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Why is Ken Paxton getting impeached? What to know about the case against the Texas attorney general

Ken Paxton's impeachment trial: What you need to know
Ken Paxton's impeachment trial: What you need to know 22:07

NORTH TEXAS ( — After a consequential impeachment, suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton will face a trial in the Senate that begins Sept. 5. 

This impeachment is historic. Paxton is only the third Texas official, and second statewide, to be impeached. If convicted, he will be permanently removed from office and may also be prevented from ever holding office in Texas again. 

In this special edition of Eye on Politics, we break down what to expect from the impeachment trial, who the key players are and what the fallout could be when it's all said and done. 

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 7 p.m. on CBS News Texas.

How did we get here?

The impeachment of Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton was historic, and so is his upcoming trial in the Senate. 

Paxton is only the third Texas official, and second statewide, to be impeached. And the road to this point has been complicated. 

It happened Memorial Day Weekend, the final weekend of the regular legislative session. In a 121-23 vote, the Texas House of Representatives voted to impeach Paxton. 

Texas Attorney General Impeachment
Voting boards are lit with a majority of green lights as the house votes to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton, in the House Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, Saturday, May 27, 2023. Eric Gay / AP

"Today is a grim and very difficult day for this House," Republican Texas Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro said at the time. 

The 20 articles of impeachment against Paxton include allegations of abuse of public trust, being unfit for office, dereliction of duty and constitutional bribery.

In short, Paxton is accused of abusing his office to benefit an Austin real estate developer who donated $25,000 to his campaign and himself. 

Paxton's path to impeachment began nearly three years ago, in October of 2020. That's when eight of the top officials in the attorney general's office, hand-picked by Paxton, sent a letter to their human resources department, in which they accused the Paxton of violating federal law, including allegations of bribery.

In that letter, Paxton's top officials said they notified law enforcement and sent Paxton himself a text. 

The FBI in Austin began investigating Paxton. That ultimately led the attorney general to fire his deputies after calling them "rogue employees".

Four of them filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the attorney general's office.

Fast forward to this year. The attorney general's office announced on Feb. 10 that it agreed to settle the whistleblower lawsuit for $3.3 million, with the money coming from taxpayers. 

This didn't sit well with Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, who we interviewed on Feb. 15

"Mr. Paxton is going to have to come to the Texas House," Phelan said at the time. "He'll have to appear before the House Appropriations Committee and make the case to that committee as to why that is proper use of taxpayers' dollars ... I don't think it's proper use of taxpayers' dollars."

On Feb. 21, nearly a week later, Paxton and his office asked the House for $3.3 million in taxpayer dollars to settle the case

During that hearing, Democratic Texas Rep. Javis Johnson of Houston asked if Paxton would be willing to put campaign funds toward the settlement. 

The attorney general didn't answer any questions about the proposed settlement agreement, but his office's litigation chief Chris Hilton spoke with lawmakers, telling them that Paxton isn't liable under state law — the Office of the Attorney General is. 

What was unknown to Paxton and most lawmakers at the time, the attorney general's request sparked a secret investigation by the House General Investigating Committee in March. 

On May 23, the committee went public with its investigation into Paxton's proposed settlement with the whistleblowers. It was officially known as Matter A.  

One day later, on May 24, the Texas House General Investigating Committee laid out their findings into allegations against Paxton. Investigators explained the settlement with whistleblowers would keep the case from going to trial and keep details of the allegations against Paxton out of public view. 

The committee recommended 20 articles of impeachment against him. Paxton blasted the impeachment articles the next day in a rare on-camera statement before Texas reporters: 

"By proceeding with the illegal impeachment scheme to overturn a decision made by Texas voters just a few short months ago, corrupt politicians in the Texas House are demonstrating their blind loyalty to Speaker Dade Phelan is more important than upholding their oath of office," Paxton said.

He walked out without taking reporters' questions.

Paxton isn't just facing an impeachment trial; he's also under federal investigation and has been for nearly three years. According to the Austin-American Statesman, a grand jury is looking into his ties to an Austin real estate developer who is under federal indictment in a separate case. 

Paxton also faces a long-delayed securities fraud trial.

Learn more about the history of that case in the timeline below.

Key players

Here's a look at some of the people you'll need to know to understand how the trial is set up. 

There are two parties to the impeachment trial: the first is suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The other party — the House Board of Managers. This is a group of seven Republicans and five Democrats who act as the prosecution. 

The House Board of Managers will act as the prosecution during the Impeachment Trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton. CBS News Texas

Republican Andrew Murr of Junction will serve as chair. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat, will serve as vice chair. 

A few North Texans are among the other 10 managers: Republicans Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Jeff Leach of Plano, David Spiller of Jacksboro and Morgan Meyer of University Park.

The House Board of Managers will also be represented by three heavyweight prosecutors.

Dick Deguirin's list of former clients includes some big names — such as former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and New York real estate mogul Robert Durst. 

Rusty Hardin has also represented high-profile clients, including NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson and the estate of Houston billionaire J. Howard Marshall in a case against former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith. 

