Paxton, Branch Attorney General Brawl Gets Expensive

Less than a week before the polls close, the candidates in the Republican runoff for attorney general aren't pulling punches. They're in the midst of an expensive political brawl, attacking each other in dueling TV ads statewide.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, since the March 4 primary, state Rep. Dan Branch and state Sen. Ken Paxton have spent more than $2 million combined on television advertising in the state’s four biggest media markets: Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Paxton, who is from McKinney, emerged from the March primary with an 11-point lead over Branch, of Dallas. With an ethics controversy swirling around his campaign, Paxton has spent at least $1 million on major network television ads that attempt to discredit Branch's conservative credentials. Branch, meanwhile, is aiming to keep the focus of the race on questions about Paxton’s business disclosures, spending at least $1.3 million in the process, according to FCC records.

A recent Texas Tribune investigation found that Paxton had failed to register as an investment solicitor when he was being paid to refer clients to the financial firm Mowery Capital. The State Securities Board reprimanded the candidate and fined him $1,000.

Branch's latest attack ad, featuring David Goettsche, who unsuccessfully sued Paxton over an investment arrangement, attempts to capitalize on allegations of ethical troubles against the McKinney Republican.

"He was getting kickbacks on our money," Goettsche says in the ad. "That's wrong and illegal."

Branch and his supporters have raised the specter of potential criminal prosecution of Paxton under the Texas Securities Act — a scenario that could put Paxton, if elected, at the head of the office that decides whether to pursue such charges. Because the State Securities Board found that Paxton engaged in a civil violation of the registration requirements, Paxton could also face liability under criminal provisions that make unregistered solicitor work a third-degree felony. The attorney general's office shares responsibility for enforcing that law with the securities commissioner.

“If Ken Paxton is on the 2014 Republican ticket, his admitted lawbreaking will be a blight on the party,” Branch campaign spokesman Enrique Marquez said in an email.

Anthony Holm, a spokesman for the Paxton campaign, called allegations of criminal wrongdoing “false” and “desperate.”

“This line of attack is simply an effort to redirect attention away from Branch’s record,” Holm said in an emailed statement. “This matter has been fully resolved by the board. It’s closed.”

It is not clear whether prosecutors might investigate allegations of criminal violations by Paxton. The responsibility for pressing criminal charges under the Securities Act would typically fall to a local prosecutor. Robert Elder, a spokesman for the State Securities Board, declined to comment on whether evidence of a criminal violation had been referred to the relevant district attorney, citing confidentiality rules.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Dobiyanski in the Collin County prosecutor's office, which would likely have jurisdiction in a case involving Paxton, said his office hadn’t received anything from the board. Representatives from the Travis County district attorney's office, which oversees the state’s public integrity unit that investigates allegations of corruption among state officials, said that office had not been contacted about Paxton either.

Buoyed by public praise from Tea Party firebrand and Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Paxton is hoping support from conservative grassroots voters will push him over the finish line despite being outspent by Branch on TV ads. Paxton has launched aggressive attacks of his own, using airtime to call Branch a “registered union lobbyist” and “liberal Republican.”

He referred, in part, to revelations that Branch worked as a registered federal lobbyist, including for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in 2002. Marquez, the Branch campaign spokesman, called the attack "bizarre" and "false."

At last tally, Branch was outspending Paxton by about $300,000 in one of the most expensive races on network television across the state, according to FCC documents. Before the March primary, Branch spent more than any other statewide candidate on television advertising in the state’s four biggest media markets.

Attacks from both candidates have drawn criticism.

An advertisement from the Branch campaign about Paxton’s violation of securities law resulted in a cease-and-desist letter from NBC 5, a Fort Worth news station whose footage the campaign used liberally.

Paxton’s most recent television ad accused Branch of working to expand access to third-trimester abortions, a claim PolitiFact Texas deemed “false.”

The winner of Tuesday’s contest will face Democrat Sam Houston in the November general election. Houston faces long odds — no Democrat has won a statewide election in Texas since 1994 — but he says the Republicans’ fiery attacks on each other have given him political ammunition.

“We plan on being tough on them,” he said, adding, “You can never really complain when your opponents are slinging mud at each other.”