Lawman, Lawbreaker: Ken Paxton and the Problem with One-Party Rule
You might think that in a one-party state like Texas, the cream would rise to the top. The most capable and promising politicians would flock to take positions in the party of power. The resulting diversity of opinions and expertise might incentivize excellence. Of course, in Texas as in other one-party systems, the opposite is the case. During the two decades that Texas Republicans have a complete lock on political offices, the quality of the party’s candidates has waned. Like a royal family in which only cousins marry, the GOP’s blood here is thinning. Take Ken Paxton, the Republican nominee for attorney general and possible future felon.
Paxton, a state senator who has served in the Legislature since 2002, made his political bones as a member of the Christian right. That faction had a particularly good year in the 2014 Republican primary, which is unusual for Texas. But the way Paxton really distinguishes himself is by his history of sleazy and unethical financial dealings as a lawyer in the Metroplex, which came to light through a Texas Tribune story in May. The state’s next top lawyer could very well be facing indictment and possible disbarment.
Paxton’s way of coping with that looming threat? Running away from—and occasionally manhandling—reporters who ask him about it and otherwise staying out of the public eye, even as he asks the public to entrust him with enormous power. And here’s the depressing thing: It hardly hurts his chances of being elected.
First, what did Paxton do? Outside of the Legislature, he made a living as a lawyer in McKinney. One day, a couple he represented named Teri and David Goettsche came looking for a way to manage their money. Paxton referred them to an investment advisory firm named Mowery Capital Management, run by Frederick “Fritz” Mowery, a friend of Paxton’s.
Mowery directed the Goettsches into a series of abysmally bad investments, some connected to a friend of Mowery’s with a disreputable past. Mowery had been on the verge of bankruptcy when Paxton recommended him, and his business partners were in similarly bad shape. When they went under, the Goettsches lost their shirts. After they lost their shirts, they were informed that Paxton had been receiving a 30 percent commission to refer his legal clients to Mowery. Whether legally or ethically, Paxton should have told the Goettsches about the commission, but he didn’t.
What Paxton did—abusing the trust of his clients to funnel money to a friend, then taking what was in effect an undisclosed kickback—was certainly improper and unethical, but it was also illegal. It’s not illegal to take a commission from an investment firm to refer clients, but you must register with the Texas State Securities Board when doing so. Paxton didn’t. He also didn’t disclose the work on the personal financial statements he was required to file as a legislator. In other words, he appeared to be hoping that no one ever found out about it.
And Paxton should have known about the laws he was breaking, because he voted for the bills that established them in the first place. In 2003, he voted for a bill that made what he did a crime—and in 2011, he helped up the punishment for the crime. He helped make what he did a felony. And there’s no doubt he did it, because this spring, in an effort to push the scandal behind him, he admitted in a sworn statement that he violated the Texas Securities Act.
Having acknowledged that he broke the law, Paxton left the door open for the left-leaning advocacy group Texans for Public Justice to file a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney earlier this month. TPJ might be a small group, but the complaint is far from insignificant: TPJ is responsible for the complaint that’s snagged Gov. Perry over charges of undue influence and may ultimately see him indicted, and their efforts also helped precipitate the downfall of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. TPJ’s complaint charges that Paxton “committed one or more criminal felony offenses.” It could take months for the DA’s office to process the complaint—but it’s also likely that Paxton’s opponents will file complaints with the state bar itself.
So Texas’ probable next attorney general faces the threat of indictment, and censure (or worse) from the State Bar of Texas, before his first day on the job. There are many questions still remaining—for one, given the nature of the crime, it may not be an isolated incident. Does Paxton have anything to say about that? Any reassuring words for the public? He has no words at all. He spent the last month of his primary runoff hiding from voters and the press. An appearance on a Christian radio show marked one of his only media appearances: His legal difficulties didn’t come up.
Knowing that his Democratic opponent, a lawyer named Sam Houston, is extremely unlikely to win, he’s adopted roughly the same strategy for the general election. When Nolan Hicks, a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Paxton after a speech to ask him about the incident, Paxton scurried away. His spokesman grabbed Hicks and pulled him back, ensuring that Paxton would face no scrutiny.
We’ve come to expect a certain level of grime from many of our state’s political leaders, but the attorney general’s office is one place where there really ought to be a certain degree of moral fiber—so it’s encouraging that Paxton is bringing the courage and honesty he learned in his legal career to his campaign. Virtually unopposed in his general election, Paxton has no incentive to speak forthrightly to Texans about his troubles. And so he won’t.
We’re a long way from Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and Gov. George W. Bush, just fifteen years ago. Putting people like Paxton in positions of power and authority will arguably hasten the Democratic revival, but what a hell of a ride it’s going to be in between now and then.