Analysis: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton defending his reputation on two fronts
Paxton's legal troubles are increasing in volume, at just about the time an officeholder in his position would be thinking about the next round of elections.
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From his first campaign for statewide office in 2014 to now, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has never not been in legal trouble. And his problems are multiplying at a time when someone in his spot would ordinarily be dreaming and scheming about higher office.
Paxton is fighting for his reputation on two fronts — in the courts, and in the court of public opinion. Still facing an indictment issued during his first year in statewide office in 2015, he also stands accused by former top employees of misusing the AG’s office on behalf of a donor — a set of allegations that has already sparked civil lawsuits and, according to the Associated Press, a criminal investigation by the FBI.
The latest news arrived in a legal filing from former top assistants who are suing the attorney general for retaliation after they blew the whistle on him for a “bizarre, obsessive use of power,” alleging he had accepted a bribe and that he had misused his office.
They’ve accused Paxton of helping a donor, Nate Paul, with state resources on Paul’s private business interests and investigations of his adversaries. In return, they say in court filings, Paul helped with remodeling Paxton’s house and provided a job for a woman with whom the AG allegedly had an affair.
The legal risks are clear. The first one — a state felony indictment of securities fraud — still hasn’t gone to trial after more than five years. And Paxton’s contention that he did nothing wrong and that the charges are politically motivated appears to have been credible enough with voters, who reelected him in 2018 in spite of it all.
The second is more recent. A group of top attorneys and aides at the attorney general’s office complained officially to the agency that the boss was misusing his office and accepting bribes from Paul. All of them subsequently quit or were fired. Investigations are underway. A lawsuit filed by some of the former officials alleging retaliation has become a vehicle for dripping out the details of their allegation — like the ones that made news this week. Paxton contends they were renegade employees whose accusations have no merit.
Paxton, meanwhile, has been busy pursuing other subjects, pulling attention to what he’s doing as the state’s top lawyer and away from the legal hounds that are chasing him. Some win headlines, like Paxton’s effort to sue other states to recount their presidential votes — a lawsuit encouraged by Donald Trump’s camp but tossed aside by the U.S. Supreme Court. Or the so-far successful suit he filed in the first week of the Biden administration, seeking to block a 100-day freeze on deportations of some undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Others, like leading a group of states suing Google, are more audacious. And as it turns out, they’ve generated some adverse reactions from others — including Paxton’s former colleagues in the Legislature — who want to rein him in.
When statewide elected officials appear before the budget-writing Senate Finance or House Appropriations committees, deference is usually the order of the day. Not for Paxton, not this time. Senators pressed him on a $1.4 billion settlement of opioid litigation that allows statewide and local officials — but not legislators — to distribute the funds. The Google questions were about Paxton’s request for $43 million to hire outside lawyers. Senators wanted to know what’s wrong with the lawyers he employs. Paxton wants specialists.
You get the idea. A mostly Republican panel gave the hard-pressed Republican AG a light roasting. In the pull-most-punches atmosphere of the Texas Senate, it had everybody talking.
That illuminates the political ordeal Paxton will face. An old joke — probably in every state Capitol — is that AG stands not for attorney general, but for aspiring governor. They are stars in their political parties, unless they mess things up. Greg Abbott is a governor. John Cornyn is a U.S. senator. Dan Morales went to jail. Jim Mattox lost races for governor and U.S. Senate. Mark White was elected governor. John Hill, who went on to become chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, lost his 1978 bid for governor.
That’s four decades in a paragraph. Now it’s Paxton’s turn. We are, in candidate terms, on the doorstep of the 2022 elections. It’s time to figure out what’s next and how to get there. Quit? Run for reelection? Hope either the governor or lieutenant governor quits and run for that? Challenge one of them?
Other than giving up politics, the choices require public support. The well for Paxton isn’t that deep: He won reelection in 2018 with just 50.6% of the votes cast. To stay ahead, he’s got to succeed on two fronts: the legal one, where a couple of victories could feed his claim that his woes are caused by dirty politics and a loss could end everything, and the political one, where he’ll have to defend himself against rivals from both parties who won’t be talking about anything but his brushes with the law.
It’s an easy prediction to make. It was the undercurrent of his reelection campaign two years ago. And now, there’s a lot more for his foes to talk about.
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