When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presides next week over the impeachment trial of Ken Paxton, his longtime Republican ally and the state’s suspended attorney general, they will enter the proceeding interconnected financially by a series of political donations and loans tied to Paxton’s political future.
Patrick, who as judge will rule on lawyer arguments and motions that could dictate the trial’s outcome, has not publicly discussed the financial terms of a recent $2 million loan his campaign received from a pro-Paxton political action committee. The PAC separately gave Patrick’s campaign a $1 million donation, though Patrick is not up for reelection for three more years and already sits on a $22 million campaign war chest.
Separately, when Paxton was up for reelection in 2018, Patrick loaned the attorney general’s campaign $125,000. Patrick has said he is not asking Paxton to repay the loan, whose terms have not been disclosed.
In refusing to discuss how he can impartially preside over the trial in the Texas Senate, Patrick, a former talk radio host who has never practiced law, finds himself under scrutiny as he prepares to wade into a politically fraught proceeding that Paxton’s supporters, including Defend Texas Liberty PAC, have cast as a liberal witch hunt.
Last week, the American-Statesman reached out to Patrick’s office about the loan but did not get a response. The questions his office declined to answer were:
- Is Patrick expected to repay the loan, and, if so, will the repayment include interest?
- Why did Patrick accept such a large contribution from a group that supports Paxton when he knew he would preside over Paxton’s trial?
- Given the donation, is Patrick concerned about the appearance that he might be biased toward Paxton?
“I have not seen anything like this before,” said Andrew Cates, an Austin attorney who specializes in campaign finance. “I can’t make any judgment leaps, but it’s certainly unusual.”
Under the rules the Senate approved for the impeachment trial, Patrick has discretion to abandon his role as the presiding officer. He’s allowed to offload those duties onto a senator, or to a “jurist,” who shall not run for election in 2024. Yet, it appears Patrick will run the show, leaving trial spectators to analyze his performance and whether it’s fair.
‘Like a big gaudy billboard’
On June 27, Patrick reported a $1 million donation from Defend Texas Liberty, an ultraconservative political action committee bankrolled by billionaire West Texas oil tycoons Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. The group pushes far-right initiatives and candidates, and last year it bankrolled former state Sen. Don Huffines’ failed GOP primary challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott.
Two days after the $1 million donation, the political action committee gave Patrick an additional $2 million — this time in the form of a loan. It’s unclear whether Patrick is expected to repay the loan, as both he and Defend Texas Liberty have refused to comment on the terms of the transaction.
Though the PAC’s $3 million in contributions to Patrick’s campaign are lawful, they are by any measurement peculiar. Put into context, the amount is 30 times larger than the $100,000 donation the group gave to Patrick last year, when the lieutenant governor was running for reelection and his need for financial help was more pressing.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said the money flowing to Patrick from Defend Texas Liberty is “like a big gaudy billboard saying clearly which side the conservative wing of the GOP is on.”
Specific to the $2 million loan, Rottinghaus said the intent is obvious: “The contingent nature of the donation is a clear signal about how the PAC would like him to maneuver during the trial.”
Jonathan Stickland, president of Defend Texas Liberty, declined a Statesman request for comment on the loan and whether it includes an agreement with Patrick on repayment. The only detail offered in Patrick’s public campaign finance report is that the loan’s maturity date is June 2025, meaning if he is required to repay it, it must be settled by then. A filing from Defend Texas Liberty does not provide a maturity date.
The loan and contribution deepen an existing financial relationship between Paxton and Patrick, whose relationship as officeholders goes back more than 15 years.
Five years ago, near the end of a bruising reelection campaign, Paxton in one day received a combined $250,000 in contributions from Patrick’s campaign. Paxton received a $125,000 campaign loan, which he never reported repaying, and a $125,000 in-kind donation in the form of campaign advertising.
Patrick has said he’s not demanding repayment of the loan.
In May, in one of the few times he has spoken publicly on the impeachment proceedings, Patrick said the trial will be “fair and just” and that it’ll be up to the 30 senator-jurors to decide whether House prosecutors have met their burden to convict Paxton on allegations of bribery and misuse of office.
This is not the first time Patrick has been questioned about a political contribution connected to Paxton. In October 2018, Patrick received $10,000 from Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, and two years later, Patrick donated that same amount to a charity after reports that the FBI had launched a bribery investigation into Paxton’s relationship with Paul.
At the time, Patrick’s office told the Statesman that Patrick did not recall meeting Paul and that he did not know him.
Laid out in 16 articles of impeachment, House prosecutors allege Paxton made the attorney general’s office Paul’s “personal legal concierge” by assisting the developer in numerous court or legal proceedings. In exchange, they say, Paul funded a Paxton home remodel and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton was having an extramarital relationship.
‘The most powerful politician in Texas’
The impeachment trial will begin Sept. 5, with Patrick first needing to rule on several pretrial motions, including one deciding whether three Democratic senators — José Menéndez, Roland Gutierrez and Nathan Johnson — should be disqualified from serving as jurors based on public comments from them that Paxton’s lawyers say show bias against the attorney general.
Setting aside the $3 million contribution from Defend Texas Liberty, Patrick’s recent actions have signaled impartiality in the impeachment proceedings.
Though a gag order limits comments from trial participants, Patrick sat for an interview with a Houston TV station and appeared to oppose Paxton. During the interview, he said the impeachment proceedings are neither criminal nor civil, but “political.” That seemed to weaken a pretrial motion from Paxton’s lawyers that claims it’s a criminal trial and, as such, he cannot be compelled to testify.
Patrick’s gag order, mandated by the impeachment court, slammed lawyers on both sides for public statements he called “pervasive, prejudicial, and inflammatory.”
And rather than fly solo, Patrick announced Aug. 18 that he had hired a former Texas appeals court judge to assist him during the trial. A day later, the deal fell apart after it came out that the judge, Houston Republican Marc Brown, had donated $250 with his wife to Paxton’s GOP primary opponent, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Patrick announced that he had accepted Brown’s declination, and as of Saturday he had not announced a replacement.
In a recent test of the influence of money in his political decisions, Patrick showed restraint. His campaign accepted $225,000 last year from gambling lobbyist Texas Sands, but then Patrick refused to let the Senate even vote on legislation to legalize resort-style casinos or online sports gambling.
In the impeachment trial, Patrick, per the rules approved by the Senate, will make rulings in observance of the state’s rules of evidence. Many pretrial motions will be up to him to decide, but those that would dismiss a charge against Paxton will go to a vote by the Senate.
Cates, the campaign finance lawyer, says he’s confident Patrick will play it straight.
“He’s the most powerful politician in Texas,” Cates said. “So what does he care about any of these contributions? He doesn’t need it.”