HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (Nexstar) — After eight years of delays and a change in venue, suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton appeared in a Harris County court Thursday morning in a securities fraud case against him.
Paxton faces felony charges and is accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup after being indicted in 2015. The suspended attorney general also faces an upcoming impeachment trial next month in the Texas Senate for a slew of misconduct allegations related to abuse of office.
“It’s a good day for Texas because it’s on the road to healing. It’s on the road to justice. Finally, something’s going to be done one way or another,” prosecutor Kent Schaffer said.
The pretrial hearing lasted just nine minutes. Thursday’s developments were simple procedural matters to determine the logistics of a coming trial, yet lawyers on each side stressed the significance of reaching this moment.
“I think one of the game changers today is being in front of a judge who understands the law, who is dedicated to ruling on motions,” prosecutor Brian Wice said. “With all due respect, for the two plus, three plus years this case was in another court, that didn’t happen because the judge was either unable or unwilling.”
Paxton’s defense attorney Dan Cogdell said the eventual outcome of this trial will be largely influenced by the outcome of Paxton’s separate impeachment trial set to begin on Sep. 5.
“Logically, if Ken prevails [in the impeachment trial], we’ll go forward. If Ken loses, that’s a killshot to his political career, so it opens the door for a resolution and it’s not open right now.” Cogdell said.
Judge Andrea Beall set a setting date for Oct. 6, when she might rule on pre-trial motions and could set a trial date for Paxton, if necessary. Although, all parties involved in the case acknowledged their next steps toward resolving the case might vary depending on if Paxton is removed from office as a result of the Senate impeachment trial.
Cogdell said that “resolution” could be a settlement, plea bargain, or dismissal.
Delays in the securities fraud case
Last month in a 6-3 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided the case should remain in Houston, settling a key issue in the case as Paxton faces an impeachment trial in the Texas Senate next month. His case originally was in Collin County, where Paxton lives, but the trial judge there had lost jurisdiction over the case.
Shortly after the Republican was first elected to the Office of Attorney General, a Collin County grand jury indicted Paxton in 2015 on two counts of securities fraud — a first-degree felony with a punishment of up to 99 years in prison — and one count of failing to register with state securities regulators — a third-degree felony with a maximum 10 years in prison.
The charges stem from 2011 when Paxton allegedly sought out investors in Servergy Inc. — a tech company based in his hometown of McKinney — without saying he was being paid by Servergy to promote its stock.
At the end of May, Paxton was suspended after the Texas House voted 121-23 to impeach him on allegations related to his securities fraud case, as well as other accusations of misconduct throughout his tenure in the office. Paxton denied wrongdoing and decried the efforts as a political “witch hunt.”
Paxton’s security fraud case was originally set in Collin County, but in 2017 prosecutors began a fight to change the venue. They argued that finding potential impartial jurors and getting a fair trial would not be possible in the area that Paxton had represented politically for 12 years. Before becoming attorney general, he was a state representative for 10 years and a state senator for two years.
Before the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in June that the case would remain in Houston, defense and prosecutors went back and forth fighting over the venue for years. Paxton’s team successfully got the case back to Collin County in 2020 after arguing the judge who had sent the case to Harris County no longer had jurisdiction in Paxton’s case. Prosecutors appealed and ultimately got the case back to Harris County.
The battle over which county his case would be heard in was only one factor of several that caused years of delays. Issues with six-figure payments for the prosecutors in the case lengthened the time of the appeal, and additionally, defense lawyers for Paxton took issue with the grand jury procedure in his indictment and had asked to get the charges dismissed altogether.
Benjamin Gergen, an Austin-based criminal defense attorney and partner with Gergen Hale & Campbell, said Thursday’s court setting was a big step in ensuring the court moves forward with the case.
“For the first time, Ken Paxton has been ordered to appear before the Democratic Harris County District Judge,” he said. “This sends a message that this 8-year-old case may pick up speed quickly because the court wouldn’t force a defendant to attend on a case of this age without something more substantive than a quick check-in and reset to a later date.”
This securities fraud criminal case is separate from Paxton’s impeachment trial, which begins on Sept. 5 at the Texas Capitol. Per the Texas Constitution, senators will act as a jury and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick will preside over the trial.
No aspect of the trial will include criminal charges; senators’ vote will determine whether or not Paxton must be permanently removed from office. The allegations against Paxton include bribery, abuse of office, and obstruction. The Republican has faced controversies and criminal charges hanging over his tenure.