In politics, you have to blame someone. It’s how fundraising works, how attention is grabbed, how fights between talking heads are fueled.
The blaming is already underway in the securities fraud case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and that will help rally his supporters — his opponents, too — until the case is resolved. When this is over, his political condition will depend on the condition of his reputation.
A Collin County grand jury handed up three felony indictments Paxton on Monday, accusing him of securities fraud and failing to register as an investment adviser representative before acting as one. In an email to supporters, Paxton said he expects to be proved innocent of any wrongdoing.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, who heads a conservative advocacy group called Empower Texans, derided the prosecution of the attorney general as sour grapes from a former election rival and from an investor in a company named in the Paxton indictment.
“This is Perry Indictment, Part II,” Sullivan wrote on his Facebook page. “The indictment against Ken Paxton is a sick joke. It is retribution from sore-loser Dan Branch's political cronies, like disgraced State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corscicana [sic]), after their man got trounced by voters. After reading it, the indictment is an embarrassment to Texas' criminal justice system. Ken Paxton — the man, the lawmaker, the attorney general — appears to have done nothing wrong. At its core, the ‘indictment’ alleges he engaged in innocent behavior. Boil it all down: the indictment is not about justice, it's about punishment for winning in 2014.”
However the Paxton case comes out, it’s starting as a political rallying point. You’ll see it in fundraisers. And it’ll surely turn up in the 2016 election contests.
“This appears to be nothing more than a political attack orchestrated by the liberal Rep. Byron Cook,” state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He’s backing Cook’s challenger in next year’s Republican primary. “I look forward to justice prevailing and Rep. Cook losing re-election to conservative Thomas McNutt,” Stickland said.
A case like the one former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay faced points up a disquieting unfairness in the justice system: An innocent person can lose years of productive life, a reputation and a helluva lot of money between the time they are investigated, indicted and acquitted. The charges against DeLay put his political career on the rocks. He left Congress and his post as House majority leader; some had hoped he might become the first Texan named speaker of the U.S. House since Jim Wright.
Rick Perry’s indictment — one of the two charges handed up against him was knocked down this summer — could have a similar effect if it ends with an acquittal or some other kind of exoneration. He’s trying to run for president while spending $2 million — so far — on the lawyers hired to fight the charge. Perry has had other problems in his current run, but the indictment isn’t helping — and could hurt if he rises far enough in the polls to threaten other contestants.
A prosecutor can ruin a career without a conviction. They file their charges. The devastating cost of a good defense punches a hole in the defendant’s finances. Friends turn away. Work dries up. Families are stressed, sometimes to the breaking point.
Nobody pays you back for that. In one well-known case, Ray Donovan, who had served as U.S. secretary of labor under President Ronald Reagan, was indicted and then acquitted on grand larceny and fraud charges involving construction of a subway line in New York City. He had this question when it ended: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
We see it in political cases because the defendants are public people. But political cases are relatively rare; indictments like these happen every day all over the state and the country to people whose lives are not nearly so public.
Paxton, who came into office after a 2014 election cycle that most Texans ignored, runs the risk of losing and gaining reputation at the same time. The people who know him now have questions; the people who don’t are getting a tainted first impression.
Exoneration, if he is still in office when it comes, would right Paxton’s political standing. The whole battle could be a rallying standard for conservative Republicans like Sullivan, Stickland and Paxton himself if they can convince folks this is politically motivated.
Even if it eventually works out for Paxton, this is a big mess for the new attorney general. It’s a long way from here to the ground he held before the legal woes began. If he reaches that ground, Paxton, like countless other exonerated defendants in public and private life, will be asking Donovan’s question.
Here’s the answer: It is easier to tear down a reputation than to rebuild one. That office Donovan was looking for never existed.