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The FBI kept investigating Ken Paxton after he beat impeachment. Will he face federal charges?

Ken Paxton was acquitted of all 16 impeachment charges Saturday. Four other charges were later dismissed.
Michael Minasi
Ken Paxton was acquitted of all 16 impeachment charges Saturday. Four other charges were later dismissed.

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Donald Trump said this week he would consider Ken Paxton for attorney general if he’s elected president again. Paxton, the Texas attorney general, is a rising GOP star who has recently beat impeachment charges and cut a deal to avoid a felony fraud trial.

But Paxton’s legal troubles may not be over.

Federal agents were still actively investigating Paxton for alleged corruption after he was acquitted of related impeachment charges last year, according to multiple sources who spoke with The Texas Newsroom in recent weeks. Among Paxton’s potential crimes listed in newly unearthed federal grand jury documents included bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.

News of the FBI investigation first broke in fall 2020. Paxton is alleged to have repeatedly abused his position as attorney general to help Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate investor and campaign donor. It’s unclear whether the FBI is still investigating. If the federal probe is still active, it would now be more than three years old.

Two former federal prosecutors said it’s not uncommon for a complex investigation involving a public official to drag on this long.

Sometimes federal investigators get a lead that takes them months – even years – to run down, they said. New witnesses may need to be convinced to flip, they said, and elections can also delay cases because it’s not preferable to announce charges against someone who’s actively running for office.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District and Paxton’s attorneys declined to comment for this story.

The feds could have closed the probe without a public announcement, or could still be planning on bringing charges against Paxton. If they move forward, the Department of Justice will want a case that sticks, the experts said.

“DOJ doesn’t want to shoot and get it wrong,” said Jeff Ansley, an attorney who worked on fraud and corruption cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas for almost a decade.

Paxton was re-elected to a third four-year term in November 2022. He has also been active in this year’s legislative races, targeting fellow Republicans who backed his impeachment and helping shape the future of the Texas GOP.

A close ally of Donald Trump, Paxton has risen to national prominence as an immigration hardliner and a top conservative opponent of abortion and the expansion of LGBTQ rights.

Is the FBI still investigating Paxton?

Three people with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Texas Newsroom that federal agents were in the state working the case in late fall of 2023.

Two of the sources, who said they did not want to be named because they feared retaliation from Paxton and his allies, said officials from the U.S. Department of Justice interviewed witnesses in October.

A third source testified in front of a federal grand jury about Paxton in early August and was aware of counsel last speaking with federal authorities in early October, the source said. This source wanted to remain unnamed out of concerns about political and personal retribution for being tied to the case.

The Texas Senate voted to acquit Paxton on articles of impeachment in September.

The federal investigation and impeachment proceedings were directly linked. Both were prompted by thesame allegations from former agency staffers that Paxton repeatedly abused his power to help Paul, who himself was also under federal investigation at the time.

Paul was charged with federal financial crimes last summer. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Associated Press and Austin American-Statesman reported that a federal grand jury met in August to hear from witnesses close to Paxton. After the impeachment trial wrapped, Bloomberg wrote that a key witness who had refused to testify in that case was subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury in late October.

Justice Department officials in Washington reportedly took over the investigation, according to the AP, after Paxton’s lawyers complained federal investigators in Texas had a conflict of interest.

Experts said cases like this must be handled carefully.

“It’s not uncommon for a federal investigation to take years,” said John Teakell, who served in the U.S. attorney’s offices in Dallas and Puerto Rico and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Ansley agreed, saying public corruption cases can take longer than “anything in the entire federal lexicon.” Paul’s federal case, the impeachment trial and moving the case from Texas to main Justice further complicates things, he added.

“That makes these things draw on for a painfully long time period,” Ansley said.

Grand jury records released

Paxton’s own attorneys have acknowledged the FBI is investigating him. But the federal government has not publicly confirmed the probe’s existence.

However, earlier this month, the Texas Newsroom obtained federal grand jury records from 2021 that shed light on the scope of the investigation. The documents, which include a federal judge’s order, are labeled “filed under seal” and “confidential.”

According to the order from U.S. District Court Judge David Alan Ezra – dated August 17, 2021 – the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office were investigating “several potential federal crimes involving Ken Paxton” and other people, including obstruction of justice, retaliation against witnesses, bribery, honest services wire fraud and conspiracy. The grand jury investigation “concerns Paxton’s alleged use of his official position and power” to benefit Paul, Ezra wrote in the order, “as well as Paxton’s purported efforts to thwart” the investigation.

It’s unclear whether the scope of the federal probe has expanded since this order was filed in 2021.

In the order, Ezra also told the Office of the Attorney General to turn over documents to federal investigators. Paxton’s agency had argued it needed to withhold confidential communications.

“[Paxton’s agency] will not be permitted to derail this grand jury investigation by wavering on its privilege assertions and compliance decisions in response to the [U.S. Attorney’s Office] investigative measures. Nor can it belatedly submit a mountain of records for the Court’s review to stall the grand jury’s investigation,” Ezra wrote.

The Texas Newsroom found the records among thousands of pages of documents submitted as exhibits in Paxton’s impeachment trial but not released publicly. Over the course of the last few months, the Texas Senate has allowed a reporter to review them in person, and then purchase copies of the documents.

Rusty Hardin, one of the lawyers who prosecuted Paxton’s impeachment, said the attorney general’s office sent the documents to his team as part of the discovery process. Because the records were sealed, the prosecution didn’t present them as public exhibits during trial.

He said he did not know whether federal investigators knew the documents were given to the prosecution, nor did he know how Paxton’s agency had access to the sealed records.

“We received it from the AG’s office with no restrictions,” Hardin said.

In addition to impeachment and the FBI investigation, Paxton also faced state securities fraud charges for nearly nine years. He cut a deal with prosecutors in March to complete community service and legal ethics training in lieu of going to trial.

Paxton did not admit guilt in the case, which dated back to before Paxton was first elected attorney general in 2014. He will pay his accusers $270,000 in restitution.

Dan Cogdell, one of Paxton’s lawyers, pointed out that the three federal grand jury documents The Texas Newsroom obtained are labeled confidential and that the case remains under seal. He declined to comment on their contents for this story.

The day the deal was announced, March 26, Cogdell said he did not know if the federal investigation into Paxton was still active.

“They don't call me. They don't text me. They don't send me Christmas cards,” Cogdell said at the time.

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Lauren McGaughy