AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton teetered on the brink of impeachment Thursday after years of scandal, criminal charges and corruption accusations that the state's Republican majority had largely met with silence until now.
In a unanimous decision, a Republican-led House investigative committee that spent months quietly looking into Paxton recommended impeaching the state's top lawyer. The state House of Representatives could vote on the recommendation as soon as today. If the House impeaches Paxton, he would be forced to leave office immediately.
The move sets set up what could be a remarkably sudden 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 victory. Only two officials in Texas' nearly 200-year history have been impeached.
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, but has yet to stand trial.
Unlike in Congress, impeachment in Texas requires immediate removal from office until a trial is held in the Senate. That means Paxton faces ouster at the hands of GOP lawmakers just seven months after easily winning a third term over challengers -- among them George P. Bush -- who had urged voters to reject a compromised incumbent but discovered that many didn't know about Paxton's litany of alleged misdeeds or dismissed the accusations as political attacks. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott could appoint an interim replacement.
Two of Paxton's defense attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Paxton has suggested that the investigation that came to light this week is a politically motivated attack by a "liberal" Republican House speaker, Dade Phelan, whom he also accused of being drunk on the job. Phelan's office has brushed off Paxton's accusation as an attempt by Paxton to "save face."
Chris Hilton, a senior lawyer in the attorney general's office, told reporters before Thursday's committee vote that what investigators said about Paxton was "false," "misleading," and "full of errors big and small." He said all of the allegations were known when Texans reelected Paxton in November, adding, "the voters want Ken Paxton."
Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the state's 150-member House chamber, where Republicans hold a commanding 85-64 majority.
Rep. Andrew Murr, the Republican chairman of the investigative committee, said he did not know when a vote might be taken and Phelan's office declined to comment.
In one sense, Paxton's political peril arrived with dizzying speed: House Republicans did not reveal they had been investigating him until Tuesday, followed the next day by an extraordinary public airing of alleged criminal acts he committed.
But to Paxton's detractors, who now include a widening share of his own party in the Texas Capitol, the rebuke was seen as years in the making.
In 2014, he admitted violating Texas securities law over not registering as an investment adviser while soliciting clients. A year later, Paxton was indicted on felony securities charges by a grand jury in his hometown near Dallas, where he was accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded innocent to two felony counts that carry a potential sentence of five to 99 years in prison.
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 trying to make a point by displaying child pornography in a meeting.
What has unleashed the most serious risk to Paxton is his relationship with another wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Several of Paxton's top aides in 2020 said they became concerned the attorney general was misusing the powers of his office to help Paul over 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 his attorneys have denied wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
Paxton's aides accused him of corruption and were all fired or quit after reporting him to the FBI. Four sued under Texas' whistleblower laws, accusing Paxton of wrongful retaliation, and in February agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. But the Texas House must approve the payout and Phelan has said he doesn't think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began. The probe amounted to rare scrutiny of Paxton in the state Capitol, where many Republicans have long taken a muted posture about the accusations that have followed the attorney general.
That includes Abbott, who in January swore in Paxton for a third term and said the way he approached the job was "the right way to run the attorney's general's office."
Only twice has the Texas House impeached a sitting official: Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and state Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
Information for this article was contributed by Paul J. Weber of The Associated Press.