By ACACIA CORONADO, JIM VERTUNO and JAKE BLEIBERG (Associated Press)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday urged his supporters to protest at the state Capitol when Republicans in the House of Representatives take up historic impeachment proceedings that threaten to oust him.
The House has set a Saturday vote to consider impeaching Paxton and suspending him from office over allegations of bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust — just some of the accusations that have trailed him for most of his three terms.
Paxton, a 60-year-old Republican, decried the impeachment proceedings as “political theater” that will “inflict lasting damage on the Texas House,” adding to his earlier claims that it’s an effort to disenfranchise the voters who returned him to office in November.
“I want to invite my fellow citizens and friends to peacefully come let their voices be heard at the Capitol tomorrow,” he said at a news conference, without taking any questions. “Exercise your right to petition your government.”
The request echoes former President Donald Trump’s call for people to protest his electoral defeat on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Paxton, who spoke at the rally in Washington that proceed the insurrection, called his supporters to the Texas Capitol on a day when the governor is supposed to deliver a Memorial Day address to lawmakers there.
If impeached, Paxton would be suspended from office immediately and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could appoint an interim replacement. The attorney general would be just the third person in the state’s nearly 200-year history to be impeached and the first statewide officer since former Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917.
The House will begin considering a resolution calling for Paxton’s impeachment at 1 p.m. Saturday, according to a statement released Friday by the House Committee on General Investigating.
The GOP-led committee spent months quietly investigating Paxton and recommended his impeachment Thursday on 20 articles. Paxton has said the charges are based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims.”
Prominent conservatives had been notably quiet on Paxton, but some began to rally around him Friday. The chairman of the state Republican Party, Matt Rinaldi, criticized the process as a “sham” and urged the GOP-controlled Senate to acquit Paxton if he stands trial in that chamber.
“It is based on allegations already litigated by voters, led by a liberal speaker trying to undermine his conservative adversaries,” Rinaldi said, echoing Paxton’s criticism of Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan. He said the Senate will have to “restore sanity and reason” by acquitting Paxton at trial.
The process in the House will start with opening statements at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by four hours of debate, closing statements and then a vote, according to a memo from the committee.
Paxton faces grim math in the chamber, where he served five terms before becoming a state senator.
It’s unclear how many supporters he may have in the House but only a simple majority is needed to impeach. That means just a fraction of the 85 Republican members would need to vote against Paxton, if all 64 Democrats did. Final removal would require two-thirds support in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife’s, Angela, is a member.
The move to impeach Paxton sets up what could be a remarkably sudden downfall for one of the GOP’s most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor. He was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, but has yet to stand trial.
When the five-member committee’s investigation came to light Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by Phelan, accusing the speaker of being drunk on the House floor and calling for his resignation. Phelan’s office brushed this off as an attempt to “save face.”
Paxton faces ouster just seven months after easily winning a third term. His challengers, including George P. Bush, had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but discovered that many didn’t know about Paxton’s litany of alleged misdeeds or dismissed them as political attacks.
Even with Monday’s end of the regular session approaching, state law allows the House to keep working on impeachment proceedings. Both chambers could call themselves back into session later.
The articles of impeachment stem largely from Paxton’s relationship with one of his wealthy donors, his alleged efforts to protect the donor from an FBI investigation and his attempts to thwart whistleblower complaints brought by his own staff.
In one sense, Paxton’s political peril arrived with dizzying speed: The House committee investigation came to light Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of his alleged criminal acts.
But to Paxton’s detractors, the rebuke was years in the making.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law over not registering as an investment advisor while soliciting clients. A year later, Paxton was indicted on felony securities charges by a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony counts carrying a potential sentence of five to 99 years in prison.
He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton’s office for Medicaid fraud. An additional $50,000 was donated by an Arizona retiree whose son Paxton later hired to a high-ranking job but was soon fired after displaying child pornography in a meeting.
What has unleashed the most serious risk to Paxton is his relationship with a wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton’s top aides in 2020 told the FBI that they were concerned the attorney general was misusing the powers of his office to help Paul over unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties was afoot. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019 but he has not been charged and his attorneys have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
The impeachment charges cover accusations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul, including attempts to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits; improperly issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul; and firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. The bribery charges stem from Paul allegedly employing the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
A senior lawyer for Paxton’s office denied Friday that Paul paid for the work on the home, which also came under FBI scrutiny. “He paid for all his home repairs and renovations” Chris Hilton said at the news conference, in one of the only direct responses from Paxton’s team to the impeachment articles.
Other charges date back to Paxton’s still-pending 2015 felony securities fraud indictment, including lying to state investigators.
The eight aides who reported Paxton to the FBI were all fired or quit, and four later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, In February, Paxton agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million, which must be approved by the House. The investigative committee said Friday that it was Paxton seeking the payout that brought about their probe.
“We cannot over-emphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment by the House,” the panel said.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press reporter Paul J. Weber contributed from Austin, Texas.