The third attorney on the team, Harriet O'Neill, served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court for more than a decade.

On the other side, two prominent lawyers from Houston are defending Paxton. 

Tony Buzbee notably represented former Gov. Rick Perry in a 2015 case over abuse of office charges, which was ultimately dismissed. 

Dan Cogdell, the other attorney on the defense team, represented Branch Davidian Clive Doyle in the aftermath of the Waco ambush and represents Paxton in the state's securities fraud case against him.

Also on Paxton's defense team are six lawyers from the attorney general's office.

Senators will act as the jury in the impeachment trial. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as president of the Senate, will act as the court's presiding officer.

How the trial will play out

While experts say impeachment is purely political, the trial will look a lot like a court case. The House Board of Managers or their lawyers will make an opening statement. Paxton's lawyers can make their opening statement right after or when they present their own case after prosecutors finish. Each side can cross-examine witnesses. 

The trial will be streamed and open for the public to see. But senators, who are the jurors, will deliberate in private. The senators will vote on each article separately and will do so publicly in the chamber, standing up when they're called to say how they will vote. 

The House Impeachment Managers must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

CBS News Texas

There are 31 rules in place approved by the Senate.

One rule that made national headlines involves the attorney general's wife, Republican Sen. Angela Paxton of McKinney. Because she is married to the attorney general, senators found she has a conflict of interest and as a result, is not allowed to be an active juror in the case. 

"She is not allowed to vote on any matter," said appellate attorney David Coale, who is not involved in the case. "Not just the ultimate vote, but any procedural point that comes up along the way."

Even so, her position as state senator could become helpful in her husband's defense. 

  Sen. Angela Paxton is not allowed to vote on any matter in the impeachment trial of her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton. Even so, her position as a State Senator could become helpful to her husband's defense.  CBS News Texas

By the numbers, following rules set by the State Constitution, two-thirds of senators are needed to convict Attorney General Paxton. Because Sen. Paxton can't vote, there will only be 30 senators who can decide Attorney General Paxton's future. 

But Sen. Paxton is still required to attend the trial, so all 31 Senators will be counted. That raises the two-thirds threshold needed to convict Paxton from 20 to 21. 

"The higher the threshold, the harder it gets and sometimes one vote is all the difference in the case," Coale said. 

During the trial, Lt. Gov. Patrick will decide on a number of issues. 

One major rule he has already imposed has been a gag order. It covers Paxton, his lawyers, the House Impeachment Managers and their attorneys, along with senators considering the case, House members and potential witnesses in the trial. They aren't allowed to make any statements that could damage the Senate's ability to hold a fair and impartial trial, which is required by the Texas Constitution. 

One of Paxton's key supporters, conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze of Houston, filed a lawsuit against the gag order, claiming it violates free speech. Coale told CBS News Texas he doesn't expect the lawsuit to go anywhere.

"This is not something the courts have jurisdiction over," Coale said. "The Constitution puts the responsibility to conduct impeachment squarely on the House and Senate."

At the beginning of the trial, Paxton will have to enter a plea on each article of impeachment. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and will likely plead not guilty.

What each side has said

From the start, Paxton and his legal team have sharply criticized the impeachment, calling it a sham. Paxton has argued his reelection to a third term last November is reason enough to dismiss all of the articles of impeachment against him. He said it shows voters knew about the allegations surrounding him and voted for him anyway. 

"They are showcasing their absolute contempt for the electoral process," he said about House members in a public statement one day before they impeached him. 

His legal team also said the House didn't have evidence to support the impeachment articles.

"The impeachment articles that have been laid out by the House are baloney," Buzbee said during a June news conference in Austin. "When I read the 20 articles of impeachment, my first thought was these are worthless and weak."

In their response, House Impeachment Managers said:

"Paxton can run, but he cannot hide. The Senate trial is fast approaching, and both the Senate and the public are not fully aware of how bad Paxton's actions really were."

The House then released nearly 4,000 pages of documents from their investigation into Paxton.  

The attorney general is accused of abusing the power of his office to benefit himself and Nate Paul, a campaign donor who was under federal investigation and later indicted in an unrelated case

Coale, the appellate attorney, said the House Manager's rebuttal here is that voters did not know all about the allegations against Paxton.

"They may have known some things, but they certainly didn't know the whole story. That's a powerful argument."

Even though these aren't criminal charges, Paxton is accused of constitutional bribery in two of the 20 articles. In one of them, the House said Paul paid for renovations to the attorney general's house in Austin.

The documents from House impeachment managers show an email from the contractor doing the work on Paxton's house to Paul with photos of the work being done. 

Documents from House Impeachment Managers show an email from the contractor doing the work on Paxton's house to Nate Paul with photos of the work being done.  House Board of Managers' Exhibits

Paxton's executive assistant Andrew Wicker told House investigators that he was there when Paxton and the contractor spoke about placing a different countertop in the kitchen, which he believed was "an additional 20 grand or something."

