By Eric Bradner, Zoe Sottile and Andy Rose, CNN
(CNN) — The Texas House of Representatives has voted to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, an unprecedented move following a legislative probe that faulted the third-term Republican for a yearslong pattern of corruption, including abusing his office’s powers, retaliating against whistleblowers and obstructing justice.
Under state law, Paxton is now temporarily suspended from his duties as attorney general and will await a Senate trial.
The vote was 121-23, with two members voting “present.”
“The evidence is substantial. It is alarming and unnerving,” said GOP Rep. Andrew Murr, chair of the General Investigating Committee, during his closing statement following hours of debate. The committee recommended 20 counts of impeachment against Paxton.
Democrat Rep. Harold Dutton was one of the members voting present. He said the impeachment vote had been rushed. “The process by which we’re getting this done seems to be abbreviated to the point that it just encroaches on due process,” said Dutton.
Paxton denied wrongdoing in a Friday news conference, but focused his statements against the impeachment this week on his record as a key opponent of President Joe Biden. Paxton’s office has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Biden administration.
The now-suspended attorney general called the impeachment a “politically motivated sham” in a statement just minutes after the vote.
“The ugly spectacle in the Texas House today confirmed the outrageous impeachment plot against me was never meant to be fair or just,” he said.
Paxton said he was never given a chance to present evidence refuting the findings of an investigation that he abused his office. He has cast House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican who presides over a chamber where his party currently holds 85 seats to Democrats’ 64, as a “liberal.” He continued his attack on Phelan saying, “Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans is now in lockstep with the Biden Administration, the abortion industry, anti-gun zealots, and woke corporations.”
The Office of the Attorney General issued its own “comprehensive report” about the allegations following the impeachment vote, saying it “unequivocally refutes incorrect testimony” against Paxton. The office also released a report it commissioned from an outside law firm, although the report from Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard and Smith LLP notes it is based only on information and testimony provided by the attorney general’s office.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott can appoint a provisional replacement while Paxton is temporarily suspended. Paxton would be reinstated if he is acquitted at his Senate trial.
The impeachment vote had its origins in an investigation launched in March by the General Investigating Committee of the Texas House after Paxton had asked the legislature to approve $3.3 million in government funds to settle a lawsuit with four whistleblowers who were fired from his office.
That investigation led the committee – a five-member panel investigating corruption in state government – to approve 20 articles of impeachment Thursday, setting up the vote in the full House.
During the debate Saturday, Rep. Charlie Geren, who is a Republican, claimed Paxton had threatened fellow House members.
“I would like to point out that several members of this House, while on the floor of this House doing the state’s business, received telephone calls from General Paxton personally threatening them with political consequences in their next election,” Geren said.
Opponents of the impeachment largely declined to address the allegations against him, instead focusing on the investigation leading up to the proceedings. “I don’t think today is about whether there’s guilt or innocence. It’s about the process,” said Rep. Tony Tinderholt.
“I’m not here to defend Ken Paxton,” Rep. John T. Smithee stated on the floor. He went on to say, “What you’re being asked to do today is to impeach without evidence. It is all rumor. It is all innuendo. It is all speculation.”
Paxton’s impeachment is a stunning rebuke of a Republican official in a state where the GOP controls all levers of state government. Voters in Texas shrugged off the swirling scandals around Paxton last year, handing him a third term in November’s election. Paxton had earlier fought off multiple opponents for the GOP nomination, including Bush family scion George P. Bush, the state land commissioner, whom he easily bested in a runoff.
Paxton has long been a controversial figure who has clashed with Texas legislative leadership. A conservative who has aligned himself with former President Donald Trump, he led a lawsuit in 2020 seeking to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
He retains support within the Texas GOP. In a statement Friday, state party chairman Matt Rinaldi blasted Phelan for what he called a “sham impeachment.”
“The voters have supported General Paxton through three elections – and his popularity has only grown despite millions of dollars spent to try to defeat him. Now the Texas House is trying to overturn the election results,” Rinaldi said, adding that he was looking to the “principled leadership” of the Senate to “restore sanity and reason for our state.”
