Then-Senator Ken Paxton, now attorney general, during the Texas Tribune Festival on September 28, 2013. Photo credit: Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune
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From his first campaign for nationwide office in 2014 until today, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has never been in legal trouble. And his problems multiply at a time when someone normally dreams and plans for higher office in his place.
Paxton is fighting for his reputation on two fronts – in court and in the court of public opinion. He is still being charged in his first year in the statewide office. In 2015, he was also accused by former top employees of abusing the AG’s office on behalf of a donor – a series of allegations that have already sparked civil suits and, according to the Associated Press, an FBI criminal investigation.
The latest news came in a trial of former senior assistants who are suing the attorney general for retaliation after whistling him for “bizarre, obsessive use of power” for accepting a bribe and abusing his office.
You have accused Paxton of providing government funding to a donor, Nate Paul, for Paul’s private business interests and investigations into his opponents. In return, according to court records, Paul helped remodel Paxton’s house and provided a job for a woman with whom the AG allegedly had an affair.
The legal risks are clear. The first – a state security fraud charge – has still not been tried after more than five years. And Paxton’s claim that he did nothing wrong and that the allegations were politically motivated seems credible enough with voters who, despite everything, re-elected him in 2018.
The second is younger. A group of top attorneys and aides in the attorney general officially complained to the agency that the boss had abused his office for Paul and accepted bribes from Paul. All of them later resigned or were fired. Investigations are ongoing. A lawsuit filed by some former officials for retaliation has become a means of filtering out the details of their allegations – like the one that made the news this week. Paxton claims they were renegade employees whose allegations have no merit.
In the meantime, Paxton has been busy chasing other issues and drawing attention to what he does as the state’s top attorney and away from the legal dogs that are chasing him. Some are winning headlines, like Paxton’s efforts to sue other states to re-run their presidential elections – a lawsuit sponsored by Donald Trump’s camp but tossed aside by the US Supreme Court. Or the so far successful lawsuit he filed in the first week of the Biden administration to block a 100-day freeze on the deportations of some undocumented immigrants in the United States
Others, like leading a group of states suing Google, are bolder. And, it turns out, they have sparked some negative reactions from others – including Paxton’s former colleagues in the legislature – who want to curb him.
When statewide elected officials appear before the Senate finance or home remedies committees, deference is usually the order of the day. Not for Paxton, not this time. The Senators urged him to resolve a $ 1.4 billion opioid litigation that would allow state and local officials – but not lawmakers – to redistribute the funds. The Google questions concerned Paxton’s application for $ 43 million to hire outside lawyers. The senators wanted to know what was wrong with the lawyers he employed. Paxton wants specialists.
You have the idea. A predominantly Republican body gave the stubborn Republican Corporation a light roast. Everyone was talking to each other in the pull-most-punches atmosphere of the Texas Senate.
That illuminates the political ordeal Paxton will face. An old joke – probably in every state capitol – is that AG doesn’t stand for attorney general, but rather aspiring governor. They are stars in their political parties unless they mess things up. Greg Abbott is the governor. John Cornyn is a United States Senator. Dan Morales went to jail. Jim Mattox lost the governor and Senate races. Mark White was elected governor. John Hill, who later became Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, lost his bid for governor in 1978.
That’s four decades in one paragraph. Now it’s Paxton’s turn. We are on the doorstep of the 2022 elections in terms of candidates. It is time to find out what’s next and how to get there. Leaving? Run for re-election? Are you hoping that either the governor or the lieutenant governor will quit and run for it? Challenge one of them?
Apart from abandoning politics, the decisions require public support. The well for Paxton is not that deep: he won re-election in 2018 with only 50.6% of the votes cast. To stay ahead, he has to succeed on two fronts: on the legal, where a few wins could fuel his claim that his sufferings are caused by dirty politics and one loss could end it all; and the political, where he has to defend himself against rivals of both parties who only speak about his arguments with the law.
It’s a simple prediction. It was the undercurrent of his re-election campaign two years ago. And now there is much more to tell for his enemies.
Disclosure: Google was a financial backer of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, impartial news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. A full list can be found here.