Wicker said he heard the contractor say, "I will check with Nate."

Days later, Wicker said he asked Paxton about it directly, saying he had heard the conversation and it had made him uncomfortable because it came off as "an arrangement in which Nate Paul might have been taking part in the home renovations."

Wicker said Paxton said he appreciated him bringing the concerns up, but he assure him that was not the case. 

Documents from the House Impeachment Managers show the contractor doing the work on Paxton's house emailed photos of the work to Paul and a man named Raj at the same company. 

Records provided by Impeachment Managers show on Oct. 1, 2020, Paxton wired more than $121,000 to Cupertino Builders, a firm whose corporate officer is Raj, who's described as "a friend and employee of Nate Paul's."

House Board of Managers' Exhibits

The House says Cupertino Builders wasn't authorized to do business at the time.

That same day, Oct. 1, 2020, House records show Paxton's top hand-picked lieutenants in the office sent him a test telling him they "made a good faith report of violations of law by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority" concerning his relationship and activities with Paul.

The other impeachment article in which Paxton is accused of constitutional bribery involves Paul hiring a woman with whom "Paxton was having an extramarital affair." The House has said this made it easier for Paxton to see the woman, because she moved to Austin from San Antonio. 

The documents accuse the Attorney General of using an Uber account under a fake name, a secret personal email account and burner phones to hide his alleged affair and the extent of his relationship with Paul.

House Impeachment Managers also said "Paxton frequently ditched his security detail so he could meet with Paul and others" and that "Uber records reflect drivers picked up Paxton under the alias of 'Dave P' a block from his home and ferried him to his lover's or Paul's properties more than a dozen times" in 2020. 

In exchange, Paxton is accused of providing Paul with "favorable legal assistance from or specialized access to" the Office of the Attorney General. Specifically, House documents say Paxton used his office to interfere with a federal investigation into Paul, among other things.

Paxton's lawyers blasted the large number of documents that were released, saying: 

"House managers and counsel have engaged in a vindictive campaign to destroy the Attorney General's reputation under the guise of secretive proceedings, abusing the impeachment process, attorney-client privilege, this court's gag order, and the voting public's trust in our system of government."  

"They can't just let it sit out there, and it's going to be along the lines of this is just personal stuff that's being thrown out there to make the man look bad," Coale said. "The problem, though, is that connection back to the underlying relationship with Mr. Paul, and that's where I think the House Managers are going to try to keep this going as the case heads into trial."

The political fallout

When House members first heard details of the 20 articles of impeachment against Attorney General Paxton, Republican Texas Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth dropped a bombshell: 

"I would like to point out that several members of this House while on the floor of the House doing state business, received telephone calls from General Paxton personally threatening them with political consequences in their next election."

Geren didn't identify the lawmakers he accused Paxton of making the threats. The attorney general's office didn't respond to our email requesting comment. 

But text messages obtained by CBS News Texas between Michelle Smith, one of Paxton's assistants at the Office of the Attorney General, and Republican Texas Rep. Jeff Leach of Allen, show there were hard feelings over this matter. 

Back in February, when Paxton asked state lawmakers to fund the $3.3 million settlement with four whistleblowers he fired, Leach told reporters he was troubled by it and wanted a hearing. 

In a text message to Smith, Leach said: 

"I won't be talked out of doing my job and fulfilling my oath."

In text messages back to Leach, Smith replied: 

"I stood in 108 degree weather to get you elected. Never forget that. You want to go against me go ahead."

It was Paxton's request for money to settle the whistleblower lawsuit, House members say, that led to their investigation and the impeachment.  

Some of Paxton's supporter's are targeting Republican House members who voted to impeach the attorney general.

Texas Attorney General's Office

Texas Rep. Glenn Rogers of Graford is among the majority of House members and Republicans who sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate. A conservative group, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, put up a billboard around Rogers' House district in Parker, Palo Pinto and Stephens counties, saying he voted with 61 Democrats. 

"This is something our PAC has done consistently with liberal Republicans wherever they are in the state," said Luke Macias, director of Defend Texas Liberty PAC. 

Analysts say there is also political pressure on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who's close to Paxton, and who will preside over the impeachment trial. 

"I have to protect the jury," Patrick said during a one-on-one interview with CBS News Texas in July. "I have to keep this a fair trial. The defendant deserves a fair trial."

Political reporter Jack Fink asked Patrick about a Texas Tribune report that showed he received a $1 million contribution and a $2 million loan from Defend Texas Liberty PAC.

"There are people on many sides of this case who contribute to Senators and my campaign," he said. "And so, we will all take an oath of impartiality and that's not an issue whatsoever."

Republican Texas Rep. Justin Holland of Heath, who also voted to impeach Paxton, said the impeachment is dividing the party: 

"There is a rift and it's unfortunate. I think what we should do as Republicans is focus on the victories that we've been able to do."

Follow CBS News Texas for impeachment trial coverage

Ken Paxton's impeachment trial will begin Sept. 5. We will have crews in Austin, bringing us coverage all day on air and online. 

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