Texas Capitol jolted by investigation of attorney general, accusation House speaker was drunk on job

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused state House Speaker Dade Phelan of being drunk on the job. (KEYE, TEXAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, CNN)
Published: May. 23, 2023 at 5:18 PM MST
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas lawmakers revealed Tuesday a monthslong corruption investigation into Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, going public with the probe shortly after Paxton accused the GOP House speaker of being drunk on the job.

Hours after Paxton’s claim, House Speaker Dade Phelan announced the House General Investigating Committee has been looking into “alleged illegal conduct” by Paxton, who is already under FBI investigation over accusations of corruption by former staff. Phelan brushed off Paxton’s allegation as a desperate attempt “to save face.”

Both jolted the Texas Capitol near the frantic end of a legislative session that has again laid bare the raw divisions between Republicans who control every level of power in the state goverment.

At stake for Paxton in the final days of the session is whether lawmakers will approve using $3.3 million in taxpayer dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by the attorney general’s accusers. Paxton, who also separately remains indicted on securities fraud charges from 2015, has denied wrongdoing.

Phelan has previously expressed reservations about using state dollars to allow Paxton to settle the lawsuit. On Tuesday, after Paxton accused Phelan of being intoxicated while presiding over the Texas House and called on him to resign, Phelan revealed that a House General Investigating Committee has been looking into the settlement and accusation of bribery and abuse of office from Paxton’s former top deputies.

“Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounts to little more than a last ditch effort to save face,” Phelan said in a statement.

The committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday. The full scope of its investigation is not clear but members sent a letter to Paxton ordering his office to preserve documents and communications surrounding the settlement.

Since April, the committee has issued at least 12 subpoenas for testimony and information to people and entities as part of its probe of Paxton’s office, according to meeting minutes that note the parties were left anonymous to “prevent reprisal and retaliation.”

This month, a committee lawyer began asking people questions about the allegations made in the whistleblower lawsuit by four of Paxton’s former staffers, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation that had not been made public.

The group that sued was among eight of Paxton’s staff members who reported him to the FBI in 2020 on accusations of breaking the law to help one of his campaign contributors. The donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, employed a woman with whom Paxton acknowledged having had an extramarital affair. In February, the federal criminal investigation of Paxton was taken over by the U.S. Justice Department’s Washington-based Public Integrity Section.

Each of Paxton’s accusers later quit or was fired. In the years since, his agency has come unmoored by disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned lawyers quitting over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent. But until now GOP lawmakers had shown little appetite for looking into a member of their party who’s kept up a steady stream of constrictive legal challenges to the Democratic Biden administration.

Tuesday’s dust-up between two of Texas’ top Republicans came as the House was in the middle of a marathon day of trying to pass bills before a key midnight deadline. The legislative session ends on Memorial Day.

Paxton, a former state lawmaker, tweeted that Phelan had been presiding over the Texas House “in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.” He cited no specific evidence, but the tweet came days after conservative critics of Phelan circulated video on social media that appeared to show the speaker slurring his words while presiding over the Texas House on Friday night.

Phelan’s statement did not address the video or the accusations that he was intoxicated. No House members have called for Phelan to step down.

Earlier this month, the same legislative investigative committee recommended the expulsion of GOP Texas state Rep. Bryan Slaton for inappropriate sexual conduct with a 19-year-old intern. Slaton resigned before a planned vote to kick him out.

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Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Acacia Coronado contributed to this report.