HOUSTON — Suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appeared in a Houston courtroom for a hearing Thursday morning as a criminal defendant, but his trial on securities fraud charges will have to wait until after his impeachment trial.
If convicted of defrauding investors in a Dallas-area tech startup by not disclosing he was being paid by the company to recruit them, Paxton could get up to 99 years in prison.
During the brief court hearing, his lawyers asked state District Judge Andrea Beall to delay any decision on setting a trial date until the attorney general's impeachment trial, set to begin Sept. 5, is finished. Dan Cogdell, one of Paxton’s attorneys, said he expects the impeachment trial to last a couple of weeks.
Both the prosecutors and defense agreed that an ongoing federal investigation will affect the state's case. Both sides also agreed to return to court on October 6 to try to set a trial date.
The Republican attorney general sat by himself on a bench as his lawyers and the prosecutors stood in front of Judge Beall. Paxton did not say anything during the hearing.
In all, it lasted about 10 minutes.
"I’m not surprised at all it went quickly," KHOU 11 legal analyst Carmen Roe said. "The purpose today was just to figure what happens going forward. Can this case be set for trial or do we need to wait for the impeachment trial to go forward and now we know the answer that they’re going to wait."
But questions remain on if this case ever goes to trial and what role the Senate impeachment trial will play.
"If he's impeached in the Senate, there's no question this case gets resolved outside of a trial," Roe said. "If he prevails in the Senate, I think there's a real possibility we could see a trial. So it just it depends on a lot of different things. But most people believe this case is going to get resolved outside of a trial. It's just a matter of when."
According to KHOU 11 reporter Marcelino Benito, Paxton was allowed to sneak into the courtroom through the back way, something other defendants are not allowed to do. He was escorted by around 12 DPS troopers.
After the hearing, defense attorney Dan Cogdell gave an explanation.
“He’s under a gag order. That’s why," Cogdell said. "And he’s got this lawyer with really bad hair, meaning me, who told him to go out the back way. He’s not getting special treatment. I’d tell any client to do that."
Special prosecutor Brian Wice said he's frustrated the case has yet to go to trial. Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015.
“I know that everybody is concerned about how the wheels of justice have seemed to move at a glacial pace over the course of the last eight years,” Wice said. "I think today is the first step on the journey of a thousand miles to pick up the pace."
A multitude of reasons have delayed the trial, including legal debate over whether the case should be tried in the Dallas area or Houston, changes in which judge would handle the case and a protracted battle over how much the special prosecutors should get paid.
Attorney Kent Schaffer said when he and Wice began prosecuting the case eight years ago, they were “demonized” by right wing fundamentalist organizations that supported Paxton and claimed the case was political.
“Well, now so many things have come out about Mr. Paxton in the last year or two that people all over the state, including the House of Representatives, are starting to see who he is and what he does,” Schaffer said.
The case is among the 20 articles of impeachment the Texas House of Representatives brought against Paxton. Other impeachment charges surround Paxton’s relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer who has been indicted on charges of making false statements to banks to obtain more than $170 million in loans.
Cogdell said federal authorities are still interviewing witnesses in a corruption probe of Paxton that's tied to the Paul case, but he said that “case will go nowhere at the end of the day.”
What to know about Ken Paxton’s securities fraud case
- Indicted in 2015 by a Collin County grand jury
- Two counts of securities fraud, a first-degree felony, punishment up to 99 years in prison if convicted
- One count of failing to register with state securities regulators, a third-degree felony, punishment up to 10 years in prison if convicted
- Case was moved to Harris County from Collin County because prosecutors said he couldn’t get a fair trial there since he represented the county in both Texas House and Texas Senate
- Thursday’s hearing is a status conference, at which we could learn a trial date or dates for more pre-trial hearings
- Securities fraud trial is expected after Paxton’s impeachment trial, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 5
- Paxton was elected Texas Attorney General in 2014. Six months after taking office, he was indicted
- Paxton was elected twice more as attorney general after his indictment
Securities fraud case background
The criminal case against Paxton has been going on for eight years. The three-count felony indictment came down in 2015 in North Texas. Now, eight years later and after many delays about venue, the case is moving forward exactly where Paxton didn't want it to.
"There's nothing about this case that's normal," KHOU legal analyst Carmen Roe said. "This will be the first time Kenneth Paxton has ever shown up on a regular docket at 9 a.m. with every other criminal defendant in the building."
With an impeachment trial in Austin looming, Paxton is now ordered to appear in person before Harris County Judge Andrea Beall. Roe says the judge is sending a message.
"The fact this newly elected Democratic judge is insisting on his presence in person on Thursday means that this case is going to move forward at a much higher rate of speed than in the past," Roe said.
Paxton is facing three felony counts for failing to register as a securities adviser and allegedly persuading two investors to buy at least $100,000 worth of stock in the tech company Severgy without disclosing he would be paid for it.
He turned himself in in 2015.
"There's no question that this criminal trial will be much more serious for Kenneth Paxton in regards to consequences," Roe said. "The idea of losing his job is one thing. The idea of going to state prison is quite a different thing."
Paxton is facing up to 99 years in prison if convicted. Shortly after his election to the AG's office, he told supporters he was innocent.
"These charges are false, and I will prevail against them in court," Paxton said in 2015.
He'll now likely get that chance in front of a Harris County jury.
"He's going to be facing a trial date here in Harris County," said Roe. "Whether or not he's impeached will be a game-changer for this trial."
Paxton's impeachment trial is set to begin on September 5.