"Foolishness": Ken Paxton impeachment trial wraps in Texas House, Senate begins deliberations

The Senate could return to vote on the articles as soon as Friday afternoon

Published September 15, 2023 4:37PM (EDT)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

The prosecution and defense made their closing arguments Friday morning in the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, telling wildly contrasting tales of the eight days of witness testimony.

The House impeachment managers insisted that they proved their claims of bribery and corruption, arguing that the jury of 30 senators had no choice but to convict.

"Unlike the public servants here today, he has no regard for the principles of honor and integrity," said impeachment manager Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction. "He has betrayed us and the people of Texas, and if he is given the opportunity he will continue to abuse the power given to him."

Paxton's team said the prosecution's case was full of holes, circumstantial evidence and misdirection. And they framed Paxton as the victim of a "witch hunt" orchestrated by Texas House leadership, "the Bush dynasty" and insubordinate former deputies-turned-whistleblowers in his office.

Acquittal was the only logical response, they said.

"All of this foolishness that they've accused this man of is false," said Paxton's attorney, Tony Buzbee. "The question I have in my mind is whether there is … courage in this room to vote the way you know the evidence requires. I think there is. I hope there is. I pray there is."

The House case centers on Paxton's relationship with Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, his friend and political donor. The prosecution alleges that Paxton repeatedly abused his office to help Paul investigate his enemies, delay foreclosure sales of his properties, gain the upper hand in a lawsuit with a charity and obtain confidential files on the police investigating him.

The closing arguments ended a nine-day trial during which the House called 13 witnesses and the defense called four. The case is now in the hands of senators. Conviction on any of the 16 articles of impeachment would permanently remove Paxton from office.

Paxton attended the trial Friday for the first time since the first day, when he was required to answer to the charges. Even then, Buzbee entered not guilty pleas on his behalf.

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Murr criticized Paxton for skipping the proceedings in the interim.

"Clearly, he thinks he might just get away with this," Murr told senators. "Had he been here, he would have seen the hundreds of exhibits and the thousands of pages that have been presented."

Murr, chair of the House investigative committee that initiated the impeachment inquiry in the spring, praised the testimony of former deputies who recounted how they reported Paxton to the FBI in 2020 over concerns about his relationship with Paul.

Murr noted that each is a dedicated conservative ideologically aligned with Paxton who became disillusioned when the attorney general became obsessed with assisting his friend at the expense of the agency's other priorities.

"The travesty is that Mr. Paxton's desire to deliver results for Nate Paul eventually tore the office apart," Murr said. "Ken Paxton abandoned and betrayed his trusted and knowledgeable staff, his conservative principles and his commitment to family values, the law and his oath of office."

Murr acknowledged that impeachment is a severe step and acknowledged that more than 4 million voters had supported Paxton's re-election 10 months ago. But he said the misconduct Paxton stands accused of is precisely the type of behavior the state's impeachment process is designed to police.

In their own closing remarks, Paxton's attorneys again argued that there was no evidence to support many of the articles of impeachment, and that the entire process was kickstarted after Paxton accused House Speaker Dade Phelan of being drunk while presiding over House business in May. After Paxton called on Phelan to resign, Buzbee argued, Phelan "sped up" the impeachment process — with help from the "Bush dynasty" and other of Paxton's political opponents.

Forced to rush their case rather than examine all of the evidence, Buzbee said, House impeachment managers decided that Paxton was guilty and then relied on insinuations, hearsay and innuendos to make their case to the public.

"What we have seen is a bunch of suppositions — mights, maybes, could have beens," Buzbee said. "That's what we've seen in this trial."

Echoing claims Paxton's team made throughout the trial, Buzbee framed the attorney general as a sterling conservative who was merely doing his job when he asked that his former top deputies look into Paul's claims. Buzbee also said that Paxton had good reason to be concerned about the FBI weaponizing and abusing its power because of his ongoing securities fraud indictment, which Paxton has said was politically motivated.

"This man did his job," he said. "And he should still be doing his job."

Instead of following directions, Buzbee argued, the deputies were insubordinate and decided to report Paxton to the FBI for bribery with "no evidence." That alone justified firing them, he added.

"They took a long walk on a short pier," Buzbee said.

Speaking for most of the hour allotted to them, Buzbee also repeatedly took aim at the claim that Paxton had allowed Paul to have "the keys" of the attorney general's office and could force it to do his bidding. Paul, Buzbee said, was "pissed" that agency deputies wouldn't proceed with investigations into his claims. He even threatened to sue.

"There was one person running the attorney general's office, and that man is sitting right there, and that is the man that should be running the attorney general's office at the end of this day," Buzbee said.

Buzbee also said that he had debunked the House's claims that Paul had paid for renovations of Paxton's home, and that the attorney general had received nothing other than some lunches from Paul that were held in public. Touching briefly on Paxton's affair, Buzbee framed the suspended attorney general as an imperfect man who had repented.

"We all have sinned and fallen short," Buzbee said, adding that if infidelity warranted removal from public office, "we're going to be doing a lot of impeaching in this city."

In the final moments of their allotted time, Paxton attorney Dan Cogdell also attacked the case. He said House prosecutors included some of the "best of the best" — including legendary Houston lawyers Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin — who nonetheless couldn't make a "cogent" argument to support Paxton's removal.

The House, with the opportunity to deliver the last word, called on impeachment manager Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who had not previously spoken during the trial.

Leach, who like the attorney general is a deeply conservative, Christian former Baylor University student body president from Collin County, said he has loved Paxton for many years. He described Paxton as a mentor, a colleague and football watching buddy.

In an emotional speech, he nonetheless said Paxton is unfit for office and urged senators to convict him for the good of Texans. This came despite his description of a previously close relationship with Paxton and frequent talks about politics, policy and family.

"Members, I know as I look across this floor, many of you knew the same," Leach said. "But a few years ago those calls stopped and that open door was closed and I became increasingly concerned and alarmed at what I saw."

He added he was troubled that Paxton had rejected 12 invitations to appear before his House committee to answer questions about the $3.3 million whistleblower settlement he was asking the Legislature to fund.

"Not once did he answer questions, in public or in private, which is largely one of the reasons we're here today," Leach said. He requested that senators, "as painful as it might be, to sustain the articles of impeachment."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, serving as judge, handed the case to senators for deliberation just before noon. They could return to vote on the articles as soon as Friday afternoon.

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Corruption Gop Impeachment Ken Paxton Republicans Texas