Paxton Emerges From Seclusion, Faces Senate Skeptics
Embattled Texas Attorney General appeared Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee
Embattled (to put it mildly) Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made an unavoidable public appearance Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee that's marking up his agency's proposed budget for the upcoming biennium. While the panel stayed mostly within the confines of its mandate, without unleashing the full public dragging Paxton may still have coming if he's indicted or impeached, skeptical senators in both parties did not let their opportunity to look askance at Paxton's recent antics go to waste.
Paxton served one session in the Texas Senate (in 2013), and his wife Angela currently represents that same Collin County seat, though she's not on Senate Finance, which would be awkward. But there remains some collegiality between Paxton and the Lege, and even veteran Democrats Royce West and John Whitmire could have gone harder on the A.G., who despite his election-stealing bravado is flustered and defensive when speaking in public, even in less tense circumstances. Nevertheless, points were made in Paxton's closely watched spin in the barrel.
The Office of the Attorney General, in the budget bill (Senate Bill 1) as laid out by Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, following the recommendations of the Legislative Budget Board, takes an $89 million hit, losing 154 of its more than 4,000 employees – well beyond the 5% across-the-board reduction mandated by the LBB in response to COVID-19, and deeper than the cuts proposed for most other agencies in the wake of Comptroller Glenn Hegar's not- totally-awful revenue estimate. Paxton came asking for some of those funds back, which opened him up to side-eye queries from Nelson and state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston: What happened to all the high-priced rock star lawyers you hired, and we agreed to pay for, in past years? (They've been ousted in the wake of a whistleblower complaint accusing Paxton of misconduct regarding his curious relationship with Austin real estate magnate Nate Paul.) Why do we now need to spend millions of extra dollars to help wage an antitrust suit against Google? (And, from Whitmire: Why are we suing Google? Paxton did not really have a cogent answer.) What about this money you just announced the state is getting from McKinsey and Co. as part of the multiheaded, enormous opioid settlement? (Huffman had to inform Paxton's new No. 2, Brett Webster, that she wrote the laws governing how the A.G. deals with such cases in the wake of the tobacco settlement scandals that sent Paxton's predecessor Dan Morales to jail.) Who authorized an off-the-books $300/hour agreement with "special prosecutor" Brandon Cammack in the Paul case? The senators stayed out of that last rabbit hole – Nate Paul's name was not mentioned – but they did lay out reasons for Paxton to perhaps be ashamed, noting that programs to combat sexual assault and child abuse in his office are facing funding shortfalls while his extracurricular activities with Paul, whatever else they may be, are costing the state money.
Nelson and Huffman kept to themselves their thoughts on Paxton's other recent escapades – suing other states to further MAGA fantasies of widespread fraud and getting poured out by the U.S. Supreme Court, and then (with Angela) warming up the crowd at the pre-riot Trump rally on Jan. 6. While other GOP senators on the panel are pretty MAGA themselves, they did not offer Paxton any backup as Whitmire and West went in deep, as West had warned the A.G. he would do. How was suing Pennsylvania in the interests of the state of Texas? (Because Texas voters were "disenfranchised" by other states allowing Biden to win.) Were you in D.C. on Jan. 6 on state business? (He said yes, on some unrelated Medicaid matter, and that he and Angela only "briefly" appeared at the pre-riot.) And, after Nelson pulled the reins to get back to the budget: How much did this cost? (Apparently, only about $12,000.)
Paxton, whom all these senators know doesn't have a firm grip on the business of his agency, brought Webster and Chief of Staff Lesley French, each on the job only a couple of months, to answer some of these easy-to-anticipate questions. Webster said that Cammack – a lightly qualified young attorney with connections to Paul's attorney Michael Wynne – had actually been hired by the Travis County District Attorney's Office, which completely contradicts prior statements from Paxton, Wynne, and former D.A. Margaret Moore. We'll see how that checks out.