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Texas AG under bar review

by JAKE BLEIBERG THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | June 10, 2021 at 4:24 a.m.
FILE - In this June 28, 2020, file photo, Texas State Attorney General Ken Paxton waits on the flight line for Vice President Mike Pence to arrive in Dallas. The Texas bar association has opened an investigation into whether Paxton's failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election amounted to professional misconduct. After Paxton, a Republican, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in December to block Joe Biden's victory, a Democratic Party activist filed a complaint with the bar association calling the case frivolous. The bar initially declined to investigate, but a tribunal overturned that decision late last month. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

DALLAS -- The Texas bar association is investigating whether state Attorney General Ken Paxton's failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on claims of fraud amounted to professional misconduct.

The State Bar of Texas initially declined to take up a Democratic Party activist's complaint that Paxton's petitioning of the U.S. Supreme Court to block President Joe Biden's election victory was frivolous and unethical. But a tribunal that oversees grievances against lawyers overturned that decision late last month and ordered the bar to look into the accusations against the Republican official.

The investigation is yet another liability for the embattled attorney general, who is facing a years-old criminal case, a separate, newer FBI investigation, and a Republican primary opponent who is seeking to make electoral hay of the various controversies. It also makes Paxton one of the highest profile lawyers to face professional blowback over their roles in Donald Trump's effort to delegitimize his defeat.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office did not respond to requests for comment. Paxton's defense lawyer, Philip Hilder, declined to comment.

Kevin Moran, the 71-year-old president of the Galveston Island Democrats, shared his complaint with The Associated Press along with letters from the State Bar of Texas and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals that confirm the investigation. He said Paxton's efforts to dismiss other states' election results was a wasteful embarrassment for which the attorney general should lose his law license.

"He wanted to disenfranchise the voters in four other states," said Moran. "It's just crazy."

Texas' top appeals lawyer, who would usually argue the state's cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, notably did not join Paxton in filing the election suit. The high court threw it out.

Paxton has less than a month to reply to Moran's claim that the lawsuit to overturn the results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was misleading and brought in bad faith, according to a June 3 letter from the bar. Biden won all four of the battleground states.

From there, the bar staff will take up the case in a proceeding that resembles the grand jury stage of a criminal investigation. Bar investigators are empowered to question witnesses, hold hearings and issue subpoenas to determine whether a lawyer likely committed misconduct. That finding then launches a disciplinary process that could ultimately result in disbarment, suspension or lesser punishments. A lawyer also could be found to have done nothing wrong.

The bar dismisses thousands of grievances each year, and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals -- 12 independent lawyers appointed by the Texas Supreme Court -- overwhelmingly uphold those decisions. Reversals like that of Moran's complaint happened less than 7% of the time last year, according to the bar's annual report.

Claire Reynolds, a spokeswoman and lawyer for the bar, said state law prohibits the agency from commenting on complaints unless they result is public sanctions or a court action.

The bar's investigation is confidential and likely to take months. But it draws renewed attention to Paxton's divisive defense of Trump as he and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush vie for the former president's endorsement in the Republican primary to run for attorney general in 2022.

On the Democratic side, Joe Jaworski, the former mayor of Galveston, has said he'll run. Moran said Jaworski is a friend but that he played no role in the complaint against Paxton.

Paxton's election challenge was filled with claims that failed to withstand basic scrutiny. A succession of other judges and state elections officials have refuted claims of widespread voter fraud, and Trump's own Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election's outcome.

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