A Republican-led committee in the Texas House of Representatives recommended Thursday that state attorney general Ken Paxton be impeached over a series of abuses of his office that the committee’s investigators say may have been felonies.
The recommendation pushed the Capitol and its Republican leadership into uncharted political territory in the final days of the legislative session, setting the stage for the House vote on impeachment, the first in decades and one of the few ever conducted in state history.
If impeached, Mr. Paxton, a Republican who has been the subject of a separate criminal charge since 2015, is expected to temporarily resign his post as he faces trial in the State Senate.
« There’s really no precedent — we’ve only had two impeachments under the 1876 Constitution, » said Mark P. Jones, professor of political science at Rice University. They include the governor in 1917who resigned the day before the Senate sentenced him, and a district judge who was convicted and removed in the 70s.
Prior to the vote, the committee met in an executive session, out of public view.
« The reversal of the election begins behind closed doors, » Paxton said a post on Twitter which included video of a lawyer from his office arguing against impeachment to reporters in a nearly empty committee room, while committee deliberations were taking place.
After the vote, the commission closed 20 articles of impeachment against Mr. Paxton, accusing him of a litany of abuses including taking bribes, disregarding his official duty, obstructing justice in a separate securities fraud case pending against him, making false statements about official documents and reports, and breaking trust publish.
Many of the allegations involved the various ways Mr. Paxton had used his office to benefit a particular donor, the committee said, and then fired those in the office who spoke out against his actions.
As the articles were being distributed on the House floor Thursday, Andrew Murr, the committee chair, a Republican, said they described « serious crimes » and that he intended to bring them to a House vote.
The dramatic developments were likely to test the Republican Party in Texas in new and unpredictable ways, at a time when divisions in the party have become increasingly exposed.
The Texas House is led by Chairman Dade Phelan, a Republican representing Beaumont who is considered a traditional conservative. In contrast, Mr. Paxton has allied himself with Texas’s most strident Republican lawmakers and former President Donald J. Trump, in a camp that also includes the lieutenant governor and state senate leader, Dan Patrick.
The House Investigative Committee, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, voted unanimously to proceed with the impeachment proceedings during a brief open session. « The chairman proposes that the committee adopt the articles of impeachment against Warren Kenneth Paxton, Texas state attorney general, » Murr said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the House would resume the articles of impeachment and conduct a floor vote, though several members said they expected it would take place before the end of the session on Monday. Otherwise, lawmakers could convene at any time in a special session to deliberate.
Asked by a House member about the timing of an impeachment vote, Mr. Phelan said Thursday night that Mr. Murr will determine when to bring the matter to a vote. He didn’t provide a timetable.
For much of Thursday, House members were preparing for what had already begun to seem inevitable.
At least one legislator could be found doing the research the impeachment processes in the Capitol library. « I’m trying to figure out what impeachment is, » said the Congressman, Congressman John Smithee, a Republican from the conservative Texas panhandle. Speaking ahead of the committee’s vote, he said it was too early to pass judgment on the matter and that he believed officials could rush into an impeachment.
« I’d like to hear more evidence instead of just a report, » Mr. Smithee said, « and your side of the story if you’re willing to tell it. »
The House committee vote came the next day hours of detailed testimonials on Wednesday by a team of investigators – former prosecutors who were hired by the committee to look into corruption allegations against Mr Paxton.
Investigators described how Mr. Paxton had abused and abused his office to help an Austin real estate developer and donor who had also hired a woman with whom Mr. Paxton was having an affair, and how Mr. Paxton had created an atmosphere of fear inside the attorney general’s office.
The misdeeds that Mr Paxton has been accused of committing have risen to the level of possible criminality, investigators said, including cases of retaliation against the people who spoke out.
The committee took no testimony during its Thursday session.
Counsel for Mr Paxton’s office, Christopher Hilton, told reporters the committee trial had been « completely flawed » and called Wednesday’s testimony « false » and « misleading ». He added that the issues raised by the committee had been widely broadcast during Paxton’s re-election campaign last year, when he was elected to a third term.
“The 2022 election, the primaries and the general were all about these issues, these allegations,” Hilton said. “Voters have spoken. They want Ken Paxton for attorney general.”
And, in what appeared to be a tease of a possible legal challenge to the proceedings, Mr. Hilton said that Texas law only allowed impeachment for post-election conduct.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Texas House Democratic caucus, said after the vote that impeachments have been « very rare and very serious, » adding, « I trust the committee has worked hard and I will evaluate the evidence and see. » Where will this process take us?
Another Democrat, Rep. Jon Rosenthal of Houston, said the allegations against Mr. Paxton were « pretty serious » and he would most likely vote to impeach. « I challenge you to find a Democrat who says, ‘No, I’m not voting for impeachment,' » he said.
The investigation began in March, after Mr Paxton, also under indictment for securities fraud, had apparently managed to put at least one of his legal problems behind him. He agreed to a $3.3 million settlement with four of his top associates who sued him, accusing him of bribery and retaliation.
Mr. Paxton had asked the Texas Legislature for funds to pay for the settlement. But Mr. Phelan, the Speaker of the House, did not support the use of state money and said he believed Mr. Paxton had not explained enough why the state should fund the deal. The House investigation into the allegations was launched in order to gather information about the funding request, Mr. Phelan’s spokeswoman said.
For two days this week, as the committee investigation nears its conclusion, Mr Paxton has been hurling accusations against Mr Phelan and said the speaker presided over a session of the House last week while intoxicated. Mr. Paxton based his allegation on a video that has been circulating among far-right activists blaming Mr. Phelan for the failure of various conservative pieces of legislation in the House.
Much of what was presented to the committee about Mr. Paxton was already publicly known from the allegations made in the assistants’ lawsuit. The aides also took their grievances about Mr. Paxton to the FBI, which is still investigating.
Thursday’s vote delivered the first official judgment on those allegations, which it deemed sufficient to begin the process of removing Mr. Paxton from office.
The committee also voted to send letters to the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Facilities Commission, which manages state property, « to ensure that all evidence relevant to the committee’s investigation » is not « destroyed or hidden,” Murr said. the chairman of the commission.
The impeachment vote was the second time this year that the committee has recommended removing an elected official from office. The first involved a Republican state representative, Bryan Slaton; a committee investigation found that he had slept with a 19-year-old staff member after serving her alcohol.
Mr. Slaton resigned shortly thereafter. The House then voted unanimously to formally expel him and prevent him from holding office in the future.
David Montgomery contributed report.