This is a little confusing at first, but it has some good news in there.
Justice Department officials in Washington have taken over the corruption investigation into Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, removing the case from the hands of the federal prosecutors in Texas who’d long been leading the probe.
The move was disclosed in a statement by state prosecutors handling their own case against Paxton. It’s the latest development in the federal investigation into the attorney general, who came under FBI scrutiny in 2020 after his own top deputies accused him of bribery and abusing his office to help one of his campaign contributors, who also employed a woman with whom Paxton acknowledged having had an extramarital affair.
The investigation of the three-term Republican is now being led by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which prosecutes allegations of official misconduct against elected leaders at the local, state and federal level. The U.S. attorney’s office in Texas was recently recused from the complex case after working on it for years — an abrupt change that came within days of Paxton agreeing to apologize and pay $3.3 million in taxpayer money to four of the former staffers who reported him to the FBI.
State prosecutors working on a separate securities fraud case against Paxton — Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer — said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that they were notified of the move. They referred all questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
It’s not known whether Paxton will face charges, although federal investigators in Texas who had worked the case believed there was sufficient evidence for an indictment, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing probe.
It was not immediately clear what prompted top Justice Department officials to recuse the federal prosecutors in West Texas but the move was pushed for by Paxton’s attorneys. One of his defense lawyers, Dan Cogdell, said Thursday that he’d previously appealed to agency officials to take the case out of the hands of the local U.S. attorney’s office, which he said had “an obvious conflict” because of the overlapping allegations and investigations that led to the probe of Paxton.
Eight of Paxton’s senior staff accused him of crimes in 2020 after the attorney general hired an outside lawyer to look into an Austin real-estate developer’s claims of wrongdoing by FBI agents and federal prosecutors who were separately investigating the developer. Those agents and lawyers are part of the same federal prosecutorial district as the ones who came to investigate Paxton.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Cogdell. He said federal officials had not informed him of the move and declined to comment further.
The overlap was known to officials within the Justice Department and publicly reported on by the AP within weeks of Paxton’s staff going to the FBI. Nonetheless, the agency left the investigation to be led by a career federal prosecutor based in San Antonio, who was previously best known for winning a money laundering and fraud case against a Democratic state senator.
It’s good and more than a little interesting to get an update on this story, especially given that I was despairing about the lack of information just a few days ago. I was a bit puzzled by this at first because I have thought about the probe into Paxton’s dealings with Nate Paul – which among other things led to the whole whistleblower saga and the settlement of same that just happened – as an “FBI investigation”. For sure, the FBI is a key player, but of course there is a prosecutor associated with it as well. Someone – several someones, really – has to believe that there may be a viable prosecution at the end of this, or it would be terminated, as there are other fish to be fried. The original someone was in the San Antonio office of the US Attorney, but as noted that office is also investigating Nate Paul, and since Paxton is an elected official there could be a conflict of interest there. To be honest, I’m unclear what that might be – either there’s evidence of a crime or there’s not – but if it’s the norm for these matters to be overseen in Washington by the Justice Department instead of by the local USA, then fine.
Two points to mention here. One is that this is evidence that the investigation in question is still active, and if the unnamed sources are to be believed, there is a future in which Paxton faces federal indictment, which should be a lot harder for him to stonewall and weasel out of, at least without an ally in the White House who can put a thumb on the scale for him. When that might be, God and maybe Merrick Garland only know. But at least it’s still out there. The fear was that the investigation had come to an end, as these things sometimes do, with nothing to show for it and no reason to make a news story of it.
And two, one way of reading this story is that it’s a story in the first place because the long-stonewalled prosecutors of the state case against Paxton mentioned it to a reporter. Maybe the AP heard about this transfer of the investigation on their own and reached out to Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer for a comment even though they don’t have anything to do with the federal case. It’s a plausible interpretation, they’d surely say something if they had something to say, and everyone knows about the state case that has dragged on since approximately the second Reagan administration. I just find it curious enough to wonder. For sure, getting this out there now, right after the whistleblower case was settled and Paxton got to do a bit of a victory dance, was a way to remind everyone that he still faces a lot of potential trouble, and maybe dampens his mood a little. I am 100% speculating here, I could be completely off base. I’m just saying this is what came to mind when I read that paragraph.