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Texas Senate takes no public action on rules for Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial

 Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference at the Houston Recovery Center on Oct. 26, 2021. Paxton was temporarily suspended from office after the House voted last month to impeach him.
Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune
Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference at the Houston Recovery Center on Oct. 26, 2021. Paxton was temporarily suspended from office after the House voted last month to impeach him.

The Texas Senate met Tuesday and Wednesday to hear from a secretive seven-senator committee that was directed to create the rules governing the impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton but took no public action on trial plans despite several lengthy meetings in private and multiple recesses.

Senators emerged from a closed-door meeting shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday and recessed until 10 a.m. Wednesday, then followed up by recessing again, this time until 1 p.m. “as the Senate is working hard on rules,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who made the motion to recess.

Bettencourt returned around 1:15 p.m. to announce another recess until 5 p.m. Wednesday, expressing hopes that additional delays would not be needed.

On the final day of the regular legislative session in late May, senators created the committee, gave it permission to conduct its business in private and directed it to return Tuesday to present rules of procedure to a “caucus of the Senate” — which typically meets outside of public view. On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, indicated that the impeachment trial rules might not be made public until later this week.

The resolution that created the committee also gave Patrick the authority to set an impeachment trial to begin no later than Aug. 28.

Members of the committee have not publicly discussed their work, but that has not stopped Paxton’s allies and the House impeachment managers from lobbying for their preferred package of rules.

Paxton’s legal team, led by boisterous Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, has urged the committee to recommend rules that would allow the Senate to toss out the House-approved articles of impeachment, calling the procedure a “kangaroo court” because Paxton was not given the opportunity to defend himself.

The House managers, who have hired Texas legal giants Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin to present the case against Paxton, sent the Senate committee 17 examples of rules that were used in past impeachment trials in Texas, including a recusal rule.

Patrick on Monday tamped down on talk about ending the impeachment trial before it can begin.

[State Sen. Angela Paxton will “carry out my duty” and attend her husband’s impeachment trial]

“We actually have to address the issues,” Patrick told Dallas radio host Mark Davis. “If not, they could keep Ken Paxton away from doing his job forever. … In general, we have to deal with it.”

The Senate committee’s decision on recusals will be closely watched because Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, is among the senators who could decide her husband’s fate.

Paxton’s legal team and the House managers have also quarreled about whether the trial should be public and how much discovery and preparation will be allowed.

Buzbee said in his first news conference as Paxton’s lead lawyer that the process of lining up witnesses and documents could take up to a year. And Paxton’s legal team argued in a memo to the committee that it should limit testimony to deposition statements, rather than allow live witnesses, which they said could turn the proceedings into “political theater.”

What do house managers want?

Paxton’s permanent removal from office would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Paxton was impeached by a vote of 121-23 in an unprecedented vote in the House during the final days of the legislative session. He was immediately suspended from his official duties, and Gov. Greg Abbott appointed former Secretary of State John Scott as interim attorney general.

In the run-up to the House impeachment vote, Paxton supporters, including former President Donald Trump, urged lawmakers to vote no.

On Saturday, the State Republican Executive Committee, grassroots leaders who help set the Texas GOP’s platform, condemned the impeachment in a 53-11 vote. A resolution denounced the House for not allowing Paxton to defend himself against the accusations and for not putting witnesses under oath when they were questioned by investigators. It likened the impeachment process in the House to a “banana republic.”

A majority of the impeachment allegations against Paxton originated with eight of his former top deputies who, in 2020, met with law enforcement to accuse Paxton of misusing his power to benefit his friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. In return, they said, Paxton apparently accepted bribes that included a $25,000 political donation and funding for remodeling Paxton’s Austin home, plus they said a woman involved in an extramarital affair with Paxton was given a job at one of Paul’s companies.

The former officials said Paxton directed agency employees to help Paul gain access to investigative records and that he drafted a legal opinion that helped Paul stall impending foreclosure sales on properties. Paxton also pushed the agency to hire an outside lawyer to harass Paul’s enemies, the officials said.

On June 6, a federal grand jury indicted Paul on eight counts of making false statements to financial institutions. He is involved in numerous other bankruptcy and legal disputes related to his real estate businesses.

Within two months, all eight of the attorney general’s office executives who reported Paxton to the FBI and other agencies were fired or resigned. Four of them filed a whistleblower lawsuit in November 2020 claiming they were improperly fired in retaliation.

Their report set off an FBI investigation that was taken over by the U.S. Justice Department this year.

Some of the articles of impeachment also dealt with Paxton’s eight-year-old securities fraud case in which he is accused of soliciting investors in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney tech company was paying him to tout its stock.

Once the impeachment trial rules are adopted, Patrick has until Aug. 28 to issue a proclamation setting the date for the Senate to convene as a Court of Impeachment, according to the Senate resolution adopted on May 29.

The resolution also created the rules committee, which is led by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and includes Republican Sens. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Pete Flores of Pleasanton, Joan Huffman of Houston and Phil King of Weatherford, as well as Democratic Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen and Royce West of Dallas.

From The Texas Tribune

Disclosure: Dick DeGuerin, Rusty Hardin and Tony Buzbee have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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