The past week has been rough for Ken Paxton, our embattled attorney general. Last week, when he appeared in court to formally plead not guilty to criminal charges concerning his private legal practice, his lawyer, Joe Kendall, ended the hearing by quitting. As Kendall explained, he and his client had run into differences that “make continued representation untenable.” One of which, I suppose, may be that Paxton wants a lawyer who doesn’t kneecap him in public; I hope he gets one given that Kendall was his third in as many months.
I also hope he gets a new spokesman because Anthony Holm, who had served in that capacity since last spring, told me today that he left Paxton’s legal team in late July, after Tarrant County judge George Gallagher told Kendall that Paxton’s people needed to stop jawing about the case in public. “If there’s a gag order, or an implied gag order, I’m of little value to the team,” Holm told me, which I could hardly disagree with, because Holm’s valiant defenses of Paxton have been one of the few agreeable aspects of this dreary saga.
And I sincerely hope that Paxton’s new team, once assembled, does good work on behalf of the attorney general. Whatever the man’s faults, and whatever he’s done, everyone deserves at least one advocate. For Paxton to be thus equipped would also be a relief to the Office of the Attorney General, which continues to operate under the pall of a problem that it didn’t cause and can’t remediate. And frankly, Paxton’s current defenders aren’t making a very good case for him. A case in point came today from Tim Dunn, the west Texas oilman who chairs EmpowerTexans, who took to the pages of the Midland Reporter-Telegram with a tenuous defense.
“It seems clear that Paxton’s indictment was predetermined,” writes Dunn, and on that point I agree with him; as I’ve noted several times, Paxton’s indictment was effectively predetermined when he admitted to a third-degree felony in May 2014, several weeks before winning the Republican primary runoff. Dunn, however, arrived at our shared conclusion via a somewhat circuitous path. In his assessment, Paxton is the victim of politics. As a conservative Republican who has publicly defied the House leadership, in Dunn’s account, Paxton drew the ire of the state’s reigning cronies–in this case state representative Byron Cook, a “wealthy and sophisticated investor” who waited four years to complain that Paxton had defrauded him by rooking him into investing in Servergy, a McKinney-based tech company. “Now, Cook wants Paxton to be convicted of a first-degree felony,” writes Dunn, by which he means that Cook is the named victim in one of Paxton’s securities fraud charges.
If Dunn can give a dubious defense of Paxton, so can I–so for variety’s sake, let me give it a try. I’ve heard from a number of sources close to Paxton, or close enough to be chagrined by his troubles, that the man’s errors are those of a goof rather than a sinister criminal mastermind. Candidly, I can believe that. And if Paxton is merely a petty bumbler who happened to be in high office? It wouldn’t make a difference to his legal defense, just as Cook’s wealth and sophistication don’t obviate his right to file a criminal complaint. But it is ethically salient, because so many of the people surrounding Paxton are clearly well-equipped to have anticipated his travails. Dunn himself has provided massive financial support for EmpowerTexans, which ferociously promoted Paxton over Dan Branch, his rival in the runoff. Ted Cruz, a very smart lawyer, deliberately acted to promote Paxton by giving him a pseudo-endorsement during the contested primary. Greg Abbott is also a very smart lawyer, who served as attorney general for twelve years before becoming governor; he’s an indirect victim of Paxton’s woes, since it’s his legacy at stake, but he’s also a potential direct beneficiary of them, because he may have the chance to hand-pick Paxton’s replacement. Any of those three, among many others, could have made some effort to intervene before Paxton even threw his hat in the ring; it would have been better for the office, the state, and their party, to say nothing of Paxton and his family, had he not become attorney general in the first place, surely.
“Texans need to demand an end to this abuse of the system that is supposed to produce liberty and justice for all — even conservative Republicans,” adds Dunn at the end of the op-ed. Paxton is not the only person in Texas politics who may have committed a kind of fraud.