Less than a year into his first term as Texas attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton was indicted by a state grand jury on three criminal charges. The Democrat challenging his re-election, Justin Nelson, has said that's the key issue as voters go to the polls starting Monday.
Earlier this month, Nelson stood outside one of the attorney general's offices in downtown Austin next to a placard with Paxton’s face and the word “INDICTED” on it.
“I intend to make sure that we are going to fight fraud and corruption wherever it exists and regardless of party,” Nelson, a law professor at UT Austin, told reporters. “Because let’s be honest, corruption knows no party.”
Nelson has focused a lot of his campaign around cleaning up corruption and pointing out the serious legal issues that have plagued Paxton’s time in office. He contends Paxton’s ethical lapses didn’t end with the indictment and says he's concerned about how the attorney general is funding his legal defense.
Nelson argues that since his indictment, Paxton has taken advantage of a “pre-existing relationship” loophole for individual contributions. This allows anyone who has a personal, professional or business relationship with a candidate to contribute unlimited gifts to them.
“That’s what Mr. Paxton used when he accepted a $100,000 gift to his legal defense fund and then dropped a health care fraud investigation for pennies on the dollar,” he said. “That is wrong. The people of Texas deserve better.
Nelson presented a plan that would limit that loophole to only immediate family members. His plan also promised a complete ban on gifts from registered lobbyists or attorneys with a legal matter before the attorney general.
He said he wants to create more transparency and that if elected, he would disclose any meeting he takes. He also said he wants statewide elected officials to be banned from lobbying for five years after leaving office.
“I intend – regardless of what the Legislature does – to honor and follow these guidelines on my first day in office,” Nelson said.
Paxton’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, Jim Clancy, a former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry, said Nelson's plans are "naïve." At issue are the state’s bribery statutes, he said, which are up to state lawmakers to change.
"It’s not up to the attorney general – or the candidate for attorney general – to change that,” he said. “That’s the Legislature. They would have to change that.”
Clancy said the attorney general's job is to defend the legal business of the state of Texas. “But I don’t see that [Nelson's plan] has anything to do with that,” he said.
Clancy also said it’s important to understand that there are no limits to contributions in Texas; everything just needs to be disclosed.
Even if the underlying laws don’t change, Nelson has said he wants to change the culture at the AG’s office.