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 try to 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 a 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.
Three members of Paxton's defense team issued a statement saying they are not "troubled" by Paxton's ability to pay them.
"We assumed responsibility in his case because we believe in his defense. This ruling doesn't change our commitment," the statement read.
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 publicly 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."
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber