Texas G.O.P. Leaders Clash

Texas G.O.P. Leaders Clash Over Accusations of Corruption and Drunkenness

Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the Republican House speaker of being intoxicated, as he suggested that lawmakers were preparing to impeach him over corruption allegations.

By J. David Goodman and David Montgomery Reporting from Austin
May 24, 2023 Updated 3:32 p.m. ET

The barely concealed disdain brewing for months among top Republicans in Texas burst into public view this week when the attorney general, Ken Paxton, who is under indictment, accused the speaker of the Texas House of performing his duties while drunk and called for the speaker’s resignation.

The move on Tuesday sent a shock through Austin. Then, less than an hour later, word came that Mr. Paxton might have had a personal motive for attacking the speaker, Dade Phelan: A House committee had subpoenaed records from Mr. Paxton’s office, as part of an inquiry into the attorney general’s request for $3.3 million in state money to settle corruption allegations brought against him by his own former high-ranking aides.

The Republican-controlled House panel — the Committee on General Investigating — met on Wednesday and heard three hours of detailed public testimony from its investigators who found that Mr. Paxton had very likely committed crimes, including felonies, as he abused and misused his office to help a real estate developer and donor, and retaliated against those in his office who spoke up against him.

The sordid accusations recalled an earlier era of outlandish behavior and political posturing in the State Capitol. But the tangled web of resentments and finger-pointing also highlighted a much simpler and more consequential political reality in Texas: Though they have total control over the Legislature and of every statewide office, Republicans have not always agreed on what to do with their power.

The investigators — who included former prosecutors, and a former U.S. attorney in the Trump administration who is the son of Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor — outlined the evidence they had collected against Mr. Paxton. As they met, the attorney general suggested on Twitter that he believed the Texas House was preparing a case to impeach him.

“It is not surprising that a committee appointed by liberal Speaker Dade Phelan would seek to disenfranchise Texas voters and sabotage my work as attorney general,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement on Wednesday aimed at his base of supporters, many of whom view Mr. Phelan as aligned with Democrats.

Mr. Paxton did not refer explicitly to impeachment, but his comment about disenfranchising voters appeared to be a reference to a possible outcome of the committee’s investigation.

The internal dissent broke into the open in dramatic fashion on Tuesday.

“It is with profound disappointment that I call on Speaker Dade Phelan to resign at the end of this legislative session,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement on Tuesday. “Texans were dismayed to witness his performance presiding over the Texas House in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.”

Mr. Paxton posted an image of a letter he sent on Tuesday asking the general investigating committee to look into possible violations.

It was just as that committee was getting ready to hold its meeting about Mr. Paxton’s case on Tuesday that the attorney general made his accusation against Mr. Phelan, 47. He did so based on video circulating online from a late-night session of the Texas House on Friday. At about the 5 hour 29 minute mark in an official House video, Mr. Phelan appears to slur his words as he is speaking.

Some people who were inside the House chamber on Friday said they did not notice any issues with Mr. Phelan’s behavior, even though his speech did sound slurred in one section of video, which came toward the end of more than 12 hours of hearings and votes overseen by Mr. Phelan that day.

Representative Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, spoke in the House just after the moment shown in the clip. He said on Wednesday that he had not noticed any unusual behavior by Mr. Phelan.

Mr. Phelan did not respond directly to Mr. Paxton’s accusations. Even so, they underscored the degree to which his leadership of the Texas House has enraged far-right lawmakers and conservative activists, a wing of the Republican Party in Texas with whom Mr. Paxton has long been aligned. They have complained that Mr. Phelan has blocked or watered down their priorities — on law enforcement at the border, public money for private school vouchers or displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The Texas House has often acted as a relatively moderate Republican bulwark against the most conservative instincts of the party’s right wing, to the consternation of some in Austin and the relief of others.


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