Paxton can’t use donor money to fight indictment

FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2015 file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, right, looks at one of the special prosecutors during a pretrial motion hearing at the Collin County courthouse, in McKinney, Texas. Paxton, who says he won’t resign despite criminal charges of defrauding investors and a separate investigation into a profitable land deal, may soon let supporters cover his costly legal bills, an arrangement that would skirt the general ban on using donor money for personal use. A state ethics board is expected to decide Monday, Feb. 1 if the Republican can lean on supporters to cover what will likely be a lengthy and expensive courtroom battle. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News Via AP, Pool, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — State ethics regulators denied Texas’ attorney general their blessing Monday to let political donors pay his criminal defense, a surprise decision that could intensify pressure on the state’s top prosecutor.

Republican Ken Paxton could still use wealthy supporters to cover his legal bills connected to felony charges of defrauding investors, but he risks doing so without a key seal-of-approval from the Texas Ethics Commission, which declined to interpret such donations as legal.

Paxton, who says he won’t resign despite charges of securities fraud and separate investigation into a profitable land deal, has not said how he is paying for his high-powered defense team. He is prohibited from using taxpayer dollars and is also barred from tapping his campaign account.

Entirely appointed by state Republican leaders, the ethics board had drafted a lengthy opinion that would have sanctioned Paxton using out-of-state doors but came up a vote shy of approval.

“The opinion invited an indicted, cash-strapped attorney general to put a ‘For Sale’ sign on his office. At the end of the day, the Ethics Commission simply refused to write an ethical blank check to Ken Paxton,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

McDonald was the only person to testify to the commission Monday. His group has long caused trouble for Texas Republicans in the past, most notably former Gov. Rick Perry against whom they filed the original complaint that led to the former 2016 presidential candidate being indicted.

Paxton’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment. His criminal attorneys have said they were not involved in the ethics matter.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have previously declined to comment over whether they would be OK with Paxton tapping donors to pay for his defense. Neither has publically pressured Paxton since he was indicted in July, but they also haven’t enthusiastically come to his defense.

Before the vote, the ethics board appeared troubled that an anonymous person with unknown ties had asked whether giving financial gifts to the attorney general would be legal.

“Bribery is the elephant in the attic,” board commissioner Paul Hobby said.

Financial gifts to politicians are generally prohibited, and some board members wondered how giving Paxton permission to take donor dollars would be OK even under his own agency’s rules, which are designed to safeguard against corruption and undue influence.

“I was prohibited by policy from buying a Subway sandwich,” said commissioner Jim Clancy, recalling a lunch he once had with two prosecutors in the attorney general’s office. “I wonder how it’s possible that this opinion could not already be prohibited by the attorney generals’ own practices if I could not buy someone a $6 sandwich.”

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