In 2014, the same Texas House that impeached state Attorney General Ken Paxton—our most popular politician—used the same playbook to try to remove me from my position as a regent of the University of Texas. Despite the claims against him, the Attorney General will almost certainly prevail because our State Senate may be looking forward to sending a message.
In my case, then-Speaker Joe Straus orchestrated a campaign to impeach me because I began to investigate corruption at the university. What I found, including unlawful multi-million dollar slush funds at the Law School, a secret program to let children of politicians bypass the otherwise strict admissions process, and corrupt software-license deals, was a precursor to the FBI’s “Varsity Blues” investigation that resulted in arrests in Texas and universities across the nation.
I uncovered a culture of insider deals and off-the-books arrangements that tied university leaders with House members on whom the university relies for funding. As part of the campaign, I was denounced by the university’s alumni association, relentlessly disparaged in the media by House members, and even subjected to a grand jury proceeding as if my inquiries as an official of the state to help oversee the university were somehow unlawful.
Despite their efforts, the House campaign against me failed. Then-Governor Rick Perry refused to endorse their scheme to make me resign—a brave stance given the pressure aimed at him—and I refused to quit. Two years later when the truth about corruption and coverups by legislators became public, I was a finalist for the Dallas Morning News’ Texan of the Year award, praised in a glowing editorial by the Wall Street Journal, and named Regent of the Year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Even the university’s student association passed a resolution apologizing to me on behalf of the university. Meanwhile, the university president was fired, the House Speaker fell from power, and voters across the state organized to eliminate the worst House offenders.
In Attorney General Paxton’s case, he has been relentless as the top law enforcement official in the state at rooting out corruption, including in state law enforcement agencies that routinely bend the laws to “get their man.” Most of the impeachment charges against General Paxton are tied to his intervention in the case of a constituent (and, yes, also a donor who ranks very low on his list of contributors) whose home was raided by dozens of state and federal agents on suspicious allegations that, years later, have resulted in no charges.
The remaining claims against Paxton relate to supposed state securities law violations and whistleblower complaints. The securities charges were filed eight years ago and are still pending, despite a ruling by a federal court that described prosecutors as “attempting to put square pegs in round holes.” The whistleblower complaints resulted from Paxton’s termination of employees who engaged in either gross insubordination bordering on obstruction of justice according to a several-hundred page report on the matter, or bravery if you believe the whistleblowers’ defenders in the House.
Texas voters have had two subsequent elections to consider the charges against Paxton. They re-elected him a first time despite the still-pending securities charges, and re-elected him to a third term by an even larger margin after the whistleblower claims.
As a target of House leaders, I have unique insight into their operation. I know that their secret “investigation” and rush to impeach Paxton is because they despise his conservative and undeniably effective approach to his job.
Paxton has fought this war in his own party through three elections. I was so pleased by his first election that I celebrated with him on the stage when his upset victory was announced. It may be ironic—but then probably not—that the announcement of his improbable victory in the newspapers included a photo of Paxton high-fiving the win with me.
Our battles are bookends in a chapter of Texas history that has pitted reformers within the Republican Party against once-reformers who now believe in the power of government more than the will of Texas voters. Former Speaker Straus believed impeachment was a legitimate means to remove officials when they threatened to upend the privileges of his entrenched friends. The current Speaker, Dade Phelan, has taken impeachment further to wage war on rival politicians whose ideas and movements are gaining traction.
The Senate has an opportunity to end this era. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who remains a conservative reformer and is surely the next target, has managed his side of the Texas Capitol to avoid the scandals and abuses that are typical in the House. It is hard to imagine that he will allow the House managers who misuse their offices to impeach enemies to now make a mockery of the Senate.
The impeachment of Ken Paxton has little to do with legitimate claims of misconduct, just as the failed attempt to impeach me had nothing to do with protecting the public interest. In both cases, the process has been used by House leaders to hide their own corruption, and to extend the protections that allow non-reformers in our institutions to hold onto power.
The trial is not about the supposed wrongdoing of one more government official. It is about the power of House leaders to remove reformers, the direction of Republican leadership in Texas, and which side of the law and integrity each Senator will choose.
This is a commentary published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to firstname.lastname@example.org.