In Texas, no attorney general has ever been impeached and removed from office. The only two elected officials to lose office as a result of impeachment were Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
For Paxton to be removed from office, two-thirds of the Texas Senate’s members who are present will have to vote to convict him. His wife, Angela Paxton, is a state senator representing a Dallas-area district.
It’s not yet clear when the Senate, where Republicans have a 19-12 majority over Democrats, will conduct its trial. The state’s legislative session is scheduled to end Monday.
While only the governor can call special sessions once the legislature is out of the biennial regular session, the Texas Constitution states that impeachment is the one issue for which the state House and Senate lawmakers can bring themselves into session without the governor, according to Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
Litany of legal trouble
The impeachment proceedings are the latest in a series of legal troubles for Paxton.
CNN has previously reported he was facing an FBI investigation for abuse of office and that Justice Department prosecutors in Washington, DC, took over a corruption investigation into Paxton. He is also under indictment for securities fraud in a separate, unrelated case. Paxton has denied all charges and allegations.
The state House probe came after Paxton had sought to settle a lawsuit with four former employees of the attorney general’s office. Whistleblowers had accused him of using his authority to benefit political friend Nate Paul, a real estate investor who had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Paxton’s campaign. In the settlement, Paxton apologized but did not admit fault or accept liability. He denied wrongdoing and said in a statement he had agreed to the settlement “to put this issue to rest.”
One of the impeachment articles accuses Paxton of using employees of the attorney general’s office to write a legal opinion intended to help Paul avoid the foreclosure sale of properties owned by Paul and his businesses.
It was among a series of articles focused on Paxton’s relationship with Paul, including accusations he hired an outside attorney who issued more than 30 grand jury subpoenas while investigating a “baseless complaint” made by Paul, benefited from Paul hiring a woman with whom Paxton “was having an extramarital affair,” and provided Paul with favorable legal help in exchange for renovations on Paxton’s home.
The articles of impeachment also detail what are described as Paxton’s efforts to cause “protracted” delays in the securities fraud investigation.
And the articles say voters in November did not have a full understanding of Paxton’s legal troubles because he had intentionally obscured the details of the charges he faces.
“Paxton then concealed the facts underlying his criminal charges from voters by causing protracted delay of the trial, which deprived the electorate of its opportunity to make an informed decision when voting for attorney general,” the impeachment articles state.
A wild week
The impeachment of Paxton follows a wild week in which the attorney general accused House Speaker Phelan of presiding over the House chamber while drunk and called for the speaker’s resignation.
On Tuesday, Paxton posted on Twitter a letter to the state House ethics panel, asking for an investigation into Phelan for performing his duties in what Paxton described as “an obviously intoxicated state.”
Paxton’s call for Phelan’s resignation came after video circulated on social media last weekend of Phelan appearing to slur his words as he presided over the House chamber at the end of a late-night session. Paxton did not present any evidence beyond the video clips to support his claim Phelan was drunk.
“It is with profound disappointment that I call on Speaker Dade Phelan to resign at the end of this legislative session,” Paxton said in a statement he posted on Twitter. “Texans were dismayed to witness his performance presiding over the Texas House in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.”
Less than an hour later, the state House General Investigating Committee revealed it had subpoenaed records from Paxton’s office as part of an investigation Phelan’s office said had started in March. The committee, whose members are appointed by Phelan, voted unanimously Thursday to recommend Paxton’s impeachment.
Phelan’s office said Paxton’s allegation was merely retaliation for the House ethics panel’s probe.
“Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounts to little more than a last-ditch effort to save face,” Phelan communications director Cait Wittman said in a statement Tuesday.
Democratic Rep. Terry Canales said the broader context of last week’s all-day session made clear Phelan “was not under the influence.”
“At that point in the night the House had been in session over 13 hours and we had been doing so for multiple days in a row. We were all exhausted,” Canales said in a statement. “Nevertheless, I had multiple interactions with the speaker throughout the day and that night and I can say unequivocally he was not under the influence.”
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CNN’s Rosa Flores, and Cheri Mosburg contributed to this report.