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Texas high court won’t force Collin County to pay prosecutors in Paxton securities fraud case

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton makes a statement to the press May 26, 2023, a day before the impeachment vote in the Texas House.
Bob Daemmrich
The Texas Tribune
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton makes a statement to the press May 26, 2023, a day before the impeachment vote in the Texas House.

Texas’ highest criminal court on Wednesday declined to intervene in the long-running battle over the prosecutors’ pay in the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton.

After a trial court judge ordered Collin County to approve back pay to the prosecutors in November, they asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to force the county to pay them given its years-long resistance to doing so. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said Wednesday it would not take up the issue.

The prosecutors, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, said they were disappointed by the decision but noted it was “not a ruling on the merits” and that the issue is still being debated in a lower appeals court.

The all-GOP court did not explain its decision, but this was not the first time it was asked to weigh in on the controversy. It struck down the prosecutors' pay schedule in 2018, telling the trial court judge at the time to "issue a new order for payment of fees" consistent with a state statute governing compensation for court-appointed attorneys.

The pay fight is getting closer and closer to Paxton’s long-anticipated trial date, currently set for April 15. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Feb. 16.

Paxton was indicted over eight years ago, months into his first term as the state’s top law enforcement official. He is accused of trying to solicit investors in a McKinney technology company in 2011 without disclosing that it was paying him to promote its stock. He has pleaded not guilty.

The case is separate from the more recent allegations from former top deputies that Paxton abused his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul. Paxton was acquitted in an impeachment trial last year that centered on those claims, but he is still fighting a whistleblower lawsuit in Travis County.

The securities fraud trial has been delayed and disrupted for years by a number of pretrial disputes, including over how much the special prosecutors assigned to the case should be paid.

Officials in Collin County — Paxton’s home county and where the case originated — have long balked at the prosecutors’ fee schedule and have not approved an invoice since 2016. But Harris County District Judge Andrea Beall sought to put an end to the stalemate in November, ruling Wice and Schaffer were owed the $300-an-hour rate they were promised when they started in 2015.

Earlier this month, with the Court of Criminals Appeals case still pending, Collin County went on the offensive, asking the Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals to overturn Beall’s order. That court has given the prosecutors until Jan. 29 to respond.

“Now that the First Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over this matter, we are confident that it will conclude that Judge Beall’s order was well within the heartland of her virtually unlimited judicial discretion,” the prosecutors said in their statement.

The prosecutors emphasized that the Court of Criminal Appeals did not rule on the merits of their request to force Collin County to pay them. The Court of Criminal Appeals only denied their motion for leave to file, which is a request for the court to consider something outside its normal procedures.

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.