Money in politics fight over indicted Texas attorney general

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who says he won’t resign despite criminal charges of defrauding investors and a separate investigation into a profitable land deal, may soon be allowed to let supporters pay his costly legal bills.

A state ethics board is expected to decide Monday if the Republican can lean on donors to cover what will likely be a lengthy and expensive courtroom battle. Financial gifts to politicians are generally prohibited but the board is considering letting Paxton only accept money from out-of-state sources, who are less likely to have cases or business with the Texas attorney general.

But even under those restrictions, the idea is still unpalatable to critics: the state’s top prosecutor taking outside dollars for the high-stakes purpose of avoiding possible prison time.

“No one is outside his jurisdiction. Christ, we just sued Volkswagen in Germany,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, referring to the state’s lawsuit against the automaker over an emissions scandal. “The arm of the attorney general is very long.”

If the Texas Ethics Commission rules the other way — and bars Paxton from letting donors pick up the check for his defense — that could force him to find another means of financing a lengthy legal battle while simultaneously running one of the nation’s most high-profile attorney general offices. In March, Paxton will go before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend abortion restrictions in a case that is likely to reverberate nationally.

If the risk of Paxton being distracted or the appearance of undue influence bothers Republican leaders, they’re not saying publicly.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declined to comment over whether they would be OK with Paxton tapping donors to pay for his high-powered defense team. Neither has publically pressured Paxton since he was indicted in July, but they also haven’t enthusiastically come to his defense.

The proposal before the Texas Ethics Commission would only allow out-of-state donors to help Paxton, but opponents say that wouldn’t safeguard possible conflicts with his job.

Paxton attorney Bill Mateja, who is handling the criminal case, said he was not involved in the ethics matter, and the attorney general’s office did not return messages seeking comment.

Paxton was indicted six months after taking office last year and has pleaded not guilty. He is accused of deceiving wealthy investors in 2011, when he was still a state legislator, by encouraging them to put money into a high-tech startup called Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the company was paying him for such referrals.

He is charged with two felony counts of securities fraud. If convicted, Paxton could get a lengthy prison term.

Mateja has also confirmed that two special prosecutors are investigating a suburban Dallas land deal in which Paxton and others, including a district attorney, profited from the sale of a tract that later became the site of a county courthouse. Mateja said Paxton is cooperating and that he’s confident the attorney general will be cleared of wrongdoing.

The governor cannot remove an elected official from office. Abbott, who was attorney general for 11 years before he was elected governor, has tried making tighter ethics rules a centerpiece of his early administration. He criticized legislators for watering down a package of reforms he ordered last year.

Paxton breezed into office behind the support of tea party activists and a rare endorsement from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who called him a “tireless conservative warrior.” Michael Joyce, a spokesman for the Texas Republican Party, said the state GOP chairman believes “Paxton deserves a fair trial and not a trial of public opinion.” He declined further comment.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant, said Paxton isn’t causing heartburn in Republican circles. “I think things are going to have to get much worse for Paxton for him to resign,” he said.

Texas Democrats, who have not won an elected statewide office in more than two decades, say they don’t believe the GOP will ever reach a breaking point with Paxton.

“The one party rule they’ve had, they don’t feel they have to be accountable to anything,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

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