AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas' Republican-led House of Representatives impeached state Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday on articles including bribery and abuse of public trust, a sudden, historic rebuke of a GOP official who rose to be a star of the conservative legal movement despite years of scandal and alleged crimes.
Impeachment triggers Paxton's immediate suspension from office pending the outcome of a trial in the state Senate and empowers Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint someone else as Texas' top lawyer in the interim.
The 121-23 vote constitutes an abrupt downfall for one of the GOP's most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden's electoral defeat of Donald Trump. It makes Paxton only the third sitting official in Texas' nearly 200-year history to have been impeached.
Paxton, 60, decried the move moments after scores of his fellow partisans voted for impeachment, and his office pointed to internal reports that found no wrongdoing.
“The ugly spectacle in the Texas House today confirmed the outrageous impeachment plot against me was never meant to be fair or just,” Paxton said. “It was a politically motivated sham from the beginning.”
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, though he has yet to stand trial. His party had long taken a muted stance on the allegations - but that changed this week as 60 of the House's 85 Republicans, including Speaker Dade Phelan, voted to impeach.
“No one person should be above the law, least not the top law officer of the state of Texas,” Rep. David Spiller, a Republican member of the committee that investigated Paxton, said in opening statements. Another Republican committee member, Rep. Charlie Geren, said without elaborating that Paxton had called some lawmakers before the vote and threatened them with political “consequences.”
Lawmakers allied with Paxton tried to discredit the investigation by noting that hired investigators, not panel members, interviewed witnesses. They also said several of the investigators had voted in Democratic primaries, tainting the impeachment, and that they had too little time to review evidence.
“I perceive it could be political weaponization,” Rep. Tony Tinderholt, one of the House's most conservative members, said before the vote. Republican Rep. John Smithee compared the proceeding to “a Saturday mob out for an afternoon lynching.”
Paxton is automatically suspended from office pending the Senate trial. Final removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Paxton's wife's, Angela, is a member.
Representatives of the governor, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in for a third term in January, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on a temporary replacement.
Before the vote Saturday, Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to Paxton's defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process “a travesty” and saying the attorney general's legal troubles should be left to the courts.
“Free Ken Paxton,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, warning that if House Republicans proceeded with impeachment, “I will fight you.”
In one sense, Paxton's political peril arrived with dizzying speed: The House committee's investigation came to light Tuesday, and by Thursday lawmakers issued 20 articles of impeachment.
Rice University political science professor Mark P. Jones said the swift move to impeach kept Paxton from rallying significant support and allowed quietly frustrated Republicans to come together.
“If you ask most Republicans privately, they feel Paxton is an embarrassment. But most were too afraid of the base to oppose him,” Jones said. By voting as a large bloc, he added, the lawmakers got political cover.
To Paxton's longstanding detractors, however, the rebuke was years overdue.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law, and a year later he was indicted on securities fraud charges in his hometown near Dallas, accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He pleaded not guilty to two felony counts carrying a potential sentence of five to 99 years.
He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton's office for Medicaid fraud. An additional $50,000 was donated by an Arizona retiree whose son Paxton later hired to a high-ranking job but was soon fired after displaying child pornography in a meeting. In 2020, Paxton intervened in a Colorado mountain community where a Texas donor and college classmate faced removal from his lakeside home under coronavirus orders.
But what ultimately unleased the impeachment push was Paxton's relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
In 2020, eight top aides told the FBI they were concerned Paxton was misusing his office to help Paul over the developer's unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties was afoot. The FBI searched Paul's home in 2019, but he has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
The impeachment accuses Paxton of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul. Its bribery charges allege that Paul employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and that he paid for expensive renovations to the attorney general's home. A senior lawyer for Paxton's office, Chris Hilton, said Friday that the attorney general paid for all repairs and renovations.
Other charges, including lying to investigators, date back to Paxton's still-pending securities fraud indictment.
Four of the aides who reported Paxton to the FBI later sued under Texas' whistleblower law, and in February he agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. The House committee said it was Paxton seeking legislative approval for the payout that sparked their probe.
“But for Paxton's own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the panel said.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.