The High Plains Grifter Free To Grift Again

September 21st, 2023 by Tom Lynch

Over the weekend, the Texas State Senate voted to acquit Ken Paxton, the state’s Attorney General, of every one of the 16 bribery, unfitness for office, and abuse of office impeachment charges brought by the Texas House of Representatives in May. Paxton, who has been suspended from office since the charges were brought, was immediately reinstated.

Paxton, who fancies himself an “evangelical conservative Christian,” has long aligned himself with the most conservative, hard-line forces in the GOP – and many of those forces have backed him. Trump has supported him, lambasting the Republicans who impeached him as “RINOS,” or Republicans in name only, and calling his impeachment “election interference.”

This entire affair (which, as I’ll describe in a moment, is an excellent word to use in this case) has not covered either Paxton or his numerous Texas allies with glory. Rather, they are left dripping with what one might see dropping from myriad cattle roaming the Texas Plains. They don’t care. They won.

So, what was it all about?

There has been a cloud of scandal hovering over Attorney General Paxton for years. The ever-darkening cloud includes an in-plain-sight extramarital affair and involvement with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s campaign and paid to renovate his home in return for favorable treatment by Paxton’s office.  Despite the scandal, and an indictment in state court for securities fraud dating back to 2015 (he has repeatedly succeeded in delaying his trial), he won re-election to a third term last year, largely by closely aligning himself with Donald Trump and his MAGA supporters.

In 2020, four high-ranking attorneys in Paxton’s office became whistleblowers by accusing Paxton of gross corruption. The aides — Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley, James Blake Brickman and David Maxwell — were all  Deputy Attorneys General, and Maxwell was Director of the office’s Law Enforcement Division. They told investigators that the Texas AG may have committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office. When Paxton found out about this, he fired the four of them. When that happened, they sued him.

Between 2020 and 2023, Paxton and his former aides worked out a settlement—for an apology from him and $3.3 million for them.

Then things began to get even more weird than they already were, because in early May of this year Paxton petitioned the Texas Legislature, i.e. Texas taxpayers, to pay the settlement for him, letting him off the hook. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, no friend of Paxton, said that he did not believe there were the votes in the House needed to approve the payment; he also said that he did not himself support doing so. If the state paid the aides the $3.3 million settlement it would be like giving Paxton a very expensive Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Instead of doing that, the House Committee on General Investigating accelerated its investigation and subpoenaed records from his office.

During the Committee’s investigation an ugly piece of evidence emerged from the muck when it was learned that, in addition to donating to his campaign and paying to renovate his home, Texas real estate tycoon Nate Paul also gave Paxton’s mistress a job in his Houston office, which allowed Paxton a little adulterous convenience. What became immediately inconvenient was the fact that Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a Texas State Senator, and the Texas Senate would be the jurors for Paxton’s impeachment trial. The poor lady was prohibited from participating in the trial, but had to sit there listening to all the sordid details—for ten days. Senator Paxton was a secondary math teacher and school counselor for more than 20 years, and is the first educator elected to the Texas Senate in over two decades.

Required to attend, she listened stone-faced during the trial as multiple witnesses testified about her husband’s infidelity, exposing as a lie his 2018 declaration to her and senior aides that the affair was permanently over.

Senator Paxton’s not saying how she would have voted had she been allowed to do so.

The Texas Senate is comprised of 12 Democrats and 19 Republicans (given Senator Paxton’s situation, only 18 could vote). Twenty-one votes were required for a conviction. On all 16 charges, the votes were 14 for conviction, 16 for acquittal. Only two of 19 Republican Senators, Bob Nichols of Jacksonville and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, voted in favor of convicting for any article — a stark contrast to the more than 70% of House Republicans who impeached the attorney general in May. Just goes to show the ideological differences between the Texas House and Senate. After his acquittal, Paxton’s MAGA supporters immediately promised full-throated primary attacks on the two who betrayed the cause. They’re probably toast.

You may be asking, “What about that $3.3 million settlement?” The Texas Office of the Attorney General said it’s unlikely Paxton will have to pay the settlement out of his own pocket. What did you expect?

Following his acquittal. Paxton was defiant. In a statement after the verdict, he blamed his impeachment on the Biden administration and “liberal” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, promising to attack Biden’s “lawless policies.” He railed about the Biden White House weaponizing the justice department, which, according to him will not be allowed to happen in his Texas. Apparently, a lot of Texans agree with him. In the days following his exoneration his campaign raised $1.7 million.

Paxton still has obvious political liabilities. The securities fraud case mentioned above and a federal investigation into alleged corruption remain very much live wires. And the State Bar of Texas is seeking to sanction Paxton over his 2020 election stunt of filing frivolous lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin challenging the results that put Joe Biden in the White House. Paxton calls the investigation “a ploy by ‘leftists’ in the state bar association.” It’s conceivable he could be disbarred—barely.

Paxton’s defense relied heavily on his attorneys declaring that his various actions were not criminal, which even if true is of limited relevance, impeachment not being a criminal proceeding. As State Representative Andrew Murr, the House’s impeachment manager, said in his opening statement, “We require more from our public officials than merely to avoid being a criminal.”

Really? Well, maybe in some places.

Regardless, Ken Paxton is acquitted and back at his desk with more power than he had prior to l’affaire Paxton.