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Analysis: The advantages of having really, really good “friends”

Raising money for a politician for non-political purposes raises a question: Were the donors politically motivated, or just friends with a lot of cash on hand?

AG Ken  Paxton at a press conference to recognize January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month on January 12, 2017.

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Is there a compelling reason to let people buy things for Texas public officials without attaching their names to their purchases?

This is a festering question, since the state has a high official charged with crimes who is raising money from friendly rich folks to pay for his legal defense. To top it off, at least one of those friends is anonymous.

If you are accused of committing a crime, as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been, and you do not have the money to pay the kinds of expensive lawyers who can secure your escape from the grip of government, you can always turn to your friends to see if they’ll put up the cash.

If you’re lucky, they will have the money. If you’re really lucky, they’ll say yes. And if you’re a public official, they’ll give you the money without even asking you to pay it back someday. Somewhere in all of this is the ineffable difference between McKinney lawyer Ken Paxton and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That difference is not about the love of friends. It’s about power.

Most people don’t make political investments out of their warm and loving hearts — they do it out of their cold and scheming brains. When Paxton, the latest recipient of this sort of largess, reports pulling in $218,000 last year on top of the $329,000 he had previously collected for his legal defense, there’s a reason to argue for requiring full disclosure of the donors.

The state’s top lawyer is possibly getting something because of public possessions — the government position — that wouldn’t be available to a private citizen. It’s not his office; he’s just the current occupant. The money wouldn’t pour in this way without the public office.

But the law lets some of the donors hide their names, a loophole that makes honest people look crooked and lets crooked people hide.

The attorney general faces securities fraud charges associated with his practice as a private attorney — not as the state’s top lawyer. Among other things, that means he can’t use campaign funds to defend himself and cannot set up the sort of defense fund you ordinarily see from politicians in legal trouble.

“Friends” can help, though. And the trick to this is that they have to be people who won’t benefit directly — people who aren’t subject to Paxton’s authority. That keeps out the usual suspects — the partisans and government contractors and lobbyists who do business with the state of Texas and with Paxton the public official.

“All gifts for legal defense were conferred and accepted on account of a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of General Paxton's official status,” Paxton’s disclosure form states, as the Tribune’s Jim Malewitz reported earlier this week.

The law lets some of the donors hide their names, a loophole that makes honest people look crooked and lets crooked people hide.

A couple of the contributions came from out of state, and one in particular came from an outfit called the Annual Fund, which makes its contributions without publicly revealing who put up the money the fund is distributing. These friendly donors to the attorney general's legal defense are not to be confused with the contributors to his political campaign, which raised more than $1 million in the last two weeks of June.

Some employ a freedom of association argument, saying they should be allowed public speech — including financial support — without putting their names on contributions that might engender some kind of personal or commercial backlash from opponents who spot them in a campaign report.

This has nothing to do with innocence or guilt. Paxton hasn’t been tried and has argued forcefully that he has done no wrong. It’s a stretch to think any of Paxton’s donors would give money to what they thought was a losing cause; these are investments, not alms.

This isn’t really about him; he’s just the latest example of this peculiar blind spot in the state’s ethics laws.

Though it’s certainly a lot of money, it is unlikely that the roughly $550,000 Paxton has collected in friendly donations will be anywhere near what his lawyers are charging him. White-collar defenses are often lucrative for lawyers and financial wastelands for defendants. He’s going to need more.

The politics of this are simple, most of the time. Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox beat commercial bribery charges in the early 1980s, and he won re-election and nearly grabbed the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 1990 — losing a runoff to Ann Richards. Kay Bailey Hutchison was acquitted after being accused of using her state office for political purposes; she won three terms in the U.S. Senate and is now the nominee for ambassador to NATO.

Each was politically much stronger after the legal accusations were resolved in their favor — in part because their acquittals bolstered their arguments that these were political prosecutions started by their enemies.

Paxton’s hoping for that kind of result. So, probably, are his friends — whoever they are.

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