A Republican-led committee in the Texas House of Representatives recommended Thursday that state attorney general Ken Paxton be indicted for a series of abuses of office that committee investigators say may have been crimes.
The recommendation pushed the state Capitol and its Republican leadership into uncharted political territory in the final days of the legislative session, setting the stage for the House to hold an impeachment vote, the first in decades and one of the few held in the state. history.
If indicted, Mr. Paxton, a Republican who has been under separate criminal indictment since 2015, will have to resign his position temporarily while he faces trial in the state Senate.
“There’s really no precedent, we’ve really only had two impeachments under the 1876 Constitution,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University. include the governor in 1917who resigned the day before the Senate convicted him, and a district judge who was convicted and removed in the 1970s.
Before the vote, the committee met in executive session, out of public view.
“Election nullification begins behind closed doors,” Paxton said in a post on Twitter which included video of a lawyer from his office arguing against impeachment of journalists in a nearly empty committee room while committee deliberations were underway.
After the vote, the committee presented 20 articles of impeachment against Mr. Paxton, accusing him of a litany of abuses including accepting bribes, ignoring his official duty, obstructing justice in a separate securities fraud case pending against him, making false statements in official documents and reports, and abusing the public trust.
Many of the charges related to the various ways in which Mr. Paxton had used his office to benefit a particular donor, the committee said, then firing those in the office who spoke out against his actions.
As the articles were passed around the House chamber Thursday night, Andrew Murr, the committee chairman, a Republican, said they described “serious offenses” and that he intended to put them to a House vote.
Extraordinary events are likely to test the Republican Party in Texas in new and unpredictable ways, at a time when divisions in the party have been increasingly exposed.
The Texas House of Representatives is led by Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican who represents Beaumont and is seen as a traditional conservative. By contrast, Paxton has sided with Texas’ most strident Republican lawmakers and former President Donald J. Trump, in a camp that also includes lieutenant governor and state Senate leader Dan Patrick.
The House committee of investigations, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, voted unanimously to move forward with impeachment proceedings during a brief public session. “The chair is proposing that the committee adopt the articles of impeachment against Warren Kenneth Paxton, the attorney general for the state of Texas,” Murr said.
It was not immediately clear when the House would address the articles of impeachment and hold a floor vote, though several members said they expected it to happen before session adjourned Monday. Otherwise, lawmakers could reconvene in special session at any time to deliberate.
Asked by a House member about the timing of the impeachment vote, Phelan said Thursday night that Murr would determine when to bring the matter to a vote. He did not provide a schedule.
For much of Thursday, House members braced for what was already beginning to seem inevitable.
At least one legislator could be found investigating impeachment process in the Capitol Library. “I’m trying to figure out what impeachment is about,” said the lawmaker, Rep. John Smithee, a Republican from the conservative Texas Panhandle. Speaking before the committee vote, he said it was too early to pass judgment on the matter and that he believed officials might rush into impeachment proceedings.
“I’d like to hear additional evidence rather than just a report,” Smithee said, “and your side of the story if you’re willing to tell it.”
The House committee vote came a day after hours of detailed testimony on Wednesday from a team of investigators, former prosecutors who were hired by the committee to investigate the corruption allegations against Mr Paxton.
Investigators described how Mr. Paxton had abused and misused his office to help an Austin real estate developer and donor who also hired a woman with whom Mr. Paxton was in a relationship, and how Mr. Paxton had created a climate of fear within the community. office of the attorney general.
The misdeeds Mr. Paxton was charged with were raised to the level of possible criminality, investigators said, including cases of retaliation against the people who spoke up.
The committee did not take testimony during its session on Thursday.
The lawyer for Mr Paxton’s office, Christopher Hilton, told reporters that the committee’s process had been “completely flawed” and called Wednesday’s testimony “false” and “misleading.” He added that the issues raised by the committee were fully aired during Mr. Paxton’s re-election campaign last year, when he was elected to a third term.
“The 2022 election, the primary and the general were held on these issues, these allegations,” Hilton said. “The voters have spoken. They want Ken Paxton as their attorney general.”
And, in what appeared to be a preview of a possible legal challenge to the proceedings, Hilton said Texas law allowed prosecution only for conduct since the previous election.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the chairman of the Texas House Democratic caucus, said after the vote that impeachment was “very rare and very serious,” adding: “I am confident that the committee has done a lot of work on do it, and I will evaluate the evidence and see where this process takes us.”
Another Democrat, Rep. Jon Rosenthal of Houston, said the charges against Paxton were “pretty bad” and that he would most likely vote for impeachment. “I challenge you to find a Democrat who will say, ‘No, I will not vote for impeachment,’” he said.
The investigation began in March, after Mr. Paxton, who is also charged with securities fraud, apparently managed to put at least one of his legal problems behind him. He had reached a $3.3 million settlement with four of his top advisers who had sued him, accusing him of corruption and retaliation.
Mr. Paxton had asked the Texas Legislature for the funds to pay for the settlement. But Mr. Phelan, the Speaker of the House, did not support that use of state money, saying he felt Mr. Paxton had not sufficiently explained why the state should fund the deal. The House investigation into the allegations was launched in order to gather information about the funding request, Phelan’s spokeswoman said.
For two days this week, as the committee’s investigation neared its conclusion, Paxton hurled accusations at Phelan, claiming that the speaker presided over a House session last week while drunk. Paxton based his accusation on a video circulated among far-right activists who blame Phelan for the failure of several conservative House bills.
Much of what was brought before the committee about Mr. Paxton was already publicly known from the allegations made in the aides’ lawsuit. Aides also took their complaints about Paxton to the FBI, which is still investigating.
Thursday’s vote yielded the first official judgment on those allegations, finding them sufficient to begin the process of removing Mr. Paxton from office.
The committee also voted to send letters to the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Facilities Commission, which manages state property, “to ensure that all evidence relevant to the committee’s investigation” is not “destroyed or concealed.” said Mr. Murr. , the chairman of the committee.
The impeachment vote was the second time this year that the committee recommended the removal of an elected official from office. The first involved a Republican state representative, Bryan Slaton; a committee investigation found that he had slept with a 19-year-old staff member after serving him alcohol.
Mr. Slaton resigned shortly thereafter. Home then voted unanimously formally expel him and prevent him from holding office in the future.
david montgomery contributed reporting.