AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Already indicted on felony securities fraud charges, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will face an ethics investigation for advising local officials they could refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in June. A month later, a complaint filed and co-signed by more than 200 attorneys said Paxton's stance encouraged officials to violate the U.S. Constitution and break their oaths of office.
The complaint was initially dismissed by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar of Texas, but an appeals board appointed by the state Supreme Court reinstated it Feb. 2, saying the complaint alleges a "possible violation" of professional conduct rules.
"The complaint has always lacked merit, and we are confident the legal process for resolving these complaints will bear that out," Paxton spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said.
A State Bar official declined comment, but Houston attorney Eddie Rodriguez, whose firm helped initiate the complaint, released a copy of the order from the appeals board reinstating the case.
"Texas ethics rules prohibit any lawyer, including the Attorney General, from counseling a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent," Rodriguez said.
Potential penalties could range from a reprimand to disbarment, Rodriguez said.
The appeals board's decision to reinstate the case does not mean Paxton violated professional ethics, but requires him to respond to the complaint as part of the investigation.
The day before the high court's ruling, Paxton released a statement that urged county clerks and judges to hold off on same-sex marriages until his office could give guidance. Two days after the ruling, he issued an opinion that clerks did not have to issue licenses and justices of the peace could refuse to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies on religious grounds.
The complaint against Paxton alleges he encouraged officials to break the law.
"Public officials are entitled to express disagreement with U.S. Supreme Court decisions. They are not free to disregard them or encourage others to do so," the complaint argues.
Texas Democrats renewed their calls for Paxton to step down.
"Another day, another investigation for Paxton," Texas Democratic Party Deputy Executive Director Manny Garcia said. "Enough is enough. Ken Paxton must resign."
In the securities fraud case, Paxton is accused of failing to disclose he was being paid by a technology startup while trying to lure investors and not disclosing that he already had 100,000 shares. Those charges carry punishments of five to 99 years in prison.
Paxton is also charged with rendering services as an investment adviser without being registered with the state, a charge that carries a penalty of two to 10 years in prison.