The equivalent of a suitcase nuke blew up in Texas politics this weekend. The latest in a string of them, actually. It’s been a year of nearly uninterrupted bad news for the Republican Party of Texas as it struggles to prepare for one of the most important elections it has faced in decades.
On Saturday, the Austin American-Statesman broke the news that seven senior figures in the office of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton had accused Paxton of serious criminal wrongdoing, including abuse of office and accepting a bribe. The Statesman obtained a copy of a letter the seven sent to the AG’s human resources department on October 1 in which the crew also said that they had already recommended to federal authorities that they should begin an investigation.
Is it surprising that the top law enforcement official of Texas would stand so accused of naked and venal criminality? In this case, no. Paxton has, over many years, acquired the reputation of a grifter. But it is shocking who is making the accusation. The seven aides, according to the Statesman, include five deputy attorneys general as well as Jeff Mateer, the first assistant attorney general, and Mateer’s deputy. Mateer is Paxton’s right-hand man. When he was nominated by the Trump administration to a federal judgeship in 2017, Senate Republicans killed the nomination because they thought he was too conservative. (Some remarks about how transgender children were part of “Satan’s plan” did him in.) At the time, Paxton praised Mateer as a “principled leader” and “a man of character” who had done an exceptional job at the AG’s office.
Mateer is not, in other words, a member of the “deep state.” This group accusing Paxton of corruption would be a bit like Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway plus five cabinet members accusing Donald Trump of treason.
We don’t yet fully know the scope of the alleged scheme—and the attorney general’s office hasn’t responded to a request for an interview as of press time—but details began filtering out over the weekend. The Houston Chronicle reports that the scheme involves actions taken by Paxton to benefit a political donor and friend of his, an Austin real estate developer named Nate Paul. Paul is the principal behind World Class Capital Group, which owns an extensive portfolio of property in Austin and which was raided by the FBI last year for undisclosed reasons as part of a still-ongoing investigation. Following the FBI raids, Paul’s business empire started to suffer.
Though the specific allegations remain unclear, events are happening quickly. On Sunday Jordan Berry, Paxton’s top political adviser who had not signed the letter, resigned. On Monday, U.S. representative Chip Roy, the Republican who had been Paxton’s second-in-command when he first became attorney general, called for him to resign. Governor Greg Abbott didn’t go quite as far, but he issued a statement that was far from supportive, saying that the allegations raised “serious concerns.”
Paxton is no stranger to allegations of corruption: he has been accused of skirting laws of ethical conduct in a public office for nearly as long as he has held one. But he’s very rarely been threatened with any consequences at all. Political scientists differentiate between “legal” corruption and “illegal” corruption. Using one’s office to enrich oneself can be accomplished by accepting a briefcase of cash under the table—illegal corruption—or in the open, in line with all relevant laws.
In Texas, for the most part, you don’t need the briefcase. Paxton is a good example. In 2004, two years after he was elected to the state House—representing a booming corner of Collin County, north of Dallas—a firm Paxton was a partner in purchased a 35-acre parcel of undeveloped land in McKinney. Months later, the land was rezoned and bought by the Collin County government at a 40 percent markup. One Collin County lawyer alleged the land deal had been made with insider information. (Paxton denied involvement in the deal, and a decade later, a grand jury declined to indict him; it’s very difficult to prove that Paxton or his partners knew the land would be appropriated.)
Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon behavior among state lawmakers. But Paxton’s behavior as a lawyer was just as dubious. There was the time that he took a fellow lawyer’s $1,000 Montblanc pen in the security line at the Collin County courthouse—he was caught only because the pen’s owner scoured security footage to find him. More seriously, the Houston Chronicle surfaced a case in which Paxton appeared to have used his position as a probate lawyer to appropriate money for himself from vulnerable clients.
Paxton avoided legal consequences until 2015, however, when a grand jury indicted him on three counts, including two charges of felony securities fraud. A third charge involved Paxton advising his legal clients to invest with a friend of his, without telling the clients that he was being compensated for doing so—which Paxton has admitted to. That is, according to codes of professional legal conduct, an extremely clear no-no.
But after Paxton had been indicted and his mug shot had been taken, nothing happened. Paxton’s friends and allies in Collin County put the case on ice. It still has not gone to trial. Meanwhile, Paxton has waged an effective political campaign to devalue the allegations against him. Because one of his accusers, Representative Byron Cook, a moderate Republican from east Central Texas and a boogeyman of the right, made allegations against him, Paxton has portrayed the whole ordeal as a “political witch hunt.”
So for the past five years, the state’s top law enforcement official has been under indictment. If convicted, he’s a felon; even if not, he’s already admitted to extremely unethical behavior in his private practice. For years, the case seemed unlikely to be resolved. That is, until this weekend, when he was accused of more felonious behavior by true-blue conservatives in his office.
Nothing in Paxton’s past suggests he deserves the benefit of the doubt—rather the opposite. Even his erstwhile political allies in Texas understand this. So far, he has dug in his heels—the AG’s office put out a defiant statement accusing the seven of their own wrongdoing—but perhaps Paxton will, in time, be forced to step down from his position as cochair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition.