Saturday, 20 Apr 2024

G.O.P. Split in Texas Breaks Wide Open With Drunkenness Accusation

The barely concealed disdain brewing for months among top Republicans in Texas burst into public view this week when the attorney general, Ken Paxton, who is under indictment, accused the speaker of the Texas House of performing his duties while drunk and called for the speaker’s resignation.

The move on Tuesday sent a shock through Austin. Then, less than an hour later, word came that Mr. Paxton might have had a personal motive for attacking the speaker, Dade Phelan: A House committee had subpoenaed records from Mr. Paxton’s office, as part of an inquiry into the attorney general’s request for $3.3 million in state money to settle corruption allegations brought against him by his own former high-ranking aides.

The House panel — the Committee on General Investigating — was meeting Wednesday morning to discuss Mr. Paxton; the accusations against him, which came in 2020; and the allegations of retaliation from aides who spoke up about the matter and were then fired, forced out or resigned.

The sordid accusations recalled an earlier era of outlandish behavior and political posturing in the State Capitol. But the tangled web of resentments and finger-pointing also highlighted a much simpler and more consequential political reality in Texas: Though they have total control over the Legislature and of every statewide office, Republicans have not always agreed on what to do with their power.

The internal dissent broke into the open in dramatic fashion on Tuesday.

“It is with profound disappointment that I call on Speaker Dade Phelan to resign at the end of this legislative session,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement. “Texans were dismayed to witness his performance presiding over the Texas House in a state of apparent debilitating intoxication.”

Mr. Paxton posted an image of a letter he had sent on Tuesday asking the general investigating committee to look into possible violations.

It was just as that committee was getting ready to hold its meeting about Mr. Paxton’s case on Tuesday that the attorney general made his accusation against Mr. Phelan, 47. He did so based on video circulating online from a late-night session of the Texas House on Friday. At about the 5 hour 29 minute mark in an official House video, Mr. Phelan appears to slur his words as he is speaking.

Some people who were inside the House chamber on Friday said they did not notice any issues with Mr. Phelan’s behavior, even though his speech did sound slurred in one section of video, which came toward the end of more than 12 hours of hearings and votes overseen by Mr. Phelan that day.

Representative Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, spoke in the House just after the moment shown in the clip. He said on Wednesday that he had not noticed any unusual behavior by Mr. Phelan.

Mr. Phelan did not respond directly to Mr. Paxton’s accusations. Even so, they underscored the degree to which his leadership of the Texas House has enraged far-right lawmakers and conservative activists, a wing of the Republican Party in Texas with whom Mr. Paxton has long been aligned. They have complained that Mr. Phelan has blocked or watered down their priorities — on law enforcement at the border, public money for private school vouchers or displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The Texas House has often acted as a relatively moderate Republican bulwark against the most conservative instincts of the party’s right wing, to the consternation of some in Austin and the relief of others.

The investigation into Mr. Paxton added an unusual element to the usual infighting.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Phelan said it was recent movement in the investigation, which was begun earlier in the legislative session, that had prompted Mr. Paxton’s accusation — specifically, new subpoenas to the attorney general’s office and a letter to Mr. Paxton ordering him to preserve documents in what the committee refers to as “Matter A.”

“The committee is conducting a thorough examination of the events tied to the firing of the whistle blowers, in addition to Ken Paxton’s alleged illegal conduct,” the spokeswoman, Cait Wittman, said late on Tuesday. “Committee minutes show that subpoenas have been issued. Mr. Paxton’s statement today amounts to little more than a last-ditch effort to save face.”

Four of Mr. Paxton’s top aides took concerns about his activities to the F.B.I. and the Texas Rangers. All four were fired.

The aides — Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley, James Blake Brickman and David Maxwell — are all former deputy attorneys general, and Mr. Maxwell is a former director of the office’s law enforcement division. They have told investigators that Mr. Paxton may have committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office. They have also sued Mr. Paxton; the case is pending.

Mr. Paxton has asked the state to pay $3.3 million to settle the lawsuit. Mr. Phelan has said that he did not believe there were the votes in the House needed to approve the payment; he also has said that he did not himself support doing so.

“I don’t think it’s the proper use of taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Phelan said in a February television interview.

Several Republican lawmakers who were approached for comment on Tuesday declined to discuss the subject of Mr. Paxton’s accusations. Representative Chris Turner, a Democrat from the Dallas area, said that because of the accusations against Mr. Paxton, the attorney general was “the last person” who should call “on anyone to resign.”

“This is someone who is under multiple indictments, under an F.B.I. investigation, tried to overturn a presidential election,” he said. “So Ken Paxton ought to tend to his own affairs.”

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief, covering Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012. @jdavidgoodman

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