Why did Ken Paxton beat impeachment? Not enough evidence, too much partisan politics | Opinion

He got away.

Prosecutors couldn’t show where Ken Paxton got money, or gifts, or even a granite kitchen countertop.

So, despite a laser-focused closing argument detailing various mismanagement by Attorney General Ken Paxton, House lawyers were unable to convince the Texas Senate that he orchestrated a fortuitous series of events in favor of his very good friend, Austin developer Nate Paul.

In one telling moment of testimony during the week, an associate deputy attorney general said he works for Paxton, not for the people of Texas.

Austin Kinghorn had described the state’s civil litigators as Paxton’s “law firm.”

That was the gist of both the prosecution and the defense: that (1) Paxton ran the state’s law firm for his own benefit or Paul’s, or (2) Paxton was elected with 4.3 million votes and constitutionally can run the office as he pleases.

The Senate, 31 elected officials who often argue as well that their authority comes from the voters, chose (2).

Theatrical defense attorney Tony Buzbee, a Houston character straight out of a made-for-TV movie, pointed and pivoted in his closing statement as he drawled that Texas’ first impeachment trial of a statewide official in 96 years was “about nothing” and a “political witch hunt” in which “there ain’t no evidence.”

Buzbee once again repeated an old claim that Paxton got blamed over new granite kitchen countertops that were never installed at his then-home. A witness actually only testified about hearing that Paul might help arrange new countertops.

But too much of the case rested only on what witnesses heard, not what Paxton gained.

The evidence sounded powerful in May, in a Texas House vote where 60 Republicans agreed to send the case to the Senate.

But over the summer, impeachments and trials of Republican officials became a partisan win-at-all-costs issue. Ken Paxton, little known and mostly disliked as recently as a year ago — 57% of Republicans chose someone else in the first 2022 primary — became a national poster child for legislative overreach.

In the end, with Paxton booked on Tucker Carlson’s show and former President Donald Trump marshaling support, the senators decided to leave Paxton’s fate to district court prosecutors and to a lurking FBI investigation. Paxton remains free on felony bond in an old Collin County securities case.

At various times in closing arguments Friday, Buzbee laid the blame for Paxton’s woes on:

▪ “The Bushes,” referring to former President George W. Bush and his late father, President George H.W. Bush, two of the most decent human beings to occupy the White House regardless how you might feel about their politics.

“The Bush era in Texas ends today,” Buzbee said. “They can go back to Maine!”

▪ “The Biden administration and its FBI and its Department of Justice,” later mentioned simply as “the feds.”

▪ “The lobbyists.”

▪ “The Ashcroft law firm,” the Austin office of a national firm that has a lawyer working for Paxton’s accusers.

▪ And House Speaker Dade Phelan of Beaumont, for being “so drunk” while presiding days before Paxton’s impeachment.

For good measure, fellow defense attorney Dan Cogdell of Houston mentioned a decorated former Texas Ranger who testified against Paxton, saying, “His milk carton has expired.”

House Impeachment Manager Rep. Andrew Murr, R - Junction, makes closing arguments at the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton at the Capitol on Friday September 15, 2023. Jay Janner/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK
House Impeachment Manager Rep. Andrew Murr, R - Junction, makes closing arguments at the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton at the Capitol on Friday September 15, 2023. Jay Janner/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK

The House’s lead prosecutor was Rep. Andrew Murr, a Junction lawyer with a mustache more befitting Judge Roy Bean.

Standing stiff as a West Texas fence post, he recited the 16 accusations against Paxton and the evidence presented for each.

During the defense’s closing argument, Buzbee had showed a cartoon donkey and a mocking photo of prosecutor Rusty Hardin.

Murr, on the other hand, played sound bites of exact witness testimony on most of the 16 articles of impeachment.

Buzbee’s showboating plays well in a Houston courtroom. But Murr’s was meant for the jury of 30 veteran senators.

Murr focused on Paxton’s peculiar hiring of an inexperienced outside attorney to embark on a wide-ranging investigation of all the courts and law enforcement agencies involved in cases against Paul.

Although Buzbee had said Paxton had no secret email accounts, a former aide testified that he often used personal email accounts and the aide’s own email account for stealth communications, along with extra phones with encrypted messaging apps.

Murr also called back to Cogdell’s “milk carton” remark, saying Paxton threw the former Texas Ranger, David Maxwell, out “like garbage. ... That is a godless, rudderless morality.”

Rep. Jeff Leach of Paxton’s home Collin County started in on what sounded more like a legislative floor speech, saying Paxton was a longtime friend and brother in Christ who erred. Buzbee broke in to object accurately that the personal testimony wasn’t introduced as evidence.

Sounding more like a genuine judge every day, presiding Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick overruled Buzbee and said, “The jury will decide the evidence.”

The senators made their decision.