Ethics experts on Wednesday were torn over whether Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s decision to accept $100,000 for his legal defense from a donor whose company was under investigation by his office violates the letter of the law or the spirit of it.
The attorney general’s office argued the donation is allowable because the embattled Paxton was not involved in the investigation that ended in a $3.5 million settlement of a federal whistleblower lawsuit.
State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight and generally bans gifts from anyone other than family and those with a relationship independent of the office holder’s position. The revelation that Paxton’s office was investigating his benefactor’s company raises questions about defining “oversight” and “personal relationship,” ethics advocates said.
“When you start talking about receiving money from somebody that you still have jurisdiction over in a lawsuit, you just can’t do that,” said Buck Wood, an Austin elections lawyer and Texas ethics expert.
Agency employees in the attorney general’s office “shall never” take gifts from an entity “the employee knows is being investigated” by the office, according to internal rules obtained by the Associated Press.
Last year, Paxton accepted the gift from Preferred Imaging founder James Webb, whose company was under investigation at the time for Medicaid fraud. The attorney general’s Texas Civil Medicaid Fraud Division and the U.S. Justice Department in June co-signed a $3.5 million settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the company of violating Medicaid billing rules.
“The ethics laws are fuzzy. It’s not clear this is a violation of the law,” said [Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice], who said he hopes lawmakers will address the state’s gift ban next legislative session. “Clearly, it’s a violation of judgement and it clearly, no doubt, poses a conflict of interest between the attorney general and Mr. Webb’s company.”
The good news for Ken Paxton is that this apparently doesn’t amount to an actual violation of law or regulation, so there’s no grounds for another complaint and investigation. It’s just another example of how his ethical failings have had a negative effect on his ability to do his job. One supposes he’s used to dealing with that by now. Ross Ramsey, the Associated Press, and the Current have more.