TEXAS VIEW: Paxton is acquitted, and Texans and good government are the losers

Ken Paxton, who has made escaping or stalling accountability for alleged misconduct something of an art form, has been acquitted of all impeachment charges alleging bribery, corruption and misuse of public office.

This may please his defenders — and there were enough Republican senators in the Capitol on Saturday to acquit Paxton in a vote largely along party lines — but this is no time to celebrate the sorry state of politics in Texas. Paxton has beaten the rap, but his trial and acquittal laid bare the sordid details of his leadership in the attorney general’s office.

Paxton and a majority of Senate Republicans were winners Saturday. Texans and good government were the losers, for we expect an attorney general to be above reproach as the state’s top legal and law enforcement officer, someone whose integrity is unquestioned.

Instead, the evidence presented at Paxton’s impeachment trial demonstrated that one can misuse the office for personal benefit and to help a key political ally, and most of your fellow party members will tolerate it.

The Senate’s decision Saturday to clear Paxton of wrongdoing sends a hostile and crippling message to whistleblowers and anyone who is brave enough to call out concerning behavior by a top elected official.

The whistleblowers in Paxton’s office who courageously reported what they viewed as unlawful behavior suffered harsh consequences. Some lost their jobs. Several of Paxton’s former top staffers testified about their concerns that Paxton helped donor Nate Paul and hired an inexperienced outside attorney to benefit Paul.

The whistleblowers testified that they went to work in the attorney general’s office because they were true believers in conservative values, and they idolized Paxton as a beacon for conservative causes. Instead, what they said they observed was a man misusing his power.

Our Legislature is known for lawmakers who often cite the Bible and tout Texas values. With their votes to acquit, a majority of these lawmakers normalized the behavior the whistleblowers called out. “We’re OK with these values,” they seemed to say.

With Saturday’s acquittal, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reinstated Paxton to the office from which he’d been suspended while impeachment charges were pending. If it wasn’t already, public confidence in the attorney general’s office surely is shattered. In a tenure long clouded by allegations of corruption, Paxton is under indictment, since 2015, for securities fraud and is the subject of a separate FBI investigation into his dealings with Paul. His credibility is in tatters, and he has brought embarrassment to Texas once more.

Party politics prevailed Saturday, doing great damage to the contract between we the people and the officials we elect to act in our best interests. With this contract, simplistic as it might seem in this age when the phrase “country over party” seems hopelessly naive, we expect government officials to be above reproach and to act on the voters’ behalf.

They work for us, not the other way around. The evidence presented during Paxton’s trial showed he acted at times with only his interests in mind.

Article 20 of the impeachment charges alleged Paxton abused the public trust and “subverted the lawful operation of Texas government by using, misusing or failing to use his official powers and obstructed the fair and impartial administration of justice, bringing the attorney general’s office ‘into scandal and disrepute,’ which harmed the public’s confidence in the state’s government.”

Paxton was acquitted of this final impeachment charge by a 16-14 vote.

When the trial was over, Patrick, who presided over the trial and leads the Senate, blasted the Republican-controlled House for what he called a flawed process, saying millions of dollars had been wasted on the impeachment. What a thing to say. As if Texans need more fuel to undermine their trust in state government.

While Patrick was blasting the House, he never mentioned that he and Paxton remain interconnected financially by a series of political donations and loans tied to Paxton’s political future.

That includes a $2 million loan Patrick’s campaign received from a pro-Paxton political action committee. The PAC separately gave Patrick’s campaign a $1 million donation, though Patrick is not up for reelection for three more years and already sits on a $22 million campaign war chest.

On Saturday, Patrick in effect shifted blame for the trial from Paxton to the House, which voted in overwhelming and bipartisan fashion in late May to bring impeachment charges. Yes, the trial undoubtedly cost millions in taxpayer dollars. But it was not a waste.

Texans deserved answers and accountability. The answers they got were a sad reflection on how state government, and particularly an attorney general’s office under Paxton, operate.

Austin American-Statesman