On Thursday, a Texas House committee voted unanimously to recommend that Attorney General Ken Paxton be impeached and removed from office for yearslong accusations of corruption, lawbreaking, and power-abusing.
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Paxton, a powerful Republican politician in the state, is facing the prospect of indictment by the GOP-led state legislation, which means a political feud and reckoning within his own party.
The Texas House General Investigating Committee, consisting of three Republicans and two Democrats, held a specially called meeting after months of investigation, which was not revealed until Tuesday, and voted to refer articles of impeachment to the full chamber.
Impeachment proceedings could begin as early as this weekend. If the 149-member House approves the impeachment before the regular legislative session concludes on Monday, state senators would need to convene a special session to hear the case.
Unlike in Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office until a trial is held in the Senate.
Paxton was reelected in the 2022 midterm elections despite being under indictment on felony securities fraud charges as well as an FBI probe into whistleblowers' bribery claims against him.
On Wednesday, the committee listened to three hours of detailed testimony by investigators over criminal charges against the state's top lawyer for securities fraud and allegations by his former top deputies that Paxton used his office to benefit a friend and political donor.
According to the investigators, Paxton repeatedly abused his office and may have committed at least three felonies in an effort to help a friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, with various legal troubles.
These included spending US$72,000 in staff labor on tasks that benefited the developer, providing him with an internal FBI file related to an investigation into Paul, and hiring an outside lawyer for US$25,000 to conduct work that primarily benefited Paul.
The accusation is largely based on claims made by four former senior staff who filed a whistleblower lawsuit last year, arguing that Paxton improperly fired them after they reported related concerns to federal and state investigators.
Committee investigators also discussed criminal charges that have been pending against Paxton since 2015, when a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of felony securities fraud related to private business deals in 2011.
According to those charges, Paxton solicited investors into Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney tech company was paying him to promote its stock. He was also accused to have accepted US$100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton's office for Medicaid fraud.
The attorney general also reportedly accepted additional US$50,000 donated by an Arizona retiree and later hired the donor's son to a high-ranking job. The donor's son was soon fired after trying to make a point by displaying child pornography in a meeting.
"This is as detrimental and important a scandal as we've seen in Texas political history," Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told the New York Times. "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."
Paxton has denied all wrongdoing, though earlier this year he agreed to a US$3.3-million settlement with the whistleblowers, who were former lieutenants in his office.
Chris Hilton, a senior lawyer in the attorney general's office, told reporters before Thursday's committee vote that what investigators said about Paxton was "false," "misleading," and "full of errors big and small."
Paxton previously also suggested that the investigation is a politically motivated attack by a "liberal" Republican Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan.
Ahead of Wednesday's hearing, Paxton called on Phelan to resign over alleged drunkenness while leading the House. Phelan's office later called it a ploy and "a last-ditch effort to save face."
The speaker said Wednesday that Paxton "appears to have routinely abused his office for personal gain," describing the revelation of the hearing as "extremely disturbing."
However, so far no Texan Republican lawmakers have yet called for Paxton's impeachment. Both Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, two top Republicans in the state, have declined to comment on the committee's allegations against Paxton.
Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the Texas House chamber, where Republicans hold an 85-64 majority.
The third-term state attorney general, a firm ally of former President Donald Trump, is seen as a popular politician among Texan conservative voters. He filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
"Few in America have done more to advance the conservative legal movement," former Trump adviser Stephen Miller tweeted on Thursday. "Stand with Ken."
Texas Democrats, a minority in the state legislation, have for years cast Paxton as corrupt.
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 state chambers.