Historic impeachment trial of Texas A.G. Ken Paxton begins Tuesday

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is shown speaking at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on November 1, 2021. On Tuesday, his historic impeachment trial in the Texas State Senate will begin. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI

Sept. 4 (UPI) -- In September 2018, Attorney General Ken Paxton gathered his staff to make a fateful confession.

With two months to go before Election Day -- and holding hands with his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton -- the attorney general reportedly told them about an extramarital affair. He said it was over and swore to recommit to his marriage.

But Ken Paxton didn't - the first in a series of consequential choices that Texas House impeachment managers say set off a chain of alleged crimes and coverups that, five years later, has culminated in one of the most dramatic moments in Texas political history. The once-in-a-century impeachment trial that starts Tuesday is expected to center on Paxton's infidelity, and could air out the sordid details of the staunch, Christian conservative's life as he sits just yards away from his wife, and her 30 Senate colleagues who will serve as jurors to decide her husband's fate.

House impeachment managers argue that Paxton, driven in large part by his desire to continue and conceal the tryst, went to great, impeachable -- and potentially criminal -- lengths to hide the betrayal from his wife, and from the deeply religious voters who have sustained his political life for two decades.

Citing nearly 4,000 pages of documents that were released last month, impeachment managers allege that Paxton repeatedly abused his office to help real estate investor Nate Paul's faltering businesses amid an FBI raid, looming bankruptcies and a litany of related lawsuits. In exchange, Paul allegedly hired Paxton's girlfriend so that she could move to Austin and helped Paxton clandestinely meet with her through a secret Uber account that the two men shared.

House impeachment managers argue that Paxton had every reason to keep the affair quiet. They point to his apparent burner phones and secret email addresses as evidence that he worried infidelity could destroy his political career.

"The affair is important because it goes to Ken Paxton's political strength," Rep. Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat who serves on the committee that investigated Paxton, said in May. "He knows that with his folks, he is 'family values.' He is a Christian man. And the idea of the exposure of the affair will risk him with his base."

Angela Paxton, a McKinney Republican who will be present at the trial but is barred from voting, could not be reached for comment last week. Ken Paxton's attorney, Tony Buzbee, declined an interview request and did not respond to a list of questions, citing a gag order in place ahead of the Senate trial.

"Sounds like you believe your house isn't made of glass and you have a sack full of stones to throw," Buzbee added in an email.

"Great. She's back."

In interviews with House impeachment managers, Paxton's former top deputies -- as well as his former personal aide -- said his affair was common knowledge.

One deputy recalled that there was a "verbal confrontation" between the alleged girlfriend and Angela Paxton in a cafe at the Texas Capitol. Others said they had "heard rumors" or were told directly by Paxton confidantes about the affair, but were initially led to believe that it ended in September 2018, after Paxton reportedly confessed and recommitted to his wife.

It's unclear when or how Paxton met the woman or first began the affair. Employment records show that she worked as the San Antonio district director for Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, from April 2014 until December 2019. The woman moved to Austin around June 2020 for a job with Paul's company, rental and employment records show. Campbell declined to comment.

In a deposition, Paul said that he hired her at Paxton's recommendation. She earned an annual salary of $65,000 and reported directly to Paul. Within days of Paxton's girlfriend starting her new job, Paxton began directing his senior deputies to meet with Paul about his legal problems, a pattern that would continue through the summer. Paul alleged he was the victim of two massive yet separate conspiracies: one involving the police who raided his home and the other involving an alleged cabal of Austin businessmen who colluded with a federal judge to steal some of his properties.

Agency staff said Paxton routinely overrode them or ignored their concerns about Paul, who they warned was a "crook" and was misleading Paxton about being unfairly targeted. Rather than heed their many warnings, deputies said, Paxton repeatedly went out of his way to help Paul. Among other moves that alarmed top staff, Paxton allegedly provided Paul with sensitive information about an FBI raid on Paul's businesses and home, told staff not to assist law enforcement investigating Paul and, despite objections from veteran law enforcement officials, hired a young, inexperienced Houston attorney from outside the agency to investigate Paul's adversaries.

"His obsession with anything related to Nate Paul was so obvious that it just really shocked me," said James Brickman, who served as deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives and later reported Paxton to the FBI.

Meanwhile, Paxton and Paul continued to share a secret Uber account under the fake name "Dave P." that they used to clandestinely meet, sometimes after Paxton ditched his security detail.

Paxton also used the Uber account to visit the woman's Austin apartment a dozen times beginning in August 2020, according to records made public last month. Around the same time, Paxton's personal aide told House investigators that he saw the attorney general and the woman at the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa, where Paxton was staying as his Austin home was remodeled -- allegedly on Paul's dime.

"No words were said," the aide recalled of the interaction. "Paxton walked out, shook my hand, shook my father's hand and the lady walked out, didn't acknowledge us or say anything."

He later reported the run-in to a senior Paxton adviser, who responded: "Great. She's back."

