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Op-Ed | The Texas Observer | April 9, 2024


Ethics in GovernmentState Attorneys General

This article was originally published in The Texas Observer. Read on the original site here.

The attorney general’s close ties to Texas’ right-wing think tank and its large network of uber-wealthy donors and special interests.

Ken Paxton has spent almost the entirety of his decade leading the Office of the Texas Attorney General while also under felony indictment for alleged securities fraud. Yet, like every other time Paxton has faced allegations of wrongdoing, including misuse of officeretaliatory firings, and criminal misdeeds, he has once again managed to evade real punishment. By no small measure, this has been enabled by Paxton’s masterful use of state resources to court (and to bolster) the influence of extremely well-funded conservative legal organizations and networks, at the expense of the public interests he is supposed to represent, and to defend.

Notable amongst these longstanding collaborations is Paxton’s use of public funds to promote the interests of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). 

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is part of of the State Policy Network (SPN), a national network of hard-right influence peddlers working on both the state and national level to advance extreme right-wing agenda items like defunding public education, gutting environmental regulation, and slashing taxes for the nation’s wealthiest people. 

Functionally, SPN operates nationwide as a litigation wing of the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, and the interests of the network are inextricable from other right-wing organizations, foundations, and billionaires who support it. TPPF is perhaps the network’s crown jewel, and is regarded as a particularly active and successful branch of the network. Credited with having massive influence in Texas state politics and policy, the group has secured an array of wins in state and federal courts and top state leaders like Texas Governor Greg Abbott often headline TPPF events. The group’s CEO was appointed to Abbott’s 1836 Commission. The 1836 Commission, named after the year Texas gained independence from Mexico, is “largely a conservative backlash to The New York Times’ publication of ‘The 1619 Project,’” and intends to craft a white-washed, right-wing history of Texas. 

It’s hard—or impossible—to know these days who funds TPPF as the organization does not disclose its donors; the most-recent publicly available lists of its financial backers are now more than a decade old. That, of course, makes the process of holding public officials accountable for their relationships to the organization (and the organization’s own motivations) more difficult to identify. Historically, its donors have included a “‘Who’s Who of Texas polluters, giant utilities and big insurance companies’” such as ExxonMobilKoch Industries and the Koch Foundation, and Luminant Energy, as well as conservative megafunds such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Coors Foundation, and the Donors Capital Fund (nicknamed the “dark-money ATM of the right,”) and Donors Trust Fund. Guided by the interests of their donors, TPPF has gotten involved in myriad public policy fights, ranging from school choice policies to coordinated attacks on renewable energy. 

Throughout these fights, Ken Paxton has been a good friend of the foundation, routinely attending its events. In 2015, Paxton presented at the group’s Energy and Climate Summit, where he spoke extensively about efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed expansion of the federal definition of the “Waters of the United States” rule. That proposal was, at the time, called by some environmentalists the biggest win for clean water in a decade. Instead, Paxton’s challenge was legitimized by the Trump Administration, and the rules were rolled back

In 2018, Paxton intervened in a TPPF-led lawsuit against the City of Austin’s short-term rental ordinances, which sought to limit the conditions and frequency under which a property could be rented out. In 2019, Paxton gave the keynote at TPPF’s policy orientation. In 2021, he appointed TPPF lawyers to lead another attack on EPA’s Clean Air Act activity. 

Paxton has also backed TPPF’s attempts to erode Texans’ legal protections. In 2022, Paxton and TPPF jointly supported Senate Bill 1111 (SB 1111), an anti-voting rights bill, which was quickly challenged by The League of United Latin American Citizens and Voto Latino for its strict residency requirements, new voter ID requirements, and “vague, onerous restrictions on the voter registration process.” The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas agreed with the civil rights organizations, and prevented the enforcement of those residency requirements. Unfortunately, Paxton and TPPF attorneys ultimately won a reversal of the District Court’s ruling in the notoriously partisan Fifth Circuit and Texas continues to pursue increasingly severe voter suppression laws, policies, and more. 

Some of TPPF’s board members are also Paxton’s biggest backers. Tim Dunn is TPPF’s current board vice chairman, and one of the biggest players in Texas politics. He’s the largest source of campaign donations in Texas, has swaths of the state Legislature “financially beholden” to him and eager to adequately prove their fealty, and helms multiple private organizations in the state ever-focused on pushing policy continuously rightward. Dunn has also been investing huge sums into Paxton’s campaigns since 2002. Dunn also funneled campaign cash to defend Paxton leading up to and following his impeachment trial before the Texas Senate. Those included loans and contributions to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presided over Paxton’s impeachment trial, and additional big-money donations into races to oust GOP state representatives who voted to impeach Paxton last year. 

Doug Deason, who also sits on the TPFF board, donated $50,000 to Paxton in June 2023—nearly a month after Paxton was (temporarily) removed from office while awaiting his Senate trial. Of course, we can’t forget Kyle Stallings, yet another TPPF Board Member, who donated $100,000 to Paxton last year. 

As this web of connections indicate, Paxton has oriented Texas’ state resources around the interests of TPPF, and empowered TPPF actors to behave as if they carried the full authority of Texas. In so doing, Paxton has proven himself to be little more than an operative masquerading under a public title for the private interest(s) of Koch-backed firms and their friends. 

Paxton’s pattern of wielding state resources to serve the interests of such conservative corporate-funded groups undermines his office’s commitment to all Texans, and undercuts the public interest.

Ethics in GovernmentState Attorneys General

More articles by Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

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