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Is Ken Paxton a crook or a patsy? That’s up to the Texas Senate to decide

Three men in suits and ties at a table. The two on the left are laughing.
Sam Owens
San Antonio Express-News (pool)
Suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, sits between defense attorneys Tony Buzbee and Mitch Little at the beginning of the ninth day of his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber on Friday.

Is Ken Paxton a wholesome elected official who’s been targeted by the legendary Bush family after he defeated one of their own? Or is he a selfish, self-described untouchable official who uses his office to benefit him and a select few?

That’s how attorneys characterized Paxton during closing arguments Friday morning in the impeachment case against the suspended Texas attorney general.

Friday capped off nearly two weeks of witness testimony in the case alleging the three-term Republican abused his office and committed bribery, among other infractions, to benefit a real estate developer and campaign donor. Paxton has been suspended from office since May when the Texas House voted overwhelmingly to impeach the three-term statewide official.

The trial has included testimony from several former Paxton deputies who reported their boss to federal law enforcement officials for allegedly abusing his office to aid Nate Paul, a friend and campaign donor who was being investigated for charges separate from what Paxton is accused of.

Closing arguments opened when state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, the chairman of the board of House managers that indicted Paxton, told senators that although Paxton likes to say he was reelected into office with the overwhelming support of the Texas electorate, he’s used his position to benefit only one person.

“Mr. Paxton's attorneys like to remind everyone that he was elected by 4.2 million voters, but they have blindly ignored the fact that he has ultimately ended up serving one person: himself,” Murr said.

Murr argued Paxton eventually used his power to aid Paul, whom previous witnesses described as having a hold over him.

“When it came to Nate Paul, Ken Paxton abandoned and betrayed his trust and knowledgeable staff, his conservative principles, and his commitment to family values, the law and his oath of office,” Murr said. “He repeatedly demanded that his top deputies act as Nate Paul's personal lawyers and not the state's lawyers.”

Murr also reminded senators that Paxton asked Texas taxpayers to foot the bill for a $3 million settlement he entered into with whistleblowers that sued Paxton and accused him of violating state whistleblower laws. Murr has previously said that the request was what prompted the House committee to investigate what led to the settlement and, later, the charges against the embattled attorney general.

Tony Buzbee, who leads Paxton’s defense team, said the trial was a complete sham that was brought without evidence. He characterized it as an attack on an elected official by an overzealous government that could target anyone.

“If this can happen to him, it can happen to anyone,” he told the jury, comprised of state senators. “It was about nothing. They failed to gather all the evidence, they failed to review their own evidence.”

Buzbee — flashy, flamboyant and one of the best-known litigators in Texas — told jurors nothing presented to them by the prosecution proved Paxton’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The trial, he said, was nothing more than a political stunt.

“Let’s just call it for what it is: there is a battle for power because there is no doubt that these folks did not prove a case,” he said. “They didn’t prove anything other than they don’t like Ken Paxton.”

Buzbee then played up a theory supported by far-right Paxton supporters that’s been widely circulated on social media that alleges Paxton was targeted by a group aligned with the legendary Bush political family after he defeated George P. Bush in the Republican primary for attorney general.

“Guess what? Ken Paxton won hands down, (a) resounding victory. He beat the latest in line for the Bushes. Let it be known. Let it be clear now, the Bush era in Texas ends today,” he said.

Buzbee also dismissed accusations that Paxton acted on behalf of Paul after the real estate developer made a $25,000 donation to Paxton’s campaign. 

“We know that a campaign donation as a basis for bribery is complete hogwash. Imagine, imagine if a campaign donation were considered to be a bribe two years before the acts complained of,” he said. “Line up! We're going to be doing a lot of impeachments in the city of Austin. That bucket has no validity. That bucket is empty.” 

During the final hour of the House managers’ closing arguments, Murr didn’t use the flash and pomp Buzbee embraced. Instead Murr, a softer spoken, mustachioed official who resembles a lawman in a Western, summarized for senators the impeachment articles and the proof he says his team has against Paxton.

The presentation included audio clips of previous testimony in a bid to remind jurors of the evidence his team presented.

“We don't have enough time to go through every piece of paper that was introduced at trial and every word that was uttered under oath. But we suggest that you look at these key exhibits,” Murr said.

Those exhibits, he said, would prove Paxton took unusual interest in a legal dispute between Paul and Texas-based charity the Mitte Foundation, which sued Paul in 2018.

Murr then outlined how Paxton allegedly pressured his staff to craft and issue an opinion about foreclosure sales that prosecutors said aided Paul and his businesses.

“He became involved in the drafting of an opinion, for the first time ever,” Murr said, emphasizing the last three words. “He covered up his misdeeds by creating a straw requester, a Senate chairman, to hide the fact that he had no valid requester as required by the government code.”

Murr later told jurors that, as opposed to a criminal trial, there isn’t a need to eliminate all doubt in a Senate impeachment trial. Instead, he argued, they should focus on making the pieces fit together.

“The law does not require that we exclude all doubt. When we have shown you enough evidence that you can see what the puzzle is showing, that you know what the picture is, then we have met our burden,” he said.

Murr closed by invoking the legacy of Sam Houston, one of the state’s founding fathers and namesake for its largest city.

“At the beginning of trial, we watched all of you place your hand on Sam Houston's Bible and take your oath. Sam Houston's Bible,” he said. “At that time, I reminded you that Sam Houston told Texans: ‘Do right and risk the consequences.’ Now is your time to do right.”

Jurors also heard for the first time from one of the Texas House managers who brought the charges against Paxton: state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a self-described confidant and former supporter of the attorney general.

“Mr. Buzbee, you said in your closing that we're here because we hate Ken Paxton, and you could not be more wrong. I have loved Ken Paxton for a long time. I've done life with Ken Paxton,” he said. “We've traveled together, attended church together, attended countless Cowboys and Baylor football games together. Heck, we're both former Baylor student body presidents. I’ve block-walked for Ken. I've donated to Ken, supported Ken. I've asked others to do the same.”

At the end of the day, however, the lawmakers in the upper chamber should be guided by their principles, he said. 

“I believe that it is right, as painful as it might be for us and for you, to vote to sustain the articles of impeachment commended to you by the Texas House of Representatives,” he said. “It's an honor to serve with each of you. I pray God's grace and favor his wisdom and discernment over you as you deliberate and vote on this historic matter.”

The trial will be considered a historic moment in Texas political history regardless of the outcome. Only a handful of elected officials have been removed from office in Texas through the impeachment process: a state district judge in the 1970s and former Governor James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917.

Jurors can only vote for an article of impeachment — Paxton faces 16 — if they find him guilty of all its charges.

Copyright 2023 KERA

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