By Jose Medina
It’s hard to believe, but today is the eighth anniversary of the indictment that charged suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton with state felonies, and he has yet to face trial.
Paxton first took office as Texas attorney general in January 2015. A few months later, a grand jury in his home base of Collin County handed up an indictment, charging Paxton with securities fraud.
The indictment came on July 28, 2015. The state’s top lawyer has been an accused felon for all except a few months of his more than eight years in office.
That Paxton was under investigation and could face criminal charges was known to voters when he was elected in November 2014. He won anyway. Like any other statewide officeholder, Paxton made it to the attorney general’s office with the help of millions in campaign funds.
As he fights for his political life in an impeachment trial scheduled to start in the Texas Senate in September, the same oil money that helped get Paxton into office is trying to save him.
Texas news outlets have reported on the various sources of cash flowing into Paxton’s coffers since the Texas House impeached him in May. The sources include some familiar names. From the Houston Chronicle’s Chris Tomlinson:
Political activists financed by two billionaire oilmen — famous for backing right wing Republicans — are riding like cavalry to save suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton from a scalping in the Texas Senate.
Billionaires Tim Dunn and Ferris Wilks are arguably the most influential donors to right wing candidates and causes in Texas, funneling tens of millions of dollars to political action committees and candidates that espouse their religious-right and anti-public-school agenda.
Dunn, CEO of drilling company CrownQuest Operating, and Wilks, who sold his fracking company, are the largest donors to Defend Texas Liberty PAC, one of Paxton’s largest campaign financiers, according to public records. The billionaires gave the PAC more than $10 million of the $11 million it has raised from 2020-2022. The PAC passed $1.25 million of that money, along with a loan for $750,000, to Paxton.
Tomlinson’s column continues:
Defend Texas Liberty is managed by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, who, alongside Republican Party of Texas Chair Matt Rinaldi, was a founding director of another PAC called Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. That group, which is not required to disclose donors, was founded by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, long considered the enforcer of right wing orthodoxy in Austin. Dunn and Wilks are widely reported to finance Sullivan’s activities.
Stickland, Rinaldi and Sullivan are leading a public campaign to stop the Texas Senate from permanently removing Paxton following his impeachment on 20 corruption charges. The same group also wants to remove Dade Phelan as speaker of the House.
The money isn’t just going to Paxton. The Texas Tribune reports that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was the beneficiary of $3 million from Defend Texas Liberty PAC in June, after Paxton’s impeachment. As president of the state Senate, Patrick will preside over Paxton’s trial. In other words, the defendant’s allies just gave the trial judge a $1 million contribution plus a $2 million loan.
There have been calls for Patrick to return the $3 million. Public Citizen’s Craig Holman told NBC 5 in Dallas that Paxton should have never taken the donation in the first place:
“I’m astounded that Patrick took the money,” said Craig Holman from the left-leaning consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
Calling it a “huge, huge contribution,” Holman said it adds the appearance of “murky politics” to an already intense impeachment trial.
“It also is a warning to all other Republicans that you know, if you vote for conviction in this impeachment trial, that kind of money is going to come out against you in this next election,” said Holman.
Patrick has remained silent on the donation. But the money may impact how Texans view Patrick’s fairness, or lack thereof, during the trial.
That Paxton is even where he is, it’s with Dunn’s last-minute help. In what the Dallas Morning News called an unusual arrangement back in 2014, Dunn secured a $1 million loan for a different PAC, then passed it on to Paxton in the final days of the Republican primary for attorney general when Paxton was behind in the polls. Paxton, of course, went on to win.
Paxton has since been reelected twice despite numerous other scandals and accusations of wrongdoing.
It’s no secret that fossil fuel interests have an outsized influence on state politics. Texas is, after all, an oil-rich state with no limits on campaign contributions by individuals to state candidates, giving the wealthy a big say in who is elected to office. Now that Paxton has become the first state official impeached in 100 years, big money and the state’s lax campaign finance laws could help the attorney general keep his job.