A couple of years ago, the private lawyers hired to prosecute the three felony charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton came up with a nickname for the clique of North Texas surrogates and supporters trying desperately to quash his criminal case. “Team Paxton,” they said, had spent the better part of two years demonizing pretty much anybody who played a role in Paxton’s 2015 indictments, from the special prosecutors and judges who oversaw the case to even the victims of Paxton’s alleged white-collar crimes. One wealthy Paxton supporter sued in an attempt to defund the prosecution. State lawmakers from Collin County—Paxton’s home turf, and one of the richest, reddest counties in the state—even tried to derail the case.
The special prosecutors called Team Paxton’s full-court press an “unparalleled and unprecedented” attempt to taint the local jury pool. They also stressed Paxton’s power and influence as a longtime lawmaker from the area, someone who in 2014 became the first statewide elected official from Collin County since the 1860s. Almost every officeholder in Collin County either contributed money to Paxton or obtained their position with his help, the prosecutors argued, writing in one court filing, “Paxton is a political powerhouse in Collin County, where he enjoys the ultimate home field advantage.”
In March 2017, a state judge agreed with the prosecutors and transferred the case to Harris County. Thanks to the efforts of Team Paxton, however, the case has been delayed for so long that any trial now seems as far away as it did four years ago. But when, or perhaps if, his case goes to trial, Paxton still wants a home-field advantage. Over the past week, his lawyers have filed legal motions attempting to move the case back to Collin County, largely rehashing the same arguments they made two years ago.
Paxton’s personal and political entanglements in Collin County are the main reason special prosecutors were assigned to his case in the first place. As I wrote last year, the criminal complaint against Paxton nearly died on the vine after hitting the desk of Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis, a close friend and sometimes business partner of Paxton’s who sat on the complaint until a shit-stirring lawyer convinced grand jurors to dig into it. When Willis recused himself, a local judge appointed two high-profile, media-savvy Houston lawyers to shepherd the case through the grand jury process. One, Brian Wice, helped former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay overturn his conviction for money laundering; the other, Kent Schaffer, has defended members of the Bandidos biker gang for decades. Both were promptly and publicly insulted by Team Paxton after taking the case.
While Paxton’s North Texas church buddies, including state Representative Ron Simmons, started suing the alleged victims in Paxton’s felony case, a multimillionaire real estate developer and Paxton supporter named Jeffory Blackard initiated the legal challenge that would stall the case for years. At one point Blackard brought in Rick Santorum, of all people, who went on local TV to accuse the prosecutors of “raping” Collin County taxpayers. Conservative activists eventually flooded commissioners court meetings to demand that officials defund Paxton’s prosecution.
The Collin County Commissioners Court ultimately obliged, challenging fees the prosecutors had racked up over nearly two years’ worth of work on the case. Earlier this year, the state’s highest criminal court ruled that officials could indeed block the prosecutors’ fees. Legal experts say the case could have sweeping, if unintended, consequences, making it harder to both prosecute well-heeled officials and also appoint qualified defense lawyers to complex cases involving indigent defendants.
A third special prosecutor who was added to the Paxton case after his indictment has since asked to be dropped from it. Last week, Wice and Schaffer asked a judge to determine what, if anything, they should be paid for work they’ve already done on the case.
In court filings this week, Paxton’s lawyers urged a judge to decide where his trial should take place before addressing the prosecutor pay issue. Paxton, it seems, would rather watch his case implode from the comfort of his own backyard.
Stand By Your Man: How the Collin County GOP derailed Ken Paxton’s prosecution and turned him into a right-wing hero.
The System Works for Attorney General Ken Paxton. Again: A court decision could be the coup de grâce that finally ends the attorney general’s four-year-old felony case.
That Sinking Feeling: Is indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton a political aberration or a symptom of a larger sickness?
How Tea Partiers Fueled Texas’ Latest ‘Voter Fraud’ Freakout: Election-related crimes are rare, but activists like Aaron Harris have become both a legal and political weapon in Texas Republicans’ war on election fraud.