NORTH TEXAS (CBSNewsTexas.com) — Attorney General Ken Paxton is back on the job after the Republican majority in the Texas Senate cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Over the course of his two-week trial, Paxton's former top deputies—all conservatives he hired—testified that he abused the power of his office to help campaign donor Nate Paul and himself at the public's expense.
The attorney general's impeachment and acquittal are both historic: he's only the third state official to be impeached and the only one not convicted.
In this week's episode of Eye on Politics, Jack Fink breaks down the key moments in the impeachment trial and how this historic event in our state's history will continue to shape Texas politics.
Every week, CBS News Texas political reporter Jack Fink breaks down some of the biggest political stories grabbing headlines in North Texas and beyond. Watch the latest episode of Eye on Politics in the video player above and stream new episodes live every Thursday and Friday at 6 p.m. on CBS News Texas.
Paxton speaks out
After being reinstated as Attorney General, Ken Paxton did interviews with a number of conservative outlets. Among them, Tucker Carlson on X, where he blamed the Biden Administration, Texas Democrats, and Speaker Dade Phelan for initiating the impeachment process against him.
"We were causing a lot of trouble for the Biden administration even if we didn't win, we slowed them down. We were winning 77% of our cases, so we were a huge problem for the Biden administration, and that was the way to get me out of the way. Dade Phelan, the Speaker, is controlled by the Democrats. The House investigating committee, there's five members, three Republicans, two Democrats and the Texas House they are responsible for, they were the ones who investigated me, and they hired, I think four lawyers, two of them came from the Biden DOJ, that's not an accident, they were sent there."
All about the math
Attorney General Ken Paxton wasn't in the Senate chamber to watch senators vote on his political future. Aside from acquitting Paxton of all 16 impeachment articles considered, senators also dropped the remaining four articles against him.
It all came down to math.
Thirty senators voted.
The attorney general's wife, Senator Angela Paxton of McKinney, was barred from voting because of the conflict of interest. But the Texas Constitution required her to attend the trial and be in the chamber. Because of that, her presence was counted toward the two-thirds majority needed for a conviction.
That was 21 votes.
All 12 Democrats chose to convict Paxton, which means they would have needed nine Republicans to join them.
A source told CBS News Texas senators came close to meeting that 21-vote threshold. We've learned 20 senators, including eight Republicans, were ready to convict Paxton and four others were on the fence.
When they didn't reach 21, Republicans backed away. In the end, only two Republicans, Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville joined Democrats in voting to convict Paxton.
Nichols issued a statement that reads in part:
"The oath I swore, to render a true verdict based on the evidence presented, did not leave room for politics or second guessing. I have—and always will—vote for what I believe is right."
Democratic Senator Nathan Johnson of Dallas praised Hancock and Nichols, saying, "They voted their conscience, and they voted their intellect, and they were careful. They were courageous."
He was among the Democrats who bashed the outcome, calling it disappointing.
"The Office of the Attorney General has been removed from boundaries of political ethics that we cannot reach the right result because of political pressure," Johnson said.
"Ken Paxton is a crook," said Senator Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat, shortly after the vote was conducted Saturday. "Half of those Republicans that voted today thought long and hard and ultimately in the end, they got pressure from outside influences. And whether the pressure came in phone calls or just the harsh reality that if they voted to convict Ken Paxton, they would lose their race. That is the absolute truth."
Democratic Senator Royce West of Dallas said he's also concerned Paxton's acquittal lowers the bar of what the public can expect for fitness for office in the future.
"What the majority said today was the message that irrespective of his behavior, he's still fit for office and it's OK," West said.
Republicans needed 10 votes to acquit Paxton. They already had six votes before any testimony was given: Bob Hall, Tan Parker, Paul Bettencourt, Donna Campbell, Brandon Creighton and Lois Kolkhorst. These senators supported Paxton's motion to dismiss all the impeachment articles on the first day of the trial.
Senator Bob Hall criticized the House after the verdict, saying they rushed the impeachment investigation and wasted millions of dollars. "I voted for dismissal on all of this because the procedure was not followed, and we should never have had the trial."
Sen. Paxton issued a statement this week, saying in part:
"I wholeheartedly affirm the Senate's decision to acquit. Had I been allowed to vote, I would have cast my vote with those who acquitted on each and every article, and also with the six senators who voted affirmatively on the motions to dismiss presented at the beginning of the proceedings. I am incredibly grateful for the outpouring of personal support and encouragement that I have received over the past five months."
Republican State Representative Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, one of the lawmakers who oversaw the House investigation into Paxton and one of the House impeachment managers, said he wasn't happy with the trial outcome.
He told CBS News Texas, "I don't agree with the Senate's verdict, but I have to live with it."