By fall 2020, Paxton's deputies had come to believe that he was taking bribes from Paul. On Oct. 1, seven of them notified Paxton that they had reported him to law enforcement. At 10:39 p.m. the next day, Paxton took his final Uber ride to the woman's Austin apartment.

Christian values

David Brockman, a nonresident scholar at Rice University's Baker Institute for Religion and Public Policy, said Paxton had clear reasons to hide his infidelity.

"Evidence of an extramarital affair would strike his supporters as hypocritical," he said. "He's promoted himself as a conservative Christian, a defender of biblical values and a guardian of conservative Christian sexual morality. So there's quite a bit of impetus to keep it secret."

Since its inception, Paxton's political life has been inextricably tied to the state's conservative Christian voting bloc. He has said he first ran for office at the urging of Kelly Shackleford, whose First Liberty Institute has led the legal charge to infuse Christianity into public life. And Paxton has credited his first election to the Texas House in 2002 to a "very simple strategy: Get the church out to vote."

In his 12 years as a legislator -- first as a House member, and then for two years in the Texas Senate -- Paxton was a reliable champion of Christian causes, backing bans on Planned Parenthood sex education materials in public schools and co-authoring a state constitutional amendment that would have barred businesses and individuals from being sued for declining to provide services on religious grounds.

Religious conservatives returned the favor in 2014, rallying behind Paxton's attorney general bid and, with the help of far-right West Texas oil money, sending him to statewide office despite initially being discounted as an underdog.

As attorney general, Paxton has continued to elevate conservative Christian legal and political causes: He has packed the agency with similarly-minded Christian lawyers - including a former First Liberty Institute attorney who later reported Paxton to the FBI for bribery. And he has turned the office into the tip of the spear in conservative Christianity's broader culture war.

"Christian conservatives have supported Paxton from day one, and they've done that because he's consistently stood for our principles, our values and our beliefs," said Jared Woodfill, a longtime leader of ultraconservative and anti-LGBTQ+ movements in Texas who is now involved in a political action committee defending Paxton ahead of his Senate trial.

Their unwavering support has been beneficial to Paxton, who time and again has turned to conservative Christians in times of peril. He has invoked biblical figures who've overcome persecution as he claims his legal and political woes are mere retaliation for his religious views - a message that's played well among audiences primed by years of "culture war" rhetoric.

But whereas Paxton's 2015 indictment for securities fraud could be explained by his defenders as the nefarious plotting of an anti-Christian deep state, an affair would strike at the personal responsibility and piety that is emphasized by Paxton's deeply religious base.

That much has been clear in recent months, as the suspended attorney general's woes have dominated headlines and some conservative Christians have drawn a direct line between Paxton's infidelity and his fitness for office.

"It is not my place to say who is Christian or not," Konnni Burton, a conservative former Texas Senator, wrote on social media last month. "But my personal opinion is, if a politician professes Christian values, yet is willing to break those values when it comes to their own spouse, they surely will break a promise to me, as a constituent."

It's also evident that the impeachment proceedings have taken a political toll since they began in May. Polling released Friday by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin show that, since April, Paxton's approval rating among Republicans has dropped by 19 percentage points to 46%, a two-year low. Paxton's disapproval rating also has more than tripled since December, reading 23% in August. Meanwhile, a plurality of Republicans said they don't know if Paxton took actions that justify removing him from office, compared to 24% who said yes and 32% who said no.

Doug Page is among those who say they want Paxton held accountable for any potential misconduct. He first met the attorney general in 2015 when Paxton, weeks removed from his securities fraud indictment, spoke at First Baptist Church of Grapevine, where Page is senior pastor. Paxton didn't address his legal troubles at the time, but thanked his fellow Christians for their prayers and, after noting biblical figures who'd faced persecution, urged the Southern Baptist congregation to "stand up and speak out" against wrongdoing.

Eight years later, Page is doing exactly that.

"If Mr. Paxton is found guilty by the Texas House and Senate, he should be impeached and, if deemed necessary, removed from office," Page said this week. "I am for redemption and reconciliation, but our choices have consequences. I am hopeful that whatever the outcome, Mr. Paxton will surround himself with people who will encourage him to walk with Jesus."

Other conservative Christians are more skeptical, believing Paxton is the victim of the same type of deep state witch-hunt that they claim was responsible for the impeachments and indictments of former President Donald Trump. And they are willing to look past both men's moral failings if they deliver on conservative Christian priorities -- a strain of thought that dates back millenia to figures such as King David and Cyrus the Great, who the Bible says were used by God despite their many sins.

If God and Angela Paxton forgive, they say, then so too should they.

"I don't think there are any politicians out there, much less any human, that's perfect or that hasn't made mistakes," Woodfill said. "So even assuming that it's true that he made a mistake - which it appears he and his wife have reconciled -- I and conservative Christians across the state are looking at what he has done as an elected official, and what he has done as attorney general."

Zach Despart contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.