Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
For months, House impeachment managers and prosecutors have made big promises about the damning evidence they would present against suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton.
And for months, Paxton’s lawyers have said the impeachment managers were bluffing as they vowed to quickly prove that their client was the victim of a “kangaroo court” and political witch hunt.
This week, though, the managers began to show their hand. In new and dramatic filings released by the Senate Wednesday, they alleged that Paxton went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his relationship with Nate Paul, the real estate investor who Paxton is accused of improperly using his office to help fight an FBI investigation — despite repeated protests from top agency officials who warned that Paul was a “crook.” A day later, the Senate released nearly 4,000 pages of exhibits that the House had submitted, a remarkable show of evidence with the trial less than three weeks away.
Taken together, the new filings made clear to senators what they could be in for during next month’s trial — an excruciating, well-documented accounting of Paxton’s alleged misdeeds, including repeated attempts to hide that he was cheating on his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, who will be present but not voting at his trial in the close-knit Texas Senate.
The new information was directed toward senators who will have a series of momentous decisions to make shortly after Paxton’s trial begins at 9 a.m. Sept. 5. At the trial, senators will vote on whether to grant Paxton’s requests to dismiss every article of impeachment before managers can begin presenting evidence.
A simple majority, 16 senators, is needed to dismiss an article prior to the trial. With 19 Republicans in the Senate — and all 12 Democrats expected to oppose dismissing the articles — impeachment managers would need to win over four members of Paxton’s party to continue the trial.
Wednesday’s revelations may make it more difficult for Republican senators to vote for dismissal, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.
“This was blockbuster information, and it seems like it’s just going to be the tip of the iceberg,” Rottinghaus said. “This is the level of detail that the House managers promised after they impeached the attorney general.”
In the new filings, impeachment managers outlined what they say was a long-running and mutually beneficial relationship between Paxton and Paul, an Austin real estate mogul who was facing a litany of lawsuits and criminal investigations, and who was arrested in June on federal felony charges of lying to financial institutions to secure millions of dollars in business loans.
Impeachment managers alleged that Paxton repeatedly used his office to help Paul, forcing agency staff to write a midnight legal opinion to stave off foreclosure sales of Paul’s properties and demanding that they not assist law enforcement in investigating Paul’s businesses. At one point, Paxton allegedly provided Paul with highly sensitive information about a 2019 FBI raid at his businesses and home, among other acts that managers said shocked and alarmed top officials at the attorney general’s office.
Managers alleged that Paul returned the favors by remodeling Paxton’s home and employing a woman with whom Paxton was having an affair, and that Paxton concealed his relationship with both Paul and the woman by ditching his security detail and by using a burner phone, secret email accounts and a fake name on an Uber account.
They also promised to unveil much more at the trial.
“Both the Senate and the public are not yet fully aware of how bad Paxton’s actions really were. By the end of the Senate trial, they will be,” lead prosecutors Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin wrote in pretrial filings made public Wednesday. “And there will be no reasonable doubt that Paxton does not deserve the honor and privilege of being the Attorney General of the great State of Texas.”
Paxton’s attorneys were less impressed, repeating earlier claims that there was no evidence to support the allegations against Paxton and that senators should end the impeachment proceedings before they even begin.
“The Texas Senate should decline to indulge the prosecution in political theater for weeks on end, trying to find the very case they have already admitted does not exist,” Paxton attorney Tony Buzbee said in a statement. “This whole thing has been nothing but a sham, and it should now end.”
The new allegations could be doubly problematic for Paxton: The increasing prominence of Paxton's alleged affair in the trial could damage his reputation as a staunch Christian conservative and could deter other senators from coming to his aid. In addition, his attorneys — as well as his conservative allies — have routinely said that managers lacked evidence of wrongdoing, instead framing impeachment as an attack on Paxton because of his conservative values and legal campaign against President Joe Biden’s policies.
Even so, Paxton’s conservative allies and donors have rallied behind him — attacking House Republicans who supported impeachment, organizing fellow conservatives on social media, erecting billboards in his defense and routinely claiming he is the victim of a political witch hunt.
Whether the new accusations or the political pressure sways the jurors — 30 state senators — remains to be seen.
Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said his reaction to the latest revelations was “holy crap.” He added he would vote to convict Paxton at this point — but he also acknowledged senators’ calculus may be different.
“Here’s the scary part: We’re talking jurors as in state senators,” Taylor said. “They are calculating because they are politicians, and they are people who are looking at a state that’s still a Republican state and winning the primary is still tantamount to winning the election.”
Paxton’s lawyers have argued that the impeachment trial should be conducted according to some of the standards of a criminal trial. In response, House managers argued that impeachment is a political process, saying in one filing that the Texas Constitution envisions impeachment as an “action by the representatives of the people challenging official actions that are contrary to the public interest.”
Stephen Griffin, a constitutional law professor at Tulane University, said he “strongly agree[s] with the House that it’s not a criminal matter.” But that does not mean there aren’t some basic similarities, he noted, like the entitlement to due process, as shown by the ability of parties to employ lawyers and file pretrial motions.
When it comes to impeachment jurors, Griffin said, the constitutional framers knew well that they would be different from ordinary jurors because they would “consider the judgment of the people before they vote.”
“If the senators are thinking to themselves, ‘Wow, this won’t look so good to the people back home,’ that’s the point,” Griffin said. “That’s an incentive for the House managers to do the best job and submit all their evidence.”
The new raft of allegations stirred intraparty tensions anew.
Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist from Texas, brought up the new accusations in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Thursday that predicted the “end is near” for Paxton. Rove noted that the public has “learned more about the Paxton-Paul relationship” since the House impeachment, including Wednesday’s revelation of the secret Uber account.
“When he won his third term as attorney general last fall, Mr. Paxton said, ‘The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,’” Rove wrote. “Maybe, but they might have been simply premature.”
Paxton has clashed with Rove in the past, accusing the strategist of working against him in his 2022 primary.
Konni Burton, a former Republican state senator who now runs The Texan, a conservative media company, appeared to respond to the latest Paxton news in a number of tweets Thursday.
“Conservatives need to stop twisting themselves into a pretzel defending the indefensible,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s a really bad look.”
Disclosure: Dick DeGuerin, Rusty Hardin, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.