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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening legal action against Comptroller Glenn Hegar if Paxton does not receive back pay for the period he was suspended and awaiting his impeachment trial in the Texas Senate.
In a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune, Paxton’s office charges that the comptroller violated state law and the Texas Constitution “by refusing to issue salary payments to a duly elected statewide officeholder.”
“Public servants may continue to receive a salary while on leave for investigatory purposes,” wrote First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster.
Paxton, who was impeached by the House in May and automatically suspended from his duties, was reinstated as attorney general following the conclusion of his trial in the Senate on September 16. Paxton was acquitted on 16 counts that centered around allegations he received bribes from friend and political donor Nate Paul, and he retaliated against whistleblowers within his office. Four other charges were then dismissed by the Senate.
Paxton’s office is arguing that while being impeached does require an officeholder to be suspended from official duties, the constitution does not clearly state whether that officer should go without pay. In some circumstances, Texas allows for an agency head to grant an employee leave without deducting their pay, and Webster said that this should apply to Paxton during his suspension.
On Tuesday, the comptroller's office said in a letter that it stood by the decision made in June to stop paying Paxton his $153,750 annual salary while he was suspended. Hegar's legal counsel recommended that Paxton seek an answer from the Texas Supreme Court for a “definitive ruling.”
“While we disagree with your interpretation of the Texas Constitution regarding pay and back pay for an elected officer who has been suspended from office, we also recognize this is an unprecedented situation,” general counsel Victoria North wrote.
Hegar also defended his handling of Paxton's pay in a radio interview last week, saying state law is "very clear in our opinion."
Webster said in his letter that the comptroller has sought to recover money that Hegar’s office believes was “overpaid” to Paxton. The attorney general denied that request to return money, instead putting the comptroller on notice that he had “created legal liability for the State of Texas” by not offering Paxton the back pay.
“This office is considering all legal avenues to correct this injustice," Webster wrote.
Paxton has singled out Hegar in a post-trial media tour, criticizing him for withholding the pay.
In an interview Thursday with Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, Hegar stood by the decision. He suggested that there were two state laws guiding his office's decision.
“[The] state Legislature, [on] two different occasions, one, they essentially changed state law, state statutes, and they changed the state Constitution that the voters approved to allow employees of the state — certain employees, but not state officeholders — and they also enabled judges both to be on essentially leave with their pay at times,” Hegar said, “but it doesn’t apply to us [as state officeholders], and the law is clear.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who served as presiding officer of Paxton's trial, has appeared to accept that Paxton could not get paid while also calling for reforms to the impeachment process going forward.
Patrick has not weighed in on Paxton's latest fight with Hegar, but in one post-trial TV interview, Patrick said impeached officials in Texas have to be “suspended, in essence, without pay.”
“We should not make someone step down without pay while the impeachment process is going on,” Patrick said in the interview with WFAA in Dallas.
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.
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