On paper, one of the most important functions of the Texas Legislature is to provide oversight of state agencies and to hold wrongdoers and incompetents accountable. In practice, state lawmakers do much less of that sort of thing than you’d like. When they choose to intervene, and when they don’t, is often very telling.
Take the case of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, who is in hot water at the Legislature—well, lukewarm water, at least. Paxton has exhibited an almost reptilian ability to slither out of his many scrapes with the law, ethical impropriety, and marital troubles—including by avoiding a felony fraud trial for nearly eight years and by fleeing his home to avoid being served with a subpoena. Now he’s getting some gentle pushback in the Texas House over his recent attempted settlement with some of the lawyers he fired after they accused him of bribery and corruption in 2020. This is a welcome development: Paxton ought to get pushback on the settlement. But what about all the, uh, other stuff?
In 2020, you might remember, Paxton’s handpicked senior staff—some of them stalwart right-wing legal warriors in good standing with the movement—led an unprecedented revolt against their boss. They blew the whistle after Paxton, they said, attempted to interfere with an ongoing FBI investigation into a campaign donor and friend who also happened to have given Paxton’s onetime mistress a job. This seemed to be about seventeen kinds of illegal, so they felt compelled to come forward—and lost their jobs for it. In the rough-and-tumble world of Texas politics, snitches get stitches, so perhaps the whistleblowers should have been relieved to be merely fired. But even that was potentially illegal, as the law protects whistleblowers from retaliation. So, four of them filed suit, and Paxton sought to settle the case last month, issuing an apology and promising his former staffers $3.3 million of taxpayer money.
Not so fast, said House leadership. Speaker Dade Phelan said the state should not pay a dime to help the AG get away with an attempt to silence employees accusing him of major crimes. Phelan said Paxton would have to appear at the Capitol to argue for the money in person. State representative Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano who leads the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, said in a statement that he was “troubled that hardworking taxpayers might be on the hook,” and indicated that Paxton would have a hard time selling the Lege on the expenditure.
Paxton’s expectation that taxpayers will bail him out of another jam is insulting and grimy in a way Paxton has made part of his personal brand. The principle of it is bad, and the optics are bad. But the settlement is about 0.0001 percent of the state’s $27 billion budget surplus. Compared to Paxton’s other sins, it’s practically invisible.
To get a sense of the real scandals afflicting the AG’s office, about which lawmakers have remained quiet so far, read the Associated Press investigation into Paxton’s office from late September. Paxton’s office, the AP reported, “quietly dropped a series of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases after losing track of one of the victims,” an incident that showed one facet of the growing dysfunction in the state’s top law enforcement agency brought about by low morale and the acute shortage of reputable lawyers willing to work for Ken Paxton.
The cases came from Coryell County, west of Waco, where eight defendants were indicted on charges that they forced teenage girls to prostitute themselves in exchange for crystal meth. The local district attorney, who leads a small team not used to dealing with such cases, kicked them upstairs to Paxton’s office. State law empowers local DAs to do this with the understanding that the AG has a large staff with a lot of specialized legal expertise.
Except it doesn’t anymore: Paxton’s office, the state’s top law enforcement agency, has the feel of a college dorm during spring break. Last August, the AP reported, the division that prosecutes human trafficking cases had a job vacancy rate of 40 percent. The number of assistant attorneys general in the criminal prosecutions division was down more than 25 percent from two years earlier. Most strikingly, the division that handles white-collar crime—of which Paxton stands repeatedly accused—was “cut by more than half and merged with another division.”
Among the few Paxton can find to work for him are campaign donors and longtime cronies who do not seem especially great at their jobs. One, Tom Kelly Gleason, is a former police officer and former owner of an ice cream company whose father, the AP reported, gave the attorney general’s legal defense fund $50,000. Gleason was fired a few weeks into his new job when he showed video footage of child pornography at a work meeting in a backward attempt to demonstrate the seriousness of child abuse. (As of press time, Gleason could not be reached for an interview.)
Something is fundamentally broken in Paxton’s office. He has repeatedly trumpeted his work on human trafficking and convinced the Legislature to quadruple the budget of his unit dedicated to it between 2019 and 2022. But his office secured no prosecutions for such crimes in 2020, and only four in 2021. In Coryell County, Paxton’s team dismissed seven human trafficking cases after procedural breakdowns. The result is that six accused child sex traffickers will not be tried. (One of the eight defendants died, and another is in jail on separate charges.) It’s all the more galling because Paxton has attempted to burnish his reputation through much-ballyhooed crusades to weed out “groomers” and those “sexualizing” kids, by which he mostly means school librarians, drag-show performers, and the parents of transgender children.
And while the specter of “groomers” hangs over the legislative session, there has been vanishingly little commentary from lawmakers about Paxton’s office letting those accused of pimping teenagers skate. On a recent call held by the Texas GOP, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick lauded Paxton as a great guy who’s doing a great job. Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott also signed friend-of-the-court briefs in Paxton’s effort to quash the whistleblower lawsuit.
The Lege has never been a bastion of accountability, but there have been times when some lawmakers felt comfortable raising a fuss, as in the aftermath of the pay-to-play Sharpstown scandal of the 1970s, when the body passed a series of good-government reforms. Why do lawmakers perform so little oversight these days, and why are they so selective about which matters to take up? As a general matter, oversight is hard work and demands a lot of time and expertise, and we have a part-time Legislature that only gathers for a few months every other year. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of overseeing state agencies, a lot of work is subcontracted to the Sunset Commission, an arm of the Legislature that conducts top-to-bottom reviews of state agencies every twelve years.
But the bigger problem is that in most legislative bodies, “oversight” is often conducted because it grants political advantage. Democrats in Congress skewer Republican executive-branch officials (and vice versa) because they’re looking toward the next election. In Texas, we’ve had one-party rule for more than a quarter century. There’s no profit to be gained for Republican lawmakers who ask, “Who screwed this up?” The answer is, invariably: “Us.”
Texas lawmakers are allowed to rake state-agency officials over the coals on certain high-profile issues, such as our death-trap foster care system or the collapse of the power grid in 2021. But with rare exceptions—such as officials rebuking agriculture commissioner Sid Miller for parking where he wasn’t supposed to on Capitol grounds—it’s rare for the Lege to try to force any of the big dogs to heel. Lawmakers are generally not allowed to throw the spotlight on GOP elected officials higher up the food chain, even when they are directly responsible for what state bureaucrats do. Make trouble for the governor or his friends at the top of the ticket and feel the noose tighten. Just ask Lyle Larson, a state representative from San Antonio whose brief crusade against the way Greg Abbott appointed so many of his campaign donors to positions of public authority helped bring about an Abbott jihad against Larson, the lawmaker’s exile from the rest of his political party, and, indirectly, his eventual retirement.
Anything that might step on the toes of statewide elected officials—or just cause complications for them—tends to get a wide berth. Take the galling example of the state police response to the Uvalde shooting. The Texas Department of Public Safety failed utterly last May, with the result that students who might have been saved by timely action against the shooter were allowed to bleed out for 73 minutes before help could arrive. In another state, there would have been no question that there’d be oversight at the next legislative session. But not in Texas, where the DPS is run by one of the governor’s top lieutenants, and the governor has made clear he doesn’t want oversight spoken about.
Paxton’s increasing inability to prosecute criminals should be a concern for a Legislature filled with tough-on-crime Republicans. GOP officials have made hay for years out of the idea that Texas Democrats want to “defund the police.” All along, they let Paxton, the state’s top cop, defund himself.