How Ken Paxton Became the New Supervillain of Texas Politics
He's gone from the mild-mannered conservative who flew under the radar to the new political super-villain of the Lone Star State in record time.
Image by Monica Fuentes
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has really outdone himself. In the space of the very short time that he has been in a state office — keep in mind the guy only took office on January 5 — he has managed to become such a liability that members of his own party are treating him as if he has political plague. The headlines have been steadily coming for months, all bad. The indictments and the alleged and admitted securities fraud. The instances of questionable legal representation. The fact that Paxton has somehow remains the top elected legal official in the state even though he's admitted to violating state securities laws and now faces three felony securities fraud counts. None of this may sound that bad, since he isn't being accused of kicking puppies or anything, but in the world of Texas politics, he's pretty much done everything short of walk around wearing a cape and twirling a mustache while emitting maniacal cackles.
Paxton has been on the political scene for years but he was generally only known as a mild-mannered member of the state legislature who flew under the media radar until he adopted the more extreme views of the Tea Party, a move that made him the darling of the far right conservative faction of Texas Republican politics. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2003 and he held his spot representing District 70 (think suburban Dallas-adjacent towns like Frisco and Allen) until 2012 and he followed that stint with a successful bid for the Texas Senate. From there he took aim for his first statewide elected office, as the state attorney general.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, or something. Then-AG Greg Abbott was vacating the post to run for governor, and Paxton was only vying with state Rep. Dan Branch and former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman for the Republican nomination. But there were signs even then that maybe Paxton wasn't the best guy for the gig.
For one thing, he was running to be the state's top lawyer even though he'd already admitted in April 2014 to violating state securities law. (It started only two years after he was elected to the state legislature. From 2004 to 2012 he was funneling clients to his friend, Frederick Mowery, a securities investor and getting kickbacks for his trouble without registering w/ the state) Some might have concluded that subsequently running to become the state's top legal mind — the one who decides what cases the state pursues and what government information is required to be made public — is a terrible idea, but not Paxton. Instead of dropping out of the race, he just stopped campaigning in front of the media, waging what the San Antonio Express-News described as a “shadow campaign” for the office. He proceeded to avoid journalists for the duration of his campaign – once his campaign spokesman Anthony Holm body-blocked a reporter from walking up to Paxton. And Paxton's bet paid off because he was elected in a landslide last November.
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A state AG with an admitted violation of state securities law on his record is arguably bad enough, but it hasn't stopped there with Paxton. In July, the matter came back to haunt Paxton when a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two first-degree and one third-degree felony charges. The third-degree charge is related to Paxton's admitted dealings with his buddy Mowery. The first-degree felonies are over allegations that Paxton was up to similar tricks on a larger scale. Prosecutors claim that while he was a state representative, Paxton allegedly persuaded two clients (one of them also a state representative) to buy more than $100,000 of stock in the company, Servergy, failing to disclose to his clients or the state securities commission that he was being paid for these referrals, as is required by law.
Servergy, meanwhile, has been the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation over allegations the company flat-out defrauded investors. Paxton even got a special mention in the SEC probe of Servergy, as we've previously noted. His name and his law firm's email address were singled out as search terms as SEC investigators dug into allegations that Servergy had made “misstatements” – aka lies – to investors by falsely claiming its data servers had already been sold huge companies like Amazon and Freescale, among other things.
Paxton has already accepted a $1,000 fine and reprimand from the State Securities Board for his dealings with Mowery. Still, he has claimed the felony indictments against him over largely the same issues constitute a political "witch hunt." It’s an argument that might have held water in former-Gov. Rick Perry’s case out of Travis County, but it looks a hell of a lot less convincing in this variation with Paxton. Paxton's case started in Travis County after the Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney, but the Travis DA sent the case to Collin County where the transactions happened and where Paxton is from.
