Suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton has retained for his upcoming Senate impeachment trial two top Houston defense attorneys, who will be assisted by six of his employees who took leaves of absence to help, including four of his top aides.
But a key question remains unanswered: How will they all be paid?
Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee, who will lead Paxton’s defense, on Wednesday told reporters at a news conference he himself was “not being paid by the public.”
“That’s all you need to know,” Buzbee said, without clarifying if that meant his paycheck would come from Paxton’s personal checkbook, his campaign account, a legal defense fund or some other source.
Dan Cogdell, a Houston lawyer who represents Paxton in his securities fraud case, on Wednesday did not immediately respond to an emailed question about how he’ll be paid.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not respond to questions about the agency employees who are on temporary leave to help their boss hold onto his job.
Legal and government ethics experts said how all of these lawyers will be paid is extremely important.
“Ethically speaking, there’s a lot up in the air,” said political attorney Andrew Cates, an expert in Texas campaign finance and ethics laws. “If we want to all be sure that his attorneys are being paid in the correct way, then we should have some sunlight on those payments.”
Jeremi Suri, professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin, said from a good government perspective, the only ethical answer would be for Paxton to pay those attorneys with his own personal funds.
“He is being accused of personal misconduct — he must defend himself personally,” he said. “He got into this trouble because he was trying to have the state pay for his personal misconduct.”
The rules are clearer when it comes to the use of campaign cash in this situation, experts said.
The state ethics commission has ruled that under the state’s election laws, elected officials can use campaign contributions to pay their legal expenses if they are brought against them in their status as an officeholder. The laws say that is not considered a personal use.
Paxton has about $2.3 million on-hand in his campaign coffers, campaign finance records show.
While going that route may be legal, it still may not inspire public confidence, Suri said.
“There’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical,” Suri said. “The ethics are pretty clear on this. When you’re a public servant, you should never take private goods from someone with a private interest. Because then you have created favoritism where you owe them something in return.”
Another route Paxton may take — and one which he’s used in the past — would be to accept donations to a legal defense fund.
“That’s more of a strategic decision than anything else,” Cates said. “Because if he intends to run again, he may want to keep that campaign fund whole.”
In 2016, Paxton raised more than half a million dollars from “family friends” to help fund his legal fees related to his now almost eight-year-old felony securities fraud indictment.
That situation differed from his impeachment defense because the charges were unrelated to his official duties.
As for who’s paying Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, the story doesn’t go into that but those two are basically special prosecutors and state law covers how those folks are paid, modulo any shenanigans from the Collin County Commissioners Court. The state is picking up their tab with a prescribed fee schedule. It’s totally appropriate. I would have said it would be appropriate for the state to also pay for the equivalent of a public defender for Paxton, but that person would be provided by the state, not Paxton’s choice. I don’t know if that’s an option, but maybe it should be. Something for the Lege to consider before the next impeachment, I suppose.