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February 24, 2024

Texas G.O.P. Leaders Clash Over Accusations of Corruption and Drunkenness

Texas G.O.P. Leaders Clash Over Accusations of Corruption and Drunkenness

Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the Republican House speaker of being intoxicated, as he suggested that lawmakers were preparing to impeach him over corruption allegations.

Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, is under investigation for corruption. He spoke in Robstown, Texas, in October.Credit…Nick Wagner/Associated Press

The Texas Capitol was unexpectedly gripped by an escalating intraparty showdown among top Republicans on Wednesday after a House committee took steps toward a possible impeachment of the Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, over charges of corruption and abuse of office.

The allegations had been lodged before against Mr. Paxton, but they gained new force as investigators working for the Republican-controlled House panel — the Committee on General Investigating — publicly detailed each accusation over three hours of public testimony, concluding that Mr. Paxton had most likely committed crimes.

Whether the committee would recommend impeachment, or stop short of doing so, remained an open question. But the Republican House speaker, Dade Phelan — whose own resignation Mr. Paxton publicly called for this week — signaled his openness to that outcome.

“The attorney general appears to have routinely abused his powers for personal gain and exhibited blatant disregard for the ethical and legal propriety,” a spokeswoman for Mr. Phelan said in a statement. “Speaker Phelan stands in full support of the general investigating committee and the recommendations that may come as a result of their thorough and diligent investigation.”

By Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers and lobbyists around Austin were already discussing the possibility of an impeachment vote, and a subsequent trial in the Senate, and how that could alter the balance of power in the Republican-dominated Capitol.

For months, barely concealed acrimony had been brewing among top Texas Republicans from different ideological camps, with Mr. Paxton aligned strongly with supporters of former President Donald J. Trump and Mr. Phelan seen as a more traditional Texas Republican.

The most recent tensions initially burst into public view on Tuesday afternoon when Mr. Paxton, who is already under indictment for securities fraud, accused Mr. Phelan of performing his duties while drunk and called for the speaker’s resignation.

The move sent a shock through Austin. Shortly after, word came that Mr. Paxton might have had a personal motive for attacking the speaker: The House investigating committee had subpoenaed records from Mr. Paxton’s office, as part of an inquiry into the attorney general’s request for $3.3 million in state money to settle corruption allegations brought against him by his own former high-ranking aides.

The sordid accusations recalled an earlier era of outlandish behavior and political posturing in the State Capitol. But the tangled web of resentments and finger-pointing also highlighted a much simpler and more consequential political reality in Texas: Though they have control over the Legislature and of every statewide office, Republicans have not always agreed on what to do with their power.

The investigators, who include former prosecutors, outlined the evidence they had collected against Mr. Paxton, finding that he had abused and misused his office to help a real estate developer and donor, and retaliated against those in his office who spoke up against him. The investigators said that of the roughly 80 employees in the attorney general’s office contacted for the inquiry, only one did not fear retaliation for participating.

As the investigators met, the attorney general suggested on Twitter that he believed the Texas House was preparing a case to impeach him.

“It is not surprising that a committee appointed by liberal Speaker Dade Phelan would seek to disenfranchise Texas voters and sabotage my work as attorney general,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement on Wednesday aimed at his base of supporters, many of whom view Mr. Phelan as aligned with Democrats.

Mr. Paxton did not refer explicitly to impeachment, but his comment about disenfranchising voters appeared to be a reference to a possible outcome of the committee’s investigation.

The timing of Mr. Paxton’s accusation against Mr. Phelan on Tuesday coincided with word of the committee’s subpoenas and the public hearing the next day. Mr. Paxton based his assessment — and his call for Mr. Phelan to resign — on video circulating online from a late-night session of the House on Friday. At about the 5 hour 29 minute mark in an official House video, Mr. Phelan appears to slur his words as he is speaking.

Some people who were inside the House chamber on Friday said they did not notice any issues with Mr. Phelan’s behavior, even though his speech did sound slurred in one section of video, which came toward the end of more than 12 hours of hearings and votes overseen by the speaker that day.

Mr. Phelan’s office brushed aside Mr. Paxton’s accusation as “a last-ditch effort to save face.” Even so, it underscored the degree to which his leadership of the Texas House has enraged far-right lawmakers and conservative activists aligned with Mr. Paxton. They have complained that Mr. Phelan has blocked or watered down their priorities — on law enforcement at the border, public money for private-school vouchers or displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The House has often acted as a relatively moderate Republican bulwark against the most conservative instincts of the party’s right wing, to the consternation of some in Austin and the relief of others. But the committee’s investigation into Mr. Paxton added an unusual element to the usual infighting.

Though many of the allegations presented to the committee on Wednesday were not new, the hearing was the first extensive examination by the Legislature. And it provided new details and context on Mr. Paxton’s efforts to help an Austin developer, Nate Paul, who gave Mr. Paxton a $25,000 contribution in 2018.

The investigators said that Mr. Paxton also had an affair with a woman who worked in Mr. Paul’s office, and that Mr. Paxton punished or isolated employees who confronted him about his actions.

Mark Donnelly, a former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said those who provided information to the investigators were often “the cream of the crop in their fields who resented Mr. Paxton’s behavior.”

“The feeling was shared, almost universal,” Mr. Donnelly said, “that the actions they were being asked to take, the positions they were being put in, the decisions made by the attorney general, sullied the office and sullied their commitments on their careers.”

The situation surprised even longtime observers of Texas politics.

“I would say this is as detrimental and important a scandal as we’ve seen in Texas political history,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston who is working on a book on Texas political scandals. “Not just because of what happened, but because of how long it’s been going on and how Paxton has been able to survive it.”

The controversy over whether Mr. Phelan was drunk was “fairly mild” in comparison with the allegations against Mr. Paxton, he added. “We’ve had some pretty serious malfeasance in Texas history,” he said.

Much of the information and accusations against Mr. Paxton had been known for years in Texas. In 2020, several of his top aides took their concerns to the F.B.I. and the Texas Rangers.

Four of the aides — Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley, James Blake Brickman and David Maxwell — have also sued Mr. Paxton; the case is pending. Earlier this year, Mr. Paxton said he had reached a settlement with them and asked the state to pay the $3.3 million.

But Mr. Phelan balked. “I don’t think it’s proper use of taxpayer dollars,” he said in a television interview in February.

It was the request for settlement funds, to avoid a public trial, that triggered the investigation by the House committee, Mr. Phelan’s spokeswoman said on Wednesday. As a result, details of Mr. Paxton’s activities were laid out more publicly than before.

One of the investigators, Terese Buess, told committee members on Wednesday that Mr. Paxton may have violated several state and federal laws, including abuse of official capacity, violation of whistle-blower statutes and dereliction of duty.

“That’s alarming to hear, curls my mustache,” responded the committee chairman, Representative Andrew Murr, a Republican with a notably twisting mustache.

Several Republican lawmakers approached for comment declined to discuss the subject of Mr. Paxton’s accusations or a possible impeachment.

Representative Chris Turner, a Democrat from the Dallas area, said that because of the accusations against Mr. Paxton, the attorney general was “the last person” who should call “on anyone to resign.”

“This is someone who is under multiple indictments, under an F.B.I. investigation, tried to overturn a presidential election,” he said, referring to Mr. Paxton’s efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. “So Ken Paxton ought to tend to his own affairs.”

A correction was made on 

May 24, 2023

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the House committee investigators. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s son is not among them.

How we handle corrections

J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief, covering Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012. @jdavidgoodman

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