Texas attorney general is acquitted in landmark Senate trial
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas), left, votes on one of the articles of impeachment in the trial of Republican state attorney general Ken Paxton at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
By J. DAVID GOODMAN, EDGAR SANDOVAL and DAVID MONTGOMERY
The Texas Senate voted Saturday to acquit state Attorney General Ken Paxton after a nine-day impeachment trial that focused on allegations of corruption and divided the Republican Party.
Paxton, a three-term incumbent who had been suspended from the post since his impeachment in May, was immediately reinstated.
The impeachment case has deepened the rift in the Republican Party in Texas, with those who lined up behind Paxton attacking Republicans in the Texas House who backed impeachment by a wide margin.
The process was overseen by Republicans, with Republicans in both the defense and in the prosecution, but ultimately, most Republicans in the Senate supported Paxton. Only two Republican senators voted in favor of conviction on any article. With a two-thirds vote required for conviction, no article received even a majority vote.
Paxton, an ally of former President Donald Trump who appeared at the trial only twice and was not present for the vote, responded afterward to what he called a “sham impeachment” that he said had been coordinated partly by a “kangaroo court” in the Texas House.
“The weaponization of the impeachment process to settle political differences is not only wrong, it is immoral and corrupt,” he said in a statement.
He added a warning to the Biden administration, which he has targeted as attorney general with a series of legal challenges focused on immigration, abortion and transgender issues. “Buckle up, because your lawless policies will not go unchallenged,” he said.
His wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, who was not allowed to vote on the case, stood up after the vote and hugged or shook hands with the lawyers who represented her husband, including Tony Buzbee, a Houston trial lawyer who was one of the many high-powered lawyers involved in the case on both sides.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who had not previously commented on the impeachment trial, said afterward that “the jury has spoken.” He said Paxton had received a fair trial and, as attorney general, “has done an outstanding job representing Texas, especially pushing back against the Biden administration.”
After the vote Saturday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had been serving as judge during the trial and maintained a studious impartiality, gave a speech excoriating his fellow Republicans in the House for even sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial.
He accused the leadership in the House of having rushed through the case without giving members enough time to consider the evidence. The House approved 20 articles of impeachment in May on a vote of 121-23, including a majority of Republicans.
“Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on this impeachment,” Patrick said. He said the Senate had held a thorough trial, which included hundreds of subpoenas for information and testimony. As he spoke, one Democratic senator walked out of the Senate chamber.
Before the trial began, Patrick received a $1 million contribution and a $2 million loan to his campaign from Defend Texas Liberty, a group strongly backing Paxton, whose leader after the acquittal promised “to lead the charge to fire” those Republicans who had supported the impeachment.
Patrick said he would call for an official audit of the spending by the Texas House on its investigation and impeachment.
But his criticisms prompted immediate pushback from the Republican speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan. “I find it deeply concerning that after weeks of claiming he would preside over this trial in an impartial and honest manner, Lt. Gov. Patrick would conclude by confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s House on full display,” Phelan said in a statement.
Some of the senators, who had been prevented from speaking during the trial by a gag order imposed by Patrick, emerged from the vote eager to discuss the case.
“There was no evidence,” said Sen. Bob Hall, a conservative Republican who had voted to dismiss all the articles at the start of the trial.
Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Democrat, disagreed. “He abused his powers, not in a subtle way,” he said of Paxton, adding that the case had been proven by the evidence. He said he looked outside during the vote, “and I saw the United States flag and the Texas flag blowing strong in the wind and the rain, and I felt sick, because what are we doing to what those flags represent inside this building?”
Despite his success avoiding conviction, Paxton still has legal troubles ahead. He faces an 8-year-old criminal indictment on charges of securities fraud, a case that has begun moving forward again in a state court in Houston.
And a federal investigation into Paxton — prompted by many of the same charges explored during the impeachment — continues.
The impeachment trial focused on accusations, leveled primarily by former top deputies who became whistleblowers, that Paxton had abused his office to help an Austin real estate investor, Nate Paul, who had donated to his campaign and was facing both a federal criminal investigation and the potential foreclosure of some of his properties.
Whistleblowers came forward with concerns that Paxton appeared to be going out of his way to help Paul. The articles of impeachment, based in part on their testimony, laid out accusations that Paul had secured Paxton’s help on his legal matters in exchange for paying for renovations on his house and providing a job to a woman with whom Paxton was having an extramarital affair.
Both Paxton and Paul have denied any wrongdoing, and Paxton’s lawyers presented evidence that one of the renovations supposedly paid for by Paul — new granite countertops — never happened.
They succeeded at other times in undercutting witnesses for the prosecution, at one point getting a former senior aide to Paxton, Ryan Vassar, to say that he had reported the attorney general to the FBI while bringing “no evidence” of potential crimes.
“You went to the FBI on Sept. 30 with your compatriots and reported the elected attorney general of this state for a crime without any evidence, yes?” said J. Mitchell Little, a lawyer for Paxton.
“That’s right, we took no evidence,” Vassar replied, although it was later noted that the whistleblowers had brought something just as important: their own testimony.
The defense argued that Paxton was a victim of a plot by moderate Republicans to unseat him.
“You were staging a coup, weren’t you?” said one of the defense lawyers, Buzbee, as he cross-examined Paxton’s former top aide, Jeff Mateer.
“Absolutely not,” Mateer said.
After the vote, Buzbee applauded the result. “This was a herculean task,” he said. “We were proud of this case. We just should not have had to prove our innocence, but that’s what we did.”