Ken Paxton (Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — As courtroom twists go, this one is practically unheard-of: On the brink of bringing Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, to trial on felony securities fraud charges, the government’s prosecutors are threatening to bail out of the case unless they get paid.
Whether one of the biggest criminal cases in Texas finally goes before a jury is now in limbo over what prosecutors contend is a deliberate effort by rich supporters of Paxton, an up-and-coming firebrand in Republican legal circles, to delay justice by challenging their paychecks. So far, the tactic is working.
Paxton, who was a state lawmaker and investor on the side before being elected attorney general two years ago, was indicted for allegedly steering investors to a technology startup in 2011 without disclosing that he was being paid by the company.
A judge appointed two high-profile Houston attorneys to prosecute the case after the district attorney, a Paxton ally, recused himself. The trial is scheduled to start May 1, and the judge said Wednesday he will issue a ruling Thursday on whether to postpone the trial. He also told both sides to stop making comments to the media. Paxton’s lawyers declined comment as they left the court Wednesday.
Supporters of Paxton have made an issue of the $300-an-hour fees being charged by the special prosecutors, who are paid by the Dallas suburban county where the trial will be held. A three-judge panel of a Dallas appeals court agreed to halt payments on the $200,000 in legal bills while it considers a lawsuit filed by Jeff Blackard, a wealthy Dallas developer and onetime Paxton political donor, who has argued that the fees were excessive and costing taxpayers too much.
“Everyone in the courtroom is being paid except for us,” one of the appointed prosecutors, Brian Wice, has said. “No one expected us to work for free.”
Firing back, Paxton’s attorneys earlier this month accused prosecutors of being “financially self-serving” and argued they don’t have a right to be paid until the case is over. As of last year, Paxton had raised more than $300,000 from private sources to pay his own high-powered defense team.
Legal observers say they’ve never seen a case jeopardized quite like this.
“It’s outrageous that the prosecution should be derailed by the defendant somehow, or the defendant’s supporters or friends, defunding the prosecution,” said Joe Turner, a veteran Austin attorney who helped Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey beat drug busts years ago.
The challenge is the latest development in Paxton’s rise to prominence. In two years in office — nearly all of which has been spent under indictment — the 54-year-old Paxton has taken the mantle as Texas’ freedom-loving, federal government-suing defender of conservative causes. He led the lawsuits that halted former President Barack Obama’s efforts to expand transgender rights and challenged a Texas school district’s designation of a Muslim student prayer room.
Paxton, who faces 5 to 99 years in prison if convicted, has said he’s innocent of the charges and has signaled he will run for re-election in 2018.
After the indictment, there was grumbling in conservative Collin County over the escalating tab being paid to the two appointed prosecutors. Wice has in the past represented former Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money laundering charges. Kent Schaffer’s clients have included the actress Farrah Fawcett and former Texas tycoon Allen Stanford, who was convicted of bilking investors out of more than $7 billion in one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history
The rates are in line with at least one other high-profile Texas case: Special prosecutors who brought abuse-of-office charges against former Gov. Rick Perry, who is now the energy secretary in the Trump administration, originally made $300 hourly before their rate was later bumped down to $250.
Blackard’s attorney denies that the lawsuit is a ploy to keep Paxton from facing a jury.
“It’s not about whether Paxton is or is not prosecuted. It’s about whether the taxpayers’ money is spent properly,” said attorney Eddie Greim, who is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Prosecutors told a judge in court documents that Blackard “has already succeeded in shutting down this prosecution” and warned that having to appoint replacements will only drag the case out further.
Perhaps the closest thing to a similar case elsewhere happened in McHenry County, Illinois, near Chicago, in 2009 when officials fumed over paying more than a half-million dollars to special prosecutors hired to investigate their state’s attorney, who was eventually acquitted of corruption charges. That led to passage of a law putting cost-cutting rules on using special prosecutors.
Associated Press Writer Claudia Lauer in McKinney, Texas, contributed to this report.