Criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton remains threatened after court upholds prosecutor pay decision

Texas Tribune News

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference on January 12, 2017.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference on January 12, 2017.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid.

Paxton, who was indicted in July 2015, spent nearly all of his first term under a legal cloud and was narrowly re-elected in November with criminal charges dogging him. As the indictment nears its fourth birthday, his trial continues to be pushed off.

The makeup of the high court has changed since the last decision came down, but just a little, with the election of Judge Michelle Slaughter. Slaughter replaced Elsa Alcala, who passionately dissented from the decision against the prosecutors.

Paxton is accused of misleading investors into buying stock in a North Texas tech firm and failing to register with the state. The Texas State Securities Board fined him $1,000 in connection with one instance of soliciting clients without being registered; Paxton signed the order and did not dispute its findings. He has been cleared of related civil charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Paxton has denied the charges. A spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Paxton’s trial was, once upon a time, set for May 2017, but has seen delay after delay — many of them entirely unmoored from his guilt or innocence. The longest-dragging has been the pay case, which the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to hear in December 2017. More than 18 months later, it has yet to be resolved. The high court, often criticized for its slow pace, is not bound by external deadlines.

Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors, did not immediately return a request for comment.