AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Unexplained Caribbean and European trips that cost taxpayers more than $90,000. A $600 sports coat paid for by an event organizer. A $45 office Christmas cake taken as his own.
These are among the perks that Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s former employees say he reveled in while using his office in ways that now have him facing a federal criminal investigation and potential ouster over allegations of corruption.
Paxton’s impeachment trial that starts Tuesday covers years of highly publicized scandal, criminal charges and whistleblower accounts from his inner circle.
But records obtained by The Associated Press, interviews with former aides and a review of thousands of legal filings reveal other ways in which Paxton allegedly reaped the benefits of being one of Texas’ most powerful figures. Together, they show how conviction and removal from office could cost Paxton not just a job but a lifestyle.
Last year, that lifestyle included more international trips than Texas’ governor and lieutenant governor made combined, and a previously unreported visit to Qatar to watch the World Cup. There are also accusations of behavior that raised eyebrows among employees at all levels of Paxton’ office, including requesting special license plates but never paying the $12.50 to acquire them.
“He always cared about what trip he was going on, who was taking him to dinner,” James Blake Brickman, one of Paxton’s former deputies, told investigators leading the impeachment in March, according to a transcript.
“He likes the perks of the office,” Brickman said.
Spokespersons for Paxton and the attorney general’s office did not respond to questions about the accusations made by Paxton’s former staff. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will act as judge during the impeachment trial, issued a sweeping gag order.
First elected in 2014, Paxton has built a national profile, using his office to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election, challenge Biden administration policies, and to fight for conservative social causes. He won reelection twice despite the clouds of a securities fraud indictment and an ongoing FBI investigation.
The federal investigation and impeachment focus on allegations by eight of Paxton’s former top deputies that he helped a wealthy donor fend off an FBI investigation. In return, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul allegedly employed a woman with whom Paxton had an extramarital affair and bankrolled the renovations of his million-dollar Austin home. Both men have denied wrongdoing.
Beyond friendly audiences and conservative-leaning television news networks, Paxton seldom makes public appearances. Bill Miller, a veteran Austin lobbyist, said the accusations that have engulfed Paxton for years “color the perception of him” but don’t resemble the man he’s long called a friend.
“He’s a genuinely nice guy and a cool customer,” Miller said. “He’s really good at making you like him.”
As attorney general, Paxton is paid around $153,000 annually, a salary lower than many of his top aides. His wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, has worked as an educator and receives $7,200 for serving in the Texas Legislature, which meets for six months every two years.
The full extent of the couple’s wealth is unknown. Their required financial disclosures offer a blurry picture. For instance, the most recent filings value their blind trust at “$47,220 or more.”
Last year, Paxton’s travels were extensive. Records show that after winning a Republican primary runoff against George P. Bush — who cast Paxton as unfit for office — Paxton spent two months flying to cities in the Caribbean and Europe. It’s unclear who paid for Paxton’s travel, but the trips cost taxpayers a combined $91,000 for his security detail.
The purpose of the travel, which was first reported by The Dallas Morning News, is also unclear. Spokespersons for Paxton and the attorney general’s office did not respond to questions about the trips, which Paxton did not publicize.
A few months later, Paxton was in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup — a trip that does not appear in his filings or security records. Another Republican state attorney general, Sean Reyes of Utah, also attended and disclosed through a spokesman that Qatar’s government paid his expenses without saying how much they were.
In a statement, Qatar’s embassy in Washington said it invited four state attorneys generals as part of “wider efforts in combatting transnational crime, including human trafficking.” Jeff Norwood, a Paxton spokesman, said Paxton paid his own way to the tournament and attended without state police security.
Former employees say Paxton sometimes seized smaller opportunities to gain from office.
David Maxwell, the attorney general’s former head of law enforcement and one of eight deputies who reported him to the FBI, told investigators that Paxton once bought a $600 sports coat from a hotel store while at a conference and billed it to the event’s organizer. According to transcripts, Maxwell also said Paxton asked for specialty license plates available to state officials but never paid the nominal fee to pick them up.
”He was all about money,” said Maxwell, who is also a former Texas Ranger, the state’s elite law enforcement division. “He always had his hand out.”
Other former staff point to an even smaller gift.
Around Christmas for years, Texas grocery giant H-E-B sent a coconut-dusted cake to the attorney general’s office, which staff shared.
That changed after Paxton was elected, according to three former employees of his executive office who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
One said Paxton once told staff not to touch the cake because it was for his birthday, which is on Dec. 23. Another said Paxton once had the cake brought to a Tex-Mex restaurant for a staff lunch but never served it. The third recalled watching Paxton and an aide walk out of the office carrying the cake box.
According to required gift logs kept by Paxton’s office, the cake was worth $45.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.