Texas senators grill embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton over election lawsuit, Google case
By Allie Morris
AUSTIN — Facing tough questions from state senators, embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton defended his office’s failed effort to overturn presidential election results in key battleground states and its decision to spend millions of dollars on a lawsuit against Google.
The Senate finance hearing Wednesday marks the first time Paxton has had to answer publicly to state legislators about his controversial, high-profile actions over the last several months.
The Republican has drawn national criticism for challenging the election results in four other states and attending the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., before a mob attacked the Capitol. The state’s top attorney is also being sued for retaliation by several former senior staff after they accused him of abusing the office to help a friend and campaign donor. The FBI is investigating the accusations, which Paxton has denied, according to The Associated Press.
Senators of both parties were uncharacteristically critical of the state’s top lawyer.
Several questioned his office’s request for $43 million to cover outside legal services to support antitrust litigation against Google. Roughly $20 million is needed to pay for subject experts, agency officials said Wednesday.
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, questioned why the office needed to hire outside lawyers when lawmakers have funded pay raises in the past to help the agency retain top legal talent.
“I continue to have big concerns about some of the outside counsel that is being hired,” she said during the committee hearing in Austin.
Several Republican senators raised concern about a settlement agreement reached with opioid manufacturers they said could cut the Legislature out of decisions over how the money is spent.
At one point, finance committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson told Paxton she was “very, very unhappy” the agency allocated tens of millions of dollars to raise salaries without legislative approval at a time when money is tight.
“We have an appropriations process for a reason and if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We wouldn’t even need a budget.”
Paxton said he wished the agency “had done that one differently.”
Otherwise, the second-term attorney general largely stood his ground. He defended the agency’s decision to bring on two outside firms to lead the antitrust case against Google, a tech company he called a “significant force.”
“Google has pretty much unlimited resources. There was never anybody in my office that could handle that alone,” he said. “We wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field.”
While lawmakers questioned Paxton about his agency’s dealings, none asked directly about the criminal allegations lodged against him by his top staff last fall. Seven of the agency’s top employees accused Paxton of using the office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer. They have all since left, after being fired or resigning, and several are now suing the agency.
Paxton has denied the claims, saying the officials thwarted his agency’s ability to investigate claims of wrongdoing Paul made against federal agents who raided his home in 2019.
Sen. Royce West grilled Paxton on his unsuccessful legal bid to overturn election results in four states that helped Democrat Joe Biden win the presidency.
West, D-Dallas, pressed agency officials about how much the state spent pursuing the lawsuit, though the total cost is still unknown. Two outside attorneys who worked on the case did it for free and printing costs were $12,000, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster said.
Paxton, Webster and a few other attorneys worked on preparing and filing the case, Webster said. The cost of their time is not known. Their work hours were not tracked, he said.
“This is a leadership-led initiative,” he said.
The New York Times has reported the election complaint was written by attorneys close to President Donald Trump and then filed by Paxton’s office. That did not come up Wednesday.