Paxton impeachment trial begins in the Texas Senate
The impeachment trial of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton kicked off Tuesday at the state Capitol, and even though the three-term Republican wanted a quick dismissal of the charges against him, he didn't get his wish.
Paxton has been suspended without pay from his job since May, when the Texas House voted overwhelmingly to impeach him following an investigation by a Texas House committee that presented the chamber with 20 articles of impeachment. They allege Paxton committed bribery and abused the power of his office, among many other allegations. Paxton was ousted by the Texas House after 121 members, including 60 Republicans, voted for his removal.
If Paxton is found culpable by the state's upper chamber, he would be removed from office. It would be the first time in more than a century – since 1917 – that lawmakers voted to oust one of their colleagues from an elected office.
Paxton's team, led by attorney Tony Buzbee, filed several motions to have the charges dismissed outright after arguing, in part, that voters knew of several of the allegations against Paxton and still chose to reelect him to a third term.
The sitting state senators will act as the jury, with a two-thirds majority, 21 total, needed to oust Paxton. But Paxton's legal team saw early on that the trial will go the distance.
Twenty-four members of the Senate voted against dismissing the charges outright, including the majority of the chamber's Republicans. Six senators — an unsurprising group of conservative legislators who've supported Paxton — voted to dismiss them, including Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) and Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).
State Sen. Angela Paxton, Ken Paxton's wife, is at the Capitol watching the proceedings but is not allowed to cast votes.
Opening statements in Paxton's trial
During opening arguments, state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, argued the evidence speaks for itself. Murr is the chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating that brought the charges to the Texas House in May, which voted overwhelmingly to suspend Paxton pending a permanent removal vote by the Texas Senate.
Murr told senators that Paxton abused his office to aid friend and political donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor, who is at the center of the allegations. The Texas House investigators alleged Paxton used his office to intervene in a federal investigation into Paul, including asking staff in the attorney general's office to modify a legal opinion to benefit his friend. That came despite several top Paxton staffers and aides pleading with the attorney general to reconsider.
Those top deputies eventually reported Paxton to the FBI and were subsequently fired or quit; four of them later sued Paxton under state whistleblower protections laws.
Murr argued that Paxton had committed crimes, and that Paxton should be held to account. He added tthat witnesses, House members and senators sitting in judgment of Paxton had all come under heavy political pressure to either remain silent or to support Paxton.
Attorney Tony Buzbee, who leads Paxton's defense team, said in opening statements that his client has already been convicted in the court of public opinion, thanks to an overzealous media and House Republicans.
"Are we really going to get a fair trial here have you already decided?" Buzbee asked state Senators. "Ken Paxton has been convicted in the press based on ignorance, innuendo and outright lies."
He also accused the Texas House Republicans of colluding with a "drunken" lawmaker. That's a reference to videos surfaced in May showing House Speaker Dade Phelan slurring his words at the dais. Videos of Phelan before and after the incident show him speaking clearly.
Immediately afterward, Paxton demanded Phelan resign.
Buzbee also disputed that the Paxtons benefitted from the attorney general's relationship with Nate Paul. He said the allegations that Paul gave the Paxtons materials to remodel their house, specifically about $20,000 worth of material for granite countertops, aren't true. Buzbee added there is proof the couple spent time at home improvement stores Lowe's and Home Depot pricing the materials themselves.
"You're going to hear a much different story when you hear the evidence," Buzbee said.
The prosecution calls its first witness
The trial is expected to last at least a couple of weeks, with witnesses for and against Paxton numbering in the dozens. On Tuesday, the senators heard from Jeff Mateer, a former deputy attorney general and one of several employees who reported Paxton's alleged misdeeds to law enforcement.
Mateer, who worked with Paxton from 2016 to 2020, spent a good portion of his time on the stand outlining his conservative bona fides. He said that at the time he began working for Paxton, he'd known him for ten years. Before and since his time with the attorney general's office, he has worked as chief legal officer for First Liberty Institute, a national religious liberty law firm. It was seemingly an attempt to dispel the notion that Paxton's prosecutors and those who aided in building the case against him were so-called RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only.
Mateer's time on the witness stand culminated in an objection over admitting a document into evidence specifically marked as relating to internal advice to the attorney general. After a lengthy pause, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he would resolve the issue in the morning and adjourned earlier than expected.
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