Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton knows how to distract his audience. While everyone is watching him pull a far-right leaning conservative legal rabbit out of his hat, so to speak — suing over allowing doctors the right to refuse treatment to transgender people, and then stating he won't change his mind but will be happy to dine with a trans boy and the boy's family in North Texas, for example — the audience misses all the other quandries he's been grappling with. It's an impressive trick.
In other words, Paxton is holding true to form, taking every opportunity to be in the news cycle for stories that are completely unrelated to his own personal legal issues.
After all, why would he do otherwise? The fact that Paxton is the state attorney general in the first place proves that his approach of diverting attention, delaying and avoiding discussion of his various legal tangles and missteps — the state securities violations, the three felony indictments, the Securities and Exchange Commission probe he's been tied to, all of it — can work.
Paxton has been on the political scene for years but 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 in 2014, as the state attorney general. Paxton's decision to get into the race was, shall we say, interesting. For one thing, he was running to be the state's top lawyer even though he'd already admitted that April 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 with the state, as we've previously reported.)
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 then described as a “shadow campaign” for the office and was elected by a landslide in November 2014.
The guy made quite a splash during his first year in office. After being sworn in on January 5, 2015, Paxton proceeded to become a national political figure by encouraging state employees to openly defy the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. He was also booked on three felony counts in August 2015, making Paxton the first sitting attorney general in 30 years to face criminal indictments in Texas.
Now, he's once again demonstrated how politics is as much about slight of hand and misdirection as any magic act that ever hit the vaudeville circuit. Over the past few months, Paxton has continued to deal with his looming court case, while also popping up in several stories that might have destroyed a politician's career, and has emerged essentially unscathed.
In addition to the felony charges, in April Paxton was accused by federal regulators of defrauding investors in a McKinney tech company while he was a member of the Texas Legislature.
In June, the Associated Press revealed Paxton accepted a $100,000 donation for his criminal defense from the head of a medical imaging provider, Dallas-based Preferred Imaging LLC, while his office investigated the company for Medicaid fraud. The company settled its case with the AG's office and Paxton has denied any wrongdoing in accepting the donation, but it still smacks of impropriety, at the very least.
And just this month, the Dallas Morning News reported a top lawyer in Paxton’s office was fired but kept on the payroll for almost six months to keep quiet about a grievance where she raised concerns the office was violating federal rules on a multi-million-dollar child support contract with private tech giant Accenture.
Meanwhile, Paxton and his lawyers have been doing just about everything possible to avoid going to trial over the allegations that he misled (that's fancy parlance for "lied") investigators about his dealings with Servergy, as we've previously reported. 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. At the beginning of August, his attorneys filed an appeal with the highest criminal court in the state, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in a last-ditch bid to dismiss the case before it goes to trial.
But Paxton hasn't let the focus stay locked on the various stories that make him look legally and ethically questionable at best. Instead, Paxton has been keeping his name in the headlines of late by taking the unbending conservative approach to a ton of issues near and dear to Texas conservative hearts.
Shortly after filing with the Court of Criminal Appeals, Paxton's lawsuit against the Obama administration's guidance advising schools to allow trans students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity had a hearing. Then he followed up by hitting back on other trans issues.
Last week, he sued to allow doctors the right to refuse to treat transgender people, filing the lawsuit on behalf of the Franciscan Alliance, a religious hospital network, against the Obama administration and the federal Department of Health and Human Services in an attempt to block the government from defining sex within the Affordable Care Act. The suit is Paxton's 13th against the Obama administration since taking office 19 months ago.
He also grabbed headlines for agreeing to dine at the home of a transgender boy and his mother shortly after a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked President Obama's directions on how public schools should handle transgender students. Paxton responded to the dinner invitation publicly, saying he'd be "happy to do that," according to the DMN.
At the same time, Paxton has been pushing back on the state's voter ID law, requesting the federal judge assigned to the case delay her hearing until August 2017 to give the state Legislature time to adjust the law. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi did not go for that proposal, announcing last Thursday the hearing will be held in January.
Meanwhile, Paxton has been sounding off on prayer in the courtroom. Earlier this month his office issued his legal opinion on the matter, affirming the constitutionality of opening courtroom sessions with prayer, because of course he did.
All of this legal posturing is an interesting tactic, but it's really a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's just like the dinner. Of course Paxton has agreed to dine with a trans kid and his family. He sacrifices nothing by showing up and it's more padding to protect against his biggest problem — the stories that are actually about him.