Now midway through the legislative session, Paxton and state lawmakers are at a standstill, and taxpayers are caught in the middle.
Lawmakers have so far declined to include the settlement money in any budget bills, while Paxton argues that the agreement would ultimately save taxpayers from funding a lengthy court case that may end with a higher price tag.
The whistleblowers’ accusations have prompted an ongoing Department of Justice investigation of Paxton, who has denied any wrongdoing. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Political experts say the Legislature’s reluctance to embrace the agreement could be a tactic to pressure Paxton to either pay for the settlement himself or answer for the corruption allegations in court.
“It’s like the Legislature is telling Paxton that this is his problem to take care of,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “This is as close as Paxton will come to a political sanction from his party for his actions. … The party is not going to directly say that they think that he’s done wrong, but they certainly don’t want to be on the hook to foot the bill.”
Lawmakers suggested at a budget hearing last month that Paxton should use his own campaign funds to settle the case, as the state’s election laws allow. But a Paxton staffer interjected, noting that whistleblower laws hold the office accountable, not the officeholder.
As of January, Paxton had $2.3 million in his campaign war chest and $1.3 million in outstanding loans. He would have to fundraise to pay off the rest of the settlement — a “horrific” option for the attorney general, Rottinghaus said.
The whistleblowers on Wednesday requested that the Texas Supreme Court lift its temporary pause on the case. If Paxton and the whistleblowers remain at an impasse through the end of legislative session in May, they’ll all head back to court.
Chris Hilton, the general litigation division chief and a lawyer for Paxton, accused the whistleblowers on Thursday of trying to “undo the agreement by filing a misleading brief with the Texas Supreme Court, all the while coordinating with the media to create drama.”
“We’ll continue to seek a cost-efficient resolution, even while the plaintiffs needlessly drag this process out,” Hilton said.
Turner pushed back on that claim, pointing to a court filing by the attorney general’s office in which Paxton’s attorneys agreed that “should the parties prove unable to obtain funding,” they would jointly ask the Texas Supreme Court to resume the case.
“As we negotiated the formal agreement, the attorney general backtracked and would not agree to a deadline for legislative approval,” Turner said. “Anyone reading this can easily decide for themselves who is being misleading and who is dragging this process out.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Paxton is essentially giving the Legislature an ultimatum: “‘Pay to clean up my mess, or as I stall on this set of corruption charges brought against me by my former employees, that could sum up to a great deal more than $3.3 million.’”
The only reason the attorney general’s staff knows the cost could be higher, Jillson said, “is because they intend to stretch this thing out as far as possible.”
With two months left in the legislative session, there’s still plenty of time for lawmakers to change their minds, but it’s a touchy subject.
See here for the background. I remain fine with the stance that the Lege has taken so far, however doubtful I am about their resolve. Put simply, don’t bail out Ken Paxton. I recognize that this puts a burden on the whistleblowers, who did us all a favor by coming forward like this, and I regret that they are caught in the middle. I also maintain that approving the settlement and cutting the AG’s budget by an equivalent (or greater!) amount would be fine, but I have yet to see any suggestion of that in any of these stories. Changing the law to allow Paxton to pay this with his campaign funds might be OK, and there are other ideas that could work. All I care is that no one takes Paxton off the hook. If that means the taxpayers face a bigger payout down the line, so be it. The point is that he should own it all. The Trib has more.