Not guilty: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton acquitted in impeachment trial

In a historic vote that will have long-term implications for the Texas GOP, state senators serving as jurors in Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial acquitted the attorney general on allegations of taking bribes and using his office to help an Austin businessman, resolving the first of several legal proceedings Paxton is facing.

The verdict, reached Saturday after a two-week trial in the Senate chamber, clears the way for Paxton, a three-term Republican, to return to a position he has used to advance an ultra-conservative agenda that has brought national acclaim from the far-right.

Paxton, first elected as attorney general in 2014, had been suspended without pay since May 27, when in the final days of the legislative session the Texas House voted overwhelmingly to advance 20 impeachment articles after a months-long secret investigation. Sixteen of the articles tried in the Senate involved bribery and misuse of office in Paxton’s relationship with a campaign donor, prominent Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

This impeachment trial, the first of a statewide office holder in more than a century, reverberated beyond Texas and created infighting in the state Republican party after 60 of 83 House Republicans supported the effort to move articles of impeachment forward.

More:Who are the key players in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment trial?

Late Wednesday, former President Donald Trump called for Paxton’s acquittal on the social media site Truth Social, accusing moderate Republicans of attempting to undo the results of last November’s election in which Paxton received about 4 million votes. 

“Who would replace Paxton, one of the TOUGHEST & BEST Attorney Generals in the country?” Trump wrote.

Attorney General Ken Paxton arrives for his impeachment trial at the Capitol on Tuesday September 5, 2023.

Paxton also announced in recent days that he had agreed to a sit-down interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at his property in Maine to “discuss the last two weeks in Texas politics. It should be interesting!” 

More:Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fundraises off Trump's support amid impeachment trial

Many of the allegations against Paxton have been public since 2020 when eight former deputies in his office made a complaint against him to the FBI. Four of the aides then filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the agency, prompting the Texas House investigation this year into a request by Paxton for the Legislature to fund a $3.3 million settlement to resolve the lawsuit. 

The trial dripped of political influence, with Paxton’s supporters launching an online campaign against two unlikely allies they deem responsible: Democrats and flimsy conservatives labeled RINOs — Republicans in name only. In the leadup to the trial, Defend Texas Liberty, an ultraconservative political action committee, contributed $3 million to the campaign of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the trial’s judge. The group also promised political retaliation for House members who voted in favor of impeachment.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, middle, and his attorneys Tony Buzbee, left, and Mitch Little stand as senators arrive for his impeachment trial at the Capitol on Friday September 15, 2023.

At trial, the former Paxton deputies testified that in 2020 Paxton repeatedly skirted established agency policies by intervening in Paul’s legal matters, including launching a counterattack against the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that were investigating Paul for financial crimes. Paul was later indicted on eight counts of mortgage fraud.

In response, Paxton’s lawyers presented evidence they say shows Paxton acted within his legal and statutory authority, and floated a broad conspiracy claiming the deputies were in cahoots with outside forces, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and one-time Paxton political opponent George P. Bush.

Whistleblowers, fraud and Nate Paul:A timeline of Texas AG Ken Paxton's impeachment trial

In legal circles, the trial was viewed as a battle between some of the state’s most decorated lawyers. Paxton’s defense team included Houston attorneys Tony Buzbee, a former Houston mayoral candidate and current City Council candidate in that city, and Dan Cogdell, a prominent white collar lawyer who is also representing Paxton in a state securities fraud case. Joining them were Dallas lawyer Mitch Little and six lawyers in the attorney general’s office who took a leave of absence to assist Paxton, their boss.

Leading the prosecution were legal legends Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, both from Houston, who between them have handled some of the biggest cases in over 100 combined years of lawyering.

Paxton, 60, did not attend the trial but for a brief appearance on opening day, Sept. 5, when Buzbee on Paxton’s behalf entered a not guilty plea on all counts with the attorney general standing nearby. Paxton then returned for closing arguments Friday.

The trial was similar to that of a criminal proceeding in that the standard for a conviction was beyond a reasonable doubt — the highest bar for guilt in Texas courts. It differed in that the senators did not have to come to a unanimous verdict. A conviction on any impeachment article required support from two-thirds of eligible senators, or 21 of 30 members. It also differed in that the verdict cannot be appealed.

Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was excluded from voting but was required to attend each day. Her removal from voting left the Senate with 18 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

Ken Paxton gives his wife Angela a kiss before the start of his impeachment trial Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in the Texas Senate at the Capitol in Austin. The trial will determine if the suspended Attorney General will be removed from office.

Angela Paxton was spared an uncomfortable moment Wednesday when a woman with whom her husband reportedly had an affair arrived at the Capitol to testify but later was deemed “unavailable” after House prosecutors and the defense team agreed to keep her from taking the stand. That woman, a former Capitol staffer named Laura Olson, was central to a bribery allegation, as prosecutors say Paxton got her a job with Paul’s company. Had she testified, Olson was expected to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Grumet:Paxton made Texans fear for their privacy, while keeping his personal life secret

Another bribery allegation involved a Paxton home remodel that prosecutors say was paid for by Paul and furnished by a contractor associated with Paul.  

Now with the impeachment trial over, Paxton moves onto other legal matters. 

Arguably the most serious pending action against Paxton is an ongoing federal investigation into his connection to Paul. In August, the American-Statesman reported that federal prosecutors in San Antonio seated a grand jury to consider such evidence. During the impeachment trial, Paxton’s former chief of staff, Missy Cary, testified that she provided testimony to a federal grand jury in 2021.

In a separate case, a judge in Houston overseeing Paxton’s eight-year-old felony securities fraud indictment recently told his lawyers and prosecutors to be ready for trial in February. That case, which accuses Paxton of procuring investments in a company without disclosing he was being paid to do so, is the basis of four impeachment articles that the Senate opted to hold in abeyance and address at a later time.

Paxton also faces two complaints with the Texas State Bar — one connected to the impeachment, and the other for citing false evidence in challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election in four battleground states.

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