Point Austin: Ken Paxton’s Top 10 Follies This Year

Art by Zeke Barbaro | Photos by Jana Birchum / John Anderson / Getty Images

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

It doesn’t take long to find nonsense originating from Ken Paxton – just wait for the latest wacky press release from his self-promoting Office of Attorney General. Most recently, in November, when Twitter-Killer Elon Musk whined that the nonprofit watchdog Media Matters for America was being mean to “X” – Musk’s social media dumpster fire – Paxton leapt into the spotlight, announcing an investigation into “potentially fraudulent activity” by the “radical anti-free speech” MMFA.

But that’s just Paxton’s latest folly – if you’re idly ranking the most brazenly corrupt U.S. public officials, Paxton will certainly land in your Top 10. Indeed, it’s confounding to try to isolate only 10 highlights of Krazy Ken’s Korruptions, a never-ending story. He’s scheduled finally to be tried in Houston in April on felony securities fraud charges that have been inexplicably pending since 2015, and meanwhile, he’s back in court defending himself against the four staff whistleblowers who sued him for unjust dismissal after they reported him to the FBI.

The FBI, meanwhile, reportedly continues to investigate the criminal allegations initially brought to the agency by those exasperated staffers, after they spent months trying to dissuade Paxton from his compromising bromance with Austin real estate mogul Nate Paul.

The whistleblowers and Paul were central to Paxton’s September impeachment trial, after the Texas House voted overwhelmingly to forward 20 charges to the Senate – where he was acquitted, in a tragicomic denouement that highlighted the craven subservience of most Republican senators to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Patrick’s billionaire underwriters, and the extremist base of today’s GOP. Patrick, Paxton, and Gov. Greg Abbott have all threatened vengeance on those legislators who refused to ignore Paxton’s official malfeasance.

While the Paxton legal circus will continue into 2024, for this year we humbly provide 10 lowlights of his 2023 Impeachment:

10) Can Y’all Get the Check? Having come to a “settlement” with staff whistleblowers fired for alleging Paxton had abused his office, Paxton asks the Lege to fork over the $3.3 million he owes under the settlement – in keeping with the state whistleblower statute. Balking at that taxpayer tab, the House instead opens an impeachment investigation.

9) Clean and Sober In retaliation for the investigation, Paxton demands House Speaker Dade Phelan resign after Phelan briefly slurs his words on the House dais – Paxton supporters post a brief clip of the episode they describe as “Drunk Dade,” although the moment passes quickly and could just as easily be explained by exhaustion … or indeed by the long tradition of legislative tippling.

8) You Broke It, You Bought It On May 27, the House votes 121-23 to impeach, on 20 charges, including bribery, abuse of office, obstruction of justice … and oh, yeah, those still-pending charges of felony securities fraud … The impeachment articles charged, “Paxton engaged in misconduct, private or public, of such character as to indicate his unfitness for office.”

7) Rules in a Knife Fight? On June 21, Senate adopts rules for pending impeachment trial, including witnesses and evidence, but with a couple of curious twists: The four counts of pending securities fraud charges are excluded, and Sen. Angela Paxton is recused from voting and deliberation, but included for purposes of calculating the two-thirds vote required for conviction. Paxton himself will not be required to testify … nor even to attend the trial.

6) Nothing (but Green) to $ee Here Lt. Gov. Patrick, who will preside over the impeachment trial, accepts $3 million (cash and loan) in campaign funds from Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a hard-right vehicle of Christian Nationalist billionaires (and Paxton supporters) Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks.

5) Anything for a Friend The two-week trial provides abundant evidence of Paxton’s corrupt relationship with Austin real estate investor Paul, who sought the A.G.’s help in opposing “conspiracy” against him, allegedly involving the FBI, the courts, the state police, the banks, Paul’s competitors, et al. Paxton helped Paul launch his own counter-investigation of all his enemies. In return, Paxton allegedly received favors from Paul, including home renovations and employment for Paxton’s sometime mistress, Laura Olson.

4) We Tried to Tell You A series of former OAG staffers – stout GOP conservatives all – testify that they tried again and again to persuade Paxton that he should not trust Paul, and specifically that he should not use his official authority to assist Paul’s lunatic “Operation Deep Sea” counter-investigation of the FBI and the courts, etc. Paxton was unmoved, and even complained to his office manager that she was not doing enough to facilitate his romantic assignations.

3) A Woman to Blame News media eyebrows rose and hearts sank under the Dome, as it became clear that Olson, the alleged on-again off-again Paxton paramour, would be excused from testifying about the relationship with Paxton and the role of her employer, Paul. She was present outside the Senate, but reportedly would have cited the Fifth Amendment in declining to testify.

2) Not So Special Prosecutor When his staff balked at doing Paul’s bidding, Paxton hired junior Houston attorney Brandon Cammack to take direction from Paul, including issuing subpoenas to anyone targeted by Paul (the inexperienced Cammack needed subpoena instructions from the Travis County D.A.’s office). When Operation Deep Sea blew up in Cammack’s face, Paxton summoned him to Austin … and refused to pay his bill.

1) The Fix Was Always In Despite reams of prosecutorial evidence and a barely perfunctory attempt at a defense, the Texas Senate voted to acquit Paxton on all 16 surviving counts of impeachment. Only two Republican senators voted to convict, and several senators reported that the two-thirds calculation (21 of 31) that included Angela Paxton (herself implicated in the bribery charges) was crucial to the outcome. “I feel there were six senators who were ready to be the 21st vote,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, told the Texas Tribune. “But they didn’t want to be the 20th vote.” Following the verdict, presiding judge Lt. Gov. Patrick delivered a blistering denunciation of the House decision to impeach, thereby confirming abundantly that the entire trial had been tilted in Paxton’s favor.

Read more of the biggest 2023 stories in Texas politics in this week’s issue.

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