AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ GOP-led House of Representatives impeached state Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday on articles including bribery and abuse of public trust, a sudden, historic rebuke of a fellow Republican who rose to be a star of the conservative legal movement despite years of scandal and alleged crimes.
The vote triggers Paxton’s immediate suspension from office pending the outcome of a trial in the state Senate and empowers Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint someone else as Texas’ top lawyer in the interim.
The vote constitutes an abrupt 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 electoral defeat of Donald Trump. It makes Paxton only the third sitting official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to have been impeached.
Paxton, 60, has decried what he called “political theater” based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims,” and said it’s an attempt to disenfranchise voters who reelected him in November. It’s unclear where the attorney general was Saturday, but during the House proceeding, he was sharing statements from supporters on Twitter.
“No one person should be above the law, least not the top law enforcement officer of the state of Texas,” Rep. David Spiller, a Republican member of the committee that investigated Paxton, said in opening statements. Rep. Ann Johnson, a Democratic member, told lawmakers that Texas’ “top cop is on the take.” Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican committee member, said without elaborating that Paxton had called lawmakers and threatened them with political “consequences.” As the articles of impeachment were laid out, some of the lawmakers shook their heads. They are expected to debate impeachment for four hours before voting.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, though he has yet to stand trial. Until this week, his fellow Republicans had taken a muted stance on the allegations.
Lawmakers allied with Paxton tried to discredit the investigation by noting that hired investigators, not panel members, interviewed witnesses. They also said several of the investigators had voted in Democratic primaries, tainting the impeachment, and that they had too little time to review evidence.
“I perceive it could be political weaponization,” said Rep. Tony Tinderholt, one of the House’s most conservative members. Republican Rep. John Smithee compared the proceeding to “a Saturday mob out for an afternoon lynching.”
Impeachment requires just a simple majority in the House. That means only a small fraction of its 85 Republicans would need to join 64 Democrats in voting against him.
If impeached, Paxton would be suspended pending a Senate trial, and it would fall to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint an interim replacement. Final removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife’s, Angela, is a member.
Texas’ top elected Republicans had been notably quiet about Paxton this week. But on Saturday both Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to his defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process “a travesty” and saying the attorney general’s legal troubles should be left to the courts.
“Free Ken Paxton,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, warning that if House Republicans proceeded with the process, “I will fight you.”
Abbott, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in for a third term in January, has remained silent. The governor spoke at a Memorial Day service in the House chamber about three hours before the impeachment proceedings began. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan also attended but the two appeared to exchange few words, and Abbott left without commenting to reporters.
But to Paxton’s detractors, the rebuke was years overdue.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law, and a year later he was indicted on securities fraud charges in his hometown near Dallas, accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He pleaded not guilty to two felony counts carrying a potential sentence of five to 99 years.
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. In 2020, Paxton intervened in a Colorado mountain community where a Texas donor and college classmate faced removal from his lakeside home under coronavirus orders.
But what ultimately unleased the impeachment push was Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
In 2020, eight top aides told the FBI they were concerned Paxton was misusing his office to help Paul over the developer’s 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 denies wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
The impeachment accuses Paxton of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul. Its bribery charges allege that Paul employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and that he paid for expensive renovations to the attorney general’s home.
A senior lawyer for Paxton’s office, Chris Hilton, said Friday that the attorney general paid for all repairs and renovations.
Other charges, including lying to investigators, date back to Paxton’s still-pending securities fraud indictment.
Four of the aides who reported Paxton to the FBI later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, and in February he agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. The House committee said it was Paxton seeking legislative approval for the payout that sparked their probe.
“But for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the panel said.