The thinly veiled contempt that has been simmering for months among Texas’ top Republicans exploded in public this week when Attorney General, Ken Paxton, who is under indictment, accused the Texas Speaker of the House of carrying out his duties while intoxicated and demanded the speaker’s resignation. .
Tuesday’s move came as a shock to Austin. Then, less than an hour later, news broke that Mr. Paxton might have a personal motive for attacking the speaker, Dade Phelan: for $3.3 million in state money to settle bribery charges brought against him. him by his own former high-ranking aides.
The House panel – the General Investigations Committee – met Wednesday morning to discuss Mr. Paxton; the charges against him, which came in 2020; and allegations of retaliation by co-workers who spoke out about the matter and were then fired, forced out or resigned.
The sordid allegations recalled an earlier era of outlandish behavior and political posturing in the State Capitol. But the tangled web of grievances and finger-pointing has also exposed a much simpler and more consequential political reality in Texas: Although they have total control over the legislature and every office statewide, Republicans have not been able to agree on what to do with their energy.
Internal dissent erupted dramatically on Tuesday.
« It is with deep disappointment that I call on President Dade Phelan to step down at the end of this legislative session, » Paxton said in a statement. « Texans were appalled to see the performance of him presiding over the Texas House in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication. »
Mr Paxton posted a picture of a letter he had sent on Tuesday asking the general investigation commission to investigate possible violations.
It was just as that committee was preparing to hold its meeting on Mr. Paxton’s case on Tuesday that the attorney general filed his indictment against the 47-year-old Mr. Phelan. He did so based on video circulating online from a Texas House night session on Friday. At about 5 hours and 29 minutes in an official video of the houseMr. Phelan seems to slur his words as he speaks.
Some people who were inside the House floor on Friday said they did not notice any problems with Mr Phelan’s demeanor, although his speech seemed slurred in one section of the video, which came towards the end of more than 12 hours of hearings and voting supervised by Mr. Phelan that day.
Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Democrat from Houston, spoke to the House immediately following the moment shown in the clip. He said Wednesday he hadn’t noticed any unusual behavior from Mr. Phelan.
Mr. Phelan did not respond directly to Mr. Paxton’s allegations. Even so, they pointed to the degree to which his leadership of the Texas House has infuriated far-right lawmakers and conservative activists, a wing of the Texas Republican Party with which Mr. Paxton has long been aligned. They have complained that Mr. Phelan has blocked or watered down their priorities: on border law enforcement, public money for private school vouchers, or displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.
The Texas House has often acted as a relatively moderate Republican bulwark against the more conservative instincts of the party’s right wing, to the consternation of some in Austin and the relief of others.
The investigation into Mr. Paxton has added an unusual element to the usual infighting.
A spokeswoman for Mr Phelan said it was the recent movement in the investigation, which was launched at the start of the legislative session, that had prompted Mr Paxton’s prosecution – in particular, new subpoenas to the Attorney General’s office and a letter to Mr. Paxton directing him to keep records in what the committee calls « Matter A. »
« The committee is conducting a thorough investigation into the events related to the firing of whistleblowers, as well as Ken Paxton’s alleged illegal conduct, » spokeswoman Cait Wittman said Tuesday. “Committee minutes show that subpoenas have been issued. Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounted to little more than a last-ditch effort to save face for him.
Four of Mr. Paxton’s top associates have expressed concern about his activities at the FBI and the Texas Rangers. All four were fired.
The aides — Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley, James Blake Brickman and David Maxwell — are all former deputy attorneys general, and Mr. Maxwell is a former director of the office’s law enforcement division. They told investigators that Mr. Paxton may have committed crimes including bribery and bribery. They also sued Mr. Paxton; the case is pending.
Mr. Paxton is asking the state to pay $3.3 million to settle the lawsuit. Mr. Phelan said he did not believe there were the necessary votes in the House to approve the payment; he also said that he himself did not claim to do so.
« I don’t think that’s the proper use of taxpayer dollars, » Mr. Phelan said in a February television interview.
Several Republican lawmakers who were approached for comment Tuesday declined to discuss the subject of Paxton’s allegations. Rep. Chris Turner, a Dallas-area Democrat, said that because of the allegations against Mr. Paxton, the attorney general was « the last person » who should be calling on « anyone to resign. »
“This is someone who is under multiple charges, under an FBI investigation, trying to overturn a presidential election,” he said. “So Ken Paxton should mind his business.”
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.