In fact, both the DA and the judge assigned to the case had to recuse themselves because they were both friends with Paxton. After Collin County DA, Greg Willis stepped aside, state District Judge Scott Becker, a Republican, appointed Houston lawyers Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer to step in as prosecutors. Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher was then tapped to preside over the case after the Collin County judge bowed out. While Paxton and his lawyers claim this prosecution, which is now emanating out of the GOP stronghold of Collin County, has been politically motivated, the fact remains that county officials have gone out of their way to make sure Paxton gets a fair and unbiased trial.
Paxton’s lawyer, Joe Kendall, abruptly quit in court last Thursday and was quickly replaced with Dallas attorney Pete Schulte, a Democrat. The abrupt departure and bipartisan replacement of Paxton's lawyer does nothing to enhance Paxton's claims of politically motivated persecution.
More troubling, the stories about Paxton’s questionable behavior just keep on coming. Last week the Houston Chronicle detailed Paxton's handling of a 2012 case concerning the estate of one of the many heirs to the Hunt family oil fortune. Paxton was appointed attorney ad litem in Tanner Hunt’s probate case – Hunt, the son of Texas oil legend H.L. Hunt, had committed suicide in 2011, leaving two young daughters about $200,000 in the bank. Tanner Hunt also left his children a possible claim to a $2 million trust in his name, but no will. So Paxton drew up with a settlement that he offered to the mother of the girls for $750,000 to be invested by, well, Paxton on behalf of the girls if they agreed to give up all other claims to the Hunt fortune. The mother rejected that offer and eventually filed a motion asking the judge in the case to recuse himself after her lawyers learned that an attorney with strong Hunt ties had called the judge and Paxton before the case was even filed (a pretty unusual move in the legal world).
Paxton’s involvement in the case was kept quiet during his stealth election campaign last year. Would voters have rethought their plans to vote for Paxton if they'd known he was potentially helping to swindle two fatherless little girls out of their rightful inheritance on top of the state securities violation? We'll never know.
What we do know is that right now the bulk of Paxton's own party wants him to resign his office, according to a poll conducted last week by the Texas Bipartisan Justice Committee. The poll found that 62 percent of the Republican voters polled think that Paxton should step down because of his (multiple) felony fraud indictments.
Meanwhile, Paxton hasn't exactly been getting much backup from his fellow elected state officials. Gov. Greg Abbott kept quiet on Paxton for weeks before simply stating that Paxton is innocent until proven guilty, as noted by the Dallas Morning News last week. Even Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick has stayed unusually tactful on this issue, noting that Paxton hasn't been proven guilty yet and he'll have his day in court without any claims of Paxton's innocence in the matter.
Maybe things would be different if Paxton was doing a fantastic job of actually being the attorney general, but that's not how things have played out. In the eight months he's been in office, Paxton has made national news through his opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights. He made front page headlines across the state for his lame efforts to oppose gay marriage in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized it across the country at the end of July. He was even ordered to appear in federal court on possible contempt charges at the beginning of August for violating a court order prohibiting the state from enforcing it’s same-sex marriage ban. The hearing was ultimately cancelled and it looks like this is one of the few charges that Paxton will actually wriggle out of.
To be fair, Paxton's Tea Party supporters have still been showing up at his many court hearings to give him lip service support. Still, the Republican Party of Texas issued a statement earlier this month that, like Patrick's bit, only reiterated the obvious fact that Paxton has a right to his "day in court."
That's in stark contrast to Perry, around whom conservative supporters rallied when his indictments dropped. Perry's trip down to the Travis County Courthouse was pure political theater, right down to Perry going for ice cream after he'd posed for his mugshot. When Paxton turned himself in at the Collin County Courthouse, he skulked past small clumps of supporters and media and then exited out the back entrance as soon as he was done. His mugshot is a weak attempt at a confident grin that instead looks more like an awkward sneer.
Unless Paxton's convicted and disbarred for those three felony counts, or unless he simply gives into the pressure to resign, his term lasts through 2018. We almost hope he hangs on until there's a legal decision on the issue.
Voters had every opportunity to see Paxton for what he was, but he was elected without even having to try that hard. He certainly doesn't appear to be the state attorney general that Texas needs at the moment, but maybe he is the AG that it deserves.