Texas Tribune Blue Government News
Even after the state’s top criminal court ruled and ruled again on a long-running side battle to the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a trial still seems distant. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors this week filed new legal motions with the potential to spell months of further delays.
The securities fraud case against Paxton has been stalled for years as attorneys duke out side battles, like a dispute over how much the prosecutors may be paid. That remains to be finally resolved, even after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last month reaffirmed its ruling that the $300-per-hour rate initially promised to the special prosecutors fell outside legal limits.
Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer — who have yet to be paid for work on the case completed as long ago as 2016 — had signaled they might withdraw if they could not be paid. But they made clear this week that they are not ready to give up the dispute, asking a Harris County judge for a private “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team.
Meanwhile, Paxton’s defense team has asked that the case be moved back to his hometown of Collin County, years after it was moved from there to Harris County. The case was moved hundreds of miles southeast after the prosecutors claimed that Paxton, a Republican who is well connected in that region and once represented it in the Texas Legislature, would not get a fair trial there.
But Paxton’s defense team argued this week that the judge who moved the case to Harris County two years ago didn’t have the authority to do so, as his term overseeing the case had elapsed.
Philip Hilder, one of Paxton’s defense lawyers, declined to comment on the motion Friday. Anthony Drumheller, the attorney for the special prosecutors, did not immediately return a request for comment.
That leaves Johnson, a Democratic judge overseeing the case, with several issues to mull before Paxton faces a jury. Johnson has not yet responded to either side’s motion.
It’s been nearly four years since a Collin County jury indicted Paxton on felony securities fraud charges, but he has yet to go to trial amid delays including the pay dispute. Paxton has been fighting charges that he misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general. Paxton has pleaded not guilty to all the allegations and was cleared in a similar civil case at the federal level.
Late last month, one of the three prosecutors, Nicole DeBorde, moved to withdraw from the case, citing “a series of professional obligations over the past several months.” She did not indicate whether the pay ruling had motivated her decision.
The special prosecutors were appointed in 2015 after Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis recused himself from the investigation because he knew Paxton.
Amid his legal troubles, Collin County has remained an important base of support for Paxton, whose wife, Angela Paxton, now represents it in the Texas Senate.
Meanwhile, the Collin County Commissioners Court is considering a move to claw back payment already issued to the special prosecutors. The prosecutors received a six-figure payment for work completed on the case before 2016, though their next invoice has yet to be filed amid the legal dispute. After the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that prosecutors’ pay schedule fell outside legal limits, two commissioners said the county is considering whether, and how, to recoup the first payment. Commissioners discussed the matter in a private executive session earlier this month.
Commissioner Susan Fletcher said a lawsuit is one option on the table but that commissioners have not yet come to a decision.
“My duty is to the taxpayers,” she said.