AUSTIN, Texas — In a unanimous vote, a Texas House committee recommended Attorney General Ken Paxton be impeached and removed from office.
The House Committee on General Investigating filed 20 articles of impeachment Thursday evening. Those charges include disregard of official duty, bribery, obstruction of justice, false statements in official records and dereliction of duty.
“While holding office as attorney general, Warren Kenneth Paxton engaged in misconduct, private or public, of such character as to indicate his unfitness for office, as shown by the acts described in one or more articles,” according to the document outlining the accusations.
An attorney general has never been impeached before in Texas. The big question now is whether the Republican-led Texas Legislature will indict a top state official in their own party.
The House ethics panel’s historic vote came a day after they listened intently to painstaking details laid out for nearly three hours by investigators. Through their lines of questioning, state lawmakers wondered if the request for a taxpayer-funded settlement was just a way for Paxton to suppress the evidence behind a group of whistleblowers’ concerns about abuse of power.
“I can empathize and sympathize with someone who is trying to do their job, trying to do it the right way, and then found themselves to be on the outs for doing the right thing. And it seems that’s very clear. It is alarming, I said earlier, and very serious,” said Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, on Wednesday when the hearing concluded.
In a statement Thursday, Paxton once again dismissed the stunning testimony and called it “hearsay and gossip.” He also admonished the process for providing “no opportunity for rebuttal.”
“By attacking the Office of the Attorney General, corrupted politicians in the Texas House, led by liberal Speaker Dade Phelan, are actively destroying Texas’s position as the most powerful backstop against the Biden agenda in the entire country,” Paxton wrote.
The extraordinary public display of alleged scandal pits the Republican-led House against the Republican attorney general.
“The House is playing hardball, showing that it has the power to also do damage and also exact revenge on lawmakers who essentially run afoul to that,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.
So what could happen to the embattled attorney general?
The Texas Constitution gives the power of impeachment to the House which begins the process of removing or disqualifying a public official who abused public trust due to serious misconduct.
If a majority of House lawmakers move to essentially charge Paxton, he would be suspended from his official duties pending the outcome of a trial in the Senate.
“Paxton is essentially in limbo during that entire period. So that part of the law effectively forces the Senate to decide one way or the other, whether he’s guilty or not guilty,” said Jones.
Removal from office requires two-thirds support, and it has only happened twice in Texas history: to Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
Notably, Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, serves in the upper chamber.
She was mentioned in the hearings as ethics investigators told the three Republicans and the Democrats on the committee how in exchange for doing political favors, the Paxtons received high-end home renovations.
Investigators said Paxton went “grossly outside of the line of established norms” to benefit real estate investor Nate Paul, a friend and campaign donor.
“Sen. Angela Paxton did not like the counters and wanted to change them,” said Erin Epley, lead ethics investigator. “The contractor advises that that upgrade will cost $20,000. General Paxton indicates that he’d like to proceed, and the contractor, according to the employee, their response was ‘I’ll have to check with Nate.’”
The ethics investigation all started because Paxton requested the Legislature designate $3.3 million in public funds so he could settle with former deputies who allege they were fired after going to federal authorities.
Sen. Angela Paxton’s office did not respond to Spectrum News’ requests for further comment or questions if she would recuse herself should such impeachment proceedings transpire.
“What makes this case especially complex is that Angela Paxton benefited from some of the indirect payments that her husband received from a donor for help using his office as attorney general to benefit that donor and some of the allegations against Ken Paxton has to do with an extramarital affair,” said Jones.
Throughout his statements condemning the ethics investigation, Paxton criticized the House’s legislative priorities and even called on Speaker Phelan to resign. Paxton pointed to a video of the Beaumont Republican on the house floor and accused him of being drunk.
“It is a sad day in Texas as we witness the corrupt political establishment unite in an illegitimate attempt to overthrow the will of the people and disenfranchise the voters of our state,” Paxton said.
Phelan’s spokesperson called the ethics investigations findings “extremely disturbing,” and said “Phelan stands in full support of the General Investigating Committee and the recommendations that may come as a result of their thorough and diligent investigation.”
Amid the tension, House leaders and Republicans will have to decide whether they are willing to face the potential political fallout by impeaching the state’s top law enforcement officer.
Despite his legal troubles, Paxton last year beat out other Republican challengers in a primary and won reelection.
Jones said that Paxton “from a policy perspective has done everything that conservatives want.”
“Paxton remains very popular among Republican primary voters, and if you vote to impeach him, you’re essentially providing a ready-made attack ad for your primary opponent in March of 2024,” he continued.
House Republicans have been largely mum. Though, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, on Twitter, said, “Make no mistake: The Texas House will do our job and uphold our oaths of office.”