeachment dates back to 2015, when Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges for which he has yet to stand trial. Lawmakers accused Paxton of making false statements to state securities regulators.
But most of the articles stem from Paxton’s ties to Paul and the remarkable 2020 revolt of top deputy attorneys general.
That fall, eight of Paxton’s top aides reported their boss to the FBI, accusing him of bribery and abusing his position to help Paul. Four of them later filed a lawsuit against the whistleblower. The report prompted a federal criminal investigation that was taken over in February by the US Justice Department’s Washington-based Office of Public Integrity.
The impeachment charges include numerous allegations related to Poxton’s relationship with Paul. The allegations include attempts to interfere with foreclosure lawsuits and improper legal opinions in favor of Paul, as well as firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. Allegations of bribery stem from that case, and Paul allegedly paid for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
The frauds have plagued the Texas attorney general’s office, which has long been one of the primary legal rivals of Democratic White House administrations.
In the years since Paxton’s staff left for the FBI, his agency has been unsettled by behind-the-scenes turmoil as seasoned lawyers leave practices designed to skew legal work, reward loyalists and drum up dissent.
Paxton would already likely go down in the history books with his unprecedented request that the US Supreme Court overturn Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential election. He can now make history in a different way.
Only twice has the Texas House impeached an incumbent.
Governor James “Pa” Ferguson was impeached in 1917 for misusing state funds, embezzlement, and diverting a special fund. State Judge O.P. Carrillo was fired in 1975 for misappropriating state money and equipment for his own use and filing false financial statements.
— Bleiberg reports from Dallas.
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