An investigation by the Texas Rangers into the state attorney general was put to rest Friday by the Kaufman County District Attorney, even as it raised new questions about the administrative judge who kept the case alive.
Kaufman County DA Erleigh Wiley announced that she would not be going to a grand jury with a bribery allegation that had been leveled at Attorney General Ken Paxton. In late 2015, a friend of Paxton’s named Jim Webb donated $100,000 to help him defend against charges of securities fraud, which resulted in some scrutiny.
Under the law, public officials can accept gifts from friends. When investigators had their first meeting with Wiley and Paxton’s defense attorneys about the donation, the defense attorneys simply played a video of Paxton giving a toast at Webb’s wedding.
The investigators were caught off guard, not having realized that the two had a friendship as well as an attorney-client relationship. Instead, they had been looking into a potential quid pro quo transaction.
In 2016, Webb’s medical imaging company had agreed to a $3.5 million settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s office over some procedures that had been improperly supervised. The Texas Attorney General’s office had a minor role in the settlement, although Paxton himself had no involvement, according to state and federal officials quoted by the Dallas Morning News.
“After a thorough review of the evidence gathered during this investigation, my office concluded that Attorney General Paxton had a personal relationship with the donor, in addition to an attorney/client relationship,” Wiley said in a statement.
Those relationships mean that the general ban on gifts to public officials doesn’t apply in this case, she said.
“This exoneration is the latest in a long line of baseless taxpayer-funded investigations,” Paxton spokesman Matt Welch said Friday. “We are pleased, but not surprised, that Attorney General Paxton was once again cleared of false allegations.”
The episode also gives rise to questions about whether Mary Murphy, the presiding judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region, is correctly interpreting a 2015 state law that reordered the way that public corruption cases are investigated and prosecuted. The old law, which was used to appoint three private attorneys from Houston to prosecute Paxton on securities fraud allegations, is no longer in effect.
In the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, wrote a bill that was later signed into law, that 1) took investigative authority from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and gave it to the Texas Rangers; and 2) replaced special prosecutors with local district attorneys.
Under the new law, the Rangers investigate allegations of corruption against public officials and then take their cases to the district attorney for the defendant’s hometown. If that district attorney recuses himself, as happened in this case due to friendship, there’s a procedure for reassigning the case.
That procedure wasn’t followed in this case, Rep. King said. Murphy simply assigned the case to Wiley.
“The DA appointment did not follow the process required by HB 1690,” King said. “As author of that legislation, this is very concerning. This is a question not just of venue but of actual jurisdiction.”
As the presiding judge for the Dallas region, Murphy was the official responsible for bringing in District Judge George Gallagher to preside over Paxton’s criminal trial.
King said that his bill doesn’t grant Murphy the authority to reassign these cases on her own. The decision is supposed to be made jointly by all 11 administrative judges in Texas, along with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, he said. That body holds an annual meeting as required by law, but also frequently gets together by telephone to sort out administrative matters.
The text of the law isn’t as specific as it could be, but it still clearly references a group of administrative judges taking a vote.
“In this section, ‘judges’ means the presiding judges of the administrative judicial regions,” the law states. “Following the recusal of a prosecuting attorney… the judges shall appoint a prosecuting attorney from another county in that administrative judicial region by majority vote.”
Any eventual trial would still be held in the defendant’s home county.
In a press release, Riley said she was appointed by Murphy on Dec. 22, 2016. King’s bill went into law on Oct. 1, 2015.