AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — How much does an extramarital affair matter to whether Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton keeps his job? An answer may arrive soon.
The question hangs over the Republican's impeachment trial as it approaches the final stretch of testimony before a jury of state senators decides whether Paxton should be removed from office on charges of corruption and bribery. Most of the senators are Republicans and one is his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, although she will not have a vote in the verdict.
But she has attended the entire trial so far, including Monday, when she sat in the Senate chamber as one of her husband's former employees gave an account of the affair in the most public detail to date: How the relationship took a toll on staffers, how she urged Paxton to consider the risks and how she asked him to tell his wife about the woman.
“Just because somebody has an affair doesn’t mean they’re a — quote — ‘criminal’ does it?” Tony Buzbee, Paxton’s attorney, asked when it was the defense’s turn to respond.
“I would not associate that directly,” said Katherine Cary, a former chief of staff in Paxton’s office, who is now one of six ex-employees to testify against their former boss since the trial began last week.
The exchange capped one of the most distinctive moments of witness testimony so far after five days of former Paxton aides giving accounts of how one of Texas' most powerful figures allegedly abused his power to help a local real estate developer who was under FBI investigation. Nate Paul, who once gave Paxton a $25,000 campaign contribution, was indicted in June on charges of making false statements to banks. He has pleaded not guilty. Paul also employed the woman with whom Paxton had the affair.
On Tuesday, the jurors heard testimony from the junior Houston defense attorney whom Paxton hired to look into Paul's allegations, including that Paxton urged the lawyer to communicate with him over an encrypted messaging app.
The affair is one of 20 articles of impeachment, alleging that Paul received favorable access as Paxton benefited from Paul employing the woman. Jeff Mateer, Paxton's former second-in-command, testified last week that the relationship connected the dots as to why Texas' top lawyer appeared so determined to help Paul look into claims that he had been wronged by FBI agents and a judge.
Lawmakers leading the impeachment also have alleged that Paxton, who was elected to a third term in November despite years of criminal charges and alleged scandal, had a political motivation to hide the affair.
"The affair is important because it goes to Ken Paxton's political strength. He knows that with his folks he is family values," Democratic state Rep. Ann Johnson said in May, moments before the House overwhelmingly voted to impeach Paxton.
Cary, the former chief of staff, said on the witness stand Monday that she told Paxton the affair carried political and ethical risks. She alleged that Paxton at first lied about who the woman was and that the affair took a toll on staff who were forced to work long and odd hours as the relationship unfolded.
She said Angela Paxton sometimes called the office with questions about her husband’s schedule and that the conversations made staff uncomfortable.
“I told General Paxton quite bluntly it wasn’t my business who he was sleeping with, but when things bleed over into the office and into the state work, it becomes my business,” she said.
When it came to Angela Paxton, Cary said, “My heart broke for her.”
Ken Paxton, who has pleaded not guilty, is not required to be present for testimony and has not been in the Senate for most of the trial, including for Cary's testimony.
Angela Paxton took notes at her desk as Cary testified about the affair that began in 2018, the year Angela Paxton won her Senate seat. She cruised to reelection last year and said on the eve of the impeachment trial that she would seek a third term, making the announcement alongside her husband at a Labor Day picnic near their home in suburban Dallas.
Before becoming a senator, Angela Paxton would entertain crowds at her husband’s political events with a guitar and song, singing, “I’m a pistol-packin’ mama and my husband sues Obama.” She and all senators have been ordered not speak about the impeachment trial while the proceedings are ongoing.
A two-thirds majority — or 21 senators — is required for conviction. If all 12 Democrats vote against Paxton, at least nine Republicans would have to join them.
“Imagine if we impeached everyone in Austin who had an affair,” Buzbee said. “We’d be impeaching people for the next 100 years.”
Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg contributed to this report from Dallas.
Find AP's full coverage of the impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton at: https://apnews.com/hub/ken-paxton