Geren also blasted Paxton for not taking the stand in his own defense at trial. "He had the opportunity to testify at his own trial. He chose not to be at the trial. Not to be there. And all along, he said he wanted to tell his side of the story. He had that opportunity; he never took it." Jack question: "It sounds like that really bothered you, the fact that he wasn't there to listen to any of the testimony." Geren: "It bothers me that he decided that he didn't need to tell his side of the story after he'd been railing about that the entire time."
The attorney general's attorneys also praised the verdict, saying Paxton is ready to get back to work.
Key trial moments
Over the course of the trial's nine days, there were a number of key moments.
Some centered on the impeachment article accusing Paxton of constitutional bribery. House prosecutors said Paxton benefited from real estate developer Nate Paul hiring his alleged mistress in exchange for giving Paul specialized access to the attorney general's office.
Lawyers for the House impeachment managers called Laura Olson, the alleged mistress, to testify. But ultimately, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presided over the trial, announced she didn't have to.
So what happened?
This week, the lead attorney for the House, Rusty Hardin, told CBS News Texas that Olson was going to take the fifth. Hardin said they didn't believe she should have that protection because she wasn't in legal jeopardy. But Patrick overruled the House.
Earlier in the trial, Missy Cary, Paxton's former chief of staff, testified that Paxton's alleged affair had upset the staff and that in 2018, Paxton apologized to the staff in a meeting with Sen. Paxton.
But the next summer, Cary said she had another conversation with Paxton when she became aware the alleged affair was ongoing.
"He was frustrated I didn't understand he still loved Ms. Olson and he wanted to work it out with me," she said.
A lawyer for the House asked her what she took that to mean.
"For me to be more accommodating as far as the security detail, the travel aides," Cary answered.
Paxton's former assistant, Andrew Wicker, testified that he and his dad saw the attorney general and Olson together at an Austin hotel in the summer of 2020.
"My father and I heard a lively discussion [coming from behind elevator doors], to be clear—not adversarial, just lively," Wicker said. "Whenever the doors opened, two individuals exited. One was General Paxton. He was in workout attire, and he told us he was going to the gym. The other individual was in a dress and high heels and exited rather quickly."
Paxton's former top deputies said it was part of a pattern.
"I believed, based on my experience over the previous nine months, that the attorney general had abandoned his obligation to work on behalf of the interests of the people of Texas to serve the interests of one person, Nate Paul," said Ryan Bangert, one of the whistleblowers.
At one point, Mark Penley, Paxton's former top prosecutor testified about a meeting he attended with the attorney general and Paul.
"Mr. Paul acted like we didn't understand who the real boss was," Penley said. "It wasn't the attorney general, it was him."
A major flashpoint came when another top deputy, Ryan Vassar, said he and others had no other choice but to report their concerns to the FBI three years ago. He said they were concerned Paxton's actions to benefit Paul would only become more extreme and they would potentially be labeled co-conspirators.
Under cross-examination, Paxton's lawyer Mitch Little challenged Vassar about the evidence they brought to the FBI.
"That's the point of the good faith belief, as we had no evidence that we could point to, but we had reasonable conclusions that we could draw," Vassar said.
"You went to the FBI and reported the attorney general to the state with no evidence, do I have that correct?" Little questioned.
"We reported the facts to the FBI," Vassar responded.
The next morning, attorneys for the House asked Vassar to clarify what he meant.
"My opinion is our experiences were evidence," Vassar said. "But we did not conduct our own investigation to provide documentary evidence of what we had come to learn."
Paxton's attorneys accused the former top deputies of trying to conduct a coup and topple the attorney general, an accusation they denied.
The Attorney General remains under federal investigation and still faces a trial on state securities fraud charges first filed against him in 2015.
He has denied any wrongdoing.
While the impeachment trial is over, the political fall-out isn't and the friction between Republican leaders in the House and Senate continues to grow more intense.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick criticized House Speaker Dade Phelan moments after the verdicts were read. "The Speaker and his team rammed through the first impeachment of a statewide official in Texas in over 100 years while paying no attention to the precedent that the House set in every other impeachment before. Our founders expected better. It should never have happened this year and hopefully, it doesn't happen again unless we address it in the Constitution."
Speaker Phelan responded in a statement, "I find it deeply concerning that after weeks of claiming he would preside over this trial in an impartial and honest manner, Lt. Governor Patrick would conclude by confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people's House on full display. To be clear, Patrick attacked the House for standing up against corruption."
We interviewed Michael Williams, former Texas Railroad Commissioner and former Texas Education Agency Commissioner, about the hostility between the two Republican leaders and its potential impact on the legislature going forward.
Williams was the first African-American elected statewide official in Texas.
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