AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas House committee heard stunning testimony Wednesday from investigators over allegations of a yearslong pattern of misconduct and questionable actions by Attorney General Ken Paxton, the result of a probe the committee had secretly authorized in March.
In painstaking and methodical detail in a rare public forum, four investigators for the House General Investigating Committee testified that they believe Paxton broke numerous state laws, misspent office funds and misused his power to benefit a friend and political donor.
Allegations against Paxton
Their inquiry focused first on a proposed $3.3 million agreement to settle a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four high-ranking deputies who were fired after accusing Paxton of accepting bribes and other misconduct.
Many of the allegations were already known, but the public airing of them revealed the wide scope of the committee’s investigation into the state’s top lawyer and a member of the ruling Republican Party. The investigative committee has broad power to investigate state officials for wrongdoing, and three weeks ago the House expelled Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, on its recommendation.
In this case, it could recommend the House censure or impeach Paxton — a new threat to an attorney general who has for years survived scandals and been reelected twice despite securities fraud charges in 2015 and news of a federal investigation into the whistleblowers’ claims in 2020.
Erin Epley, lead counsel for the investigating committee, said the inquiry also delved into the whistleblowers’ allegations by conducting multiple interviews with employees of Paxton’s agency — many of whom expressed fears of retaliation by Paxton if their testimony were to be revealed — as well as the whistleblowers and others with pertinent information.
According to state law, Epley told the committee in a hearing at the Capitol, a government official cannot fire or retaliate against “a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law … to an appropriate law enforcement authority.”
Who is Nate Paul?
The four whistleblowers, however, were fired months after telling federal and state investigators about their concerns over Paxton’s actions on behalf of Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and a friend and political donor to Paxton.
“Each of these four men is a conservative Republican civil servant,” Epley said. “Interviews show that they wanted to be loyal to General Paxton and they tried to advise him well, often and strongly, and when that failed each was fired after reporting General Paxton to law enforcement.”
Epley and the other investigators then walked the committee through the whistleblowers’ allegations, including help Paxton gave Paul that went beyond the normal scope of his duties.
“I ask that you look at the pattern and the deviations from the norm, questions not just of criminal activity but of ethical impropriety and for lacking in transparency,” investigator Erin Epley told the committee. “I ask you to consider the benefits [for Paxton].”
The investigators outlined the alleged favors Paxton did for Paul. In exchange, Paul helped with a “floor-to-ceiling renovation” of Paxton’s Austin home and employed a woman with whom Paxton was allegedly in a relationship. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, who learned of the affair in 2019, leading to a brief hiatus before it resumed in 2020, Epley told the committee.
The public hearing to receive the investigators' report was rare for a committee that typically conducts its business in private. After listening to three hours of testimony, committee members gathered in a nearby room shortly after 11 a.m. to discuss the information in private.
Paxton responds to investigation
Minutes into the hearing, Paxton called into a Dallas radio show and blasted the investigation as unprecedented. As for the settlement, Paxton told host Mark Davis that his office always knew it would be the Legislature's decision whether to authorize taxpayer money for it.
“So this is a level that is shocking to me, especially from a Republican House,” Paxton said. “This is what they have time to do as opposed to some of the important things like school choice or fixing the fact that the Court of Criminal Appeals struck down my ability to prosecute voter fraud.”
Paxton was referring to Gov. Greg Abbott’s priority proposal this legislative session to divert taxpayer dollars to let parents take their kids out of public schools. The proposal has encountered stiff resistance in the House and remains one of the big pending issues before the session ends Monday.
Paxton also tweeted a statement blaming "the liberal leadership" of the Texas House and calling Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, "liberal."
Phelan's communications director Cait Wittman issued this statement:
"As stated in the House General Investigating Committee hearing this morning, this process was initiated as a result of the Attorney General’s request for $3.3 million in state funds in order to settle with whistleblowers who alleged they were improperly fired for accusing the Attorney General of misconduct and abuse of office. The Attorney General made this demand of the Legislature without providing sufficient information or evidence in support of his request. As a result, Speaker Phelan has maintained that it would be irresponsible for the Legislature to appropriate this extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars without first conducting a full and thorough investigation into the matter. The General Investigating Committee began its investigation in March of 2023 and what the committee discovered – the details of which were outlined in a public hearing today -- was extremely disturbing. The Attorney General appears to have routinely abused his powers for personal gain and exhibited blatant disregard for the ethical and legal propriety expected of the state’s leading law enforcement officer. Having heard and fully understood the evidence outlined today, 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."
Paxton calls for Phelan to resign
The hearing capped a whirlwind 24 hours at the Capitol where Paxton unexpectedly called on Speaker Dade Phelan to resign, alleging the Beaumont Republican recently presided over the chamber while drunk. Hours later, the investigative committee revealed it was looking into Paxton, and Phelan dismissed the attorney general’s request that he step down as a “last ditch effort to save face.”
What happens next?
Even though the regular legislative session will end on May 29, the House investigative committee can meet whenever it pleases. A special session to consider impeachment can only take place, however, with the permission of the governor, the House speaker and 50 members, or a majority of all House members.
Only the Texas House can bring impeachment proceedings against state officials, which would lead to a trial by the Senate. Removal requires two-thirds support in both chambers. This has only happened twice in Texas history, to Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
Call for Paxton to resign
As the hearing unfolded, Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, called on Paxton to resign.
“If he refuses to go willingly, the Texas Legislature must act to remove him,” Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen's Texas director, said in a statement. “A running series of scandals and an alleged pattern of corruption have clouded Paxton’s entire time in office. The people of Texas simply can’t trust that he is working for their interests, not his.”