Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton assured us that his legal work for the people of Texas would continue while he faces trial on felony fraud charges.
Work is getting done, but some of it without Paxton.
The state’s lawyer has recused himself from a wide range of cases, including those involving his defense lawyers’ firms and those involving either the State Securities Board or the Texas Ethics Commission.
It is wise for Paxton to avoid new conflicts. But the recusals raise questions again of how well Paxton can serve the people while these personal matters dominate his first term in office.
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Paxton is free on $35,000 bail awaiting trial in connection with two allegations of felony securities fraud during his time in the Texas House, plus a felony charge connected to a securities violation for which he already paid a $1,000 civil fine.
His most recent lawyers have promised to fight the charges vigorously. They recently scored an early win when they were granted access to information about the appointment and makeup of the grand jury that indicted him in his home Collin County.
When he was indicted, Paxton wrote in a campaign email, “I refuse to be distracted or deterred from my commitment to the people of Texas to fight for the Rule of Law. I assure you that my focus on serving Texas as Attorney General continues with greater resolve than ever before.”
He said he would defend agencies facing litigation.
But according to letters first reported in Texas Lawyer, Paxton has now stepped out of involvement with any cases involving the Securities Board, which sanctioned him, and the Ethics Commission.
Paxton’s office has not explained why he recused himself from all matters involving the Ethics Commission. But a written request for an ethics interpretation indicates that he may be looking for a ruling on whether Texas lawyers or other donors can legally contribute toward his defense, which other defense attorneys have estimated at $1 million.
First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy is carrying on Paxton’s work and actually signed an attorney general’s opinion in September on whether Brown County commissioners could pay the legal bills for a commissioner acquitted in a criminal case.
Roy wrote to Brown County: “This office concludes there could be an actual or perceived conflict of interest such that the Attorney General has recused himself. … The First Assistant Attorney General will sign this opinion.”
(The opinion concluded that commissioners could only reimburse the legal bills if the case involved public business and “not merely for the commissioner’s personal interest.”)
It is not known how many state civil cases Paxton has also stepped away from, but one of his five defense attorneys told Texas Lawyer that each of their law firms probably have some litigation involving the state.
When he was indicted, Paxton was criticized by some in both parties for not stepping down to focus on his defense. Democratic critic Matt Angle of the Arlington-based Lone Star Project said Texans now have a “part-time AG and a full-time criminal defendant.”
In 1983, Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox was indicted in connection with a bribery case but remained in office. In 1985, he was acquitted.
It has seemed all along that Paxton could stay in office and await his day in court, but there is cause to wonder.