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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | February 21, 2024

Where is the Oversight for Republican State Attorneys General?

Ethics in GovernmentState Attorneys General

This article was originally published in The American Prospect. Read on the original site here.

Often a stepping stone to higher office, Republican AG offices have played host to an repeated set of scandals in recent years.

We at the Revolving Door Project have long argued that “personnel is policy.” The wisdom of that expression is no less true in state capitols than it is in Washington, D.C.

For example, state attorneys general wield immense power to protect the public and its interests. They are charged with enforcing state laws, representing the state and state agencies in state and federal courts, defending the rights of citizens against reproach, pursuing criminal prosecutions of private and public bad actors, and more. They can investigate bad actors,  litigate wrongdoing, and seek accountability for harms enacted in their states. AG’s also have softer powers, such as through “friend of the court” filings, which obtain a degree of deference. 

Yet, as much as they can ameliorate harms, state attorneys general also hold the potential to enact immense harm by abusing many of these same tools. Republican AGs, for example, have allowed themselves and their offices to be defined largely by their own corruption.  

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is the current elected Chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which claims to be focused on electing and reelecting Republican AGs and “preserv[ing] the rule of law.” One might think that such an institution would be concerned about its own leadership’s ethical standing. Instead, RAGA has a long history of controversy-plagued leaders who display seemingly flagrant disregard for these principles, at both the federal and state level. 

Reyes is currently facing down an audit investigating his relationship to controversial filmmaker and founder of the anti-sex trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), Tim Ballard. In short, Reyes has been accused of witness tampering on behalf of Ballard/OUR, and is facing further investigation into whether he inappropriately used state resources in aid of Ballard’s projects and whether their association corrupted Reyes’ prosecutorial judgment. Reyes has also come under fire for his use of campaign funds to finance at least 30 luxury vacations since 2020, including hog hunting trips and luxury resort stays. The Salt Lake Tribune first reported on the trips in November. 

Of course, considering that RAGA is actually a pay-for-access institution with extensive donor relationships to mega-corporations (e.g., ExxonMobil) and mega-donors (e.g., Leonard Leo and the Kochs), Reyes’ ethical lapses are actually quite aligned with the interests of the organization. Reyes’ latest scandal—and his position atop the Republican organizing entity—illustrates a point that has long been true, but seldom been stated outright: Republican attorneys general, from their leadership on down, are largely defined by the ethical rot at the core of their manipulation of state offices and state funds. 

To be clear, Democrats and Democratic Attorneys General are far from immune to these sorts of ethical lapses. That said, these issues are endemic to RAGA, and we should be clear, explicit, and effusive in criticizing the level of corruption coming out of this collection of the top Republican law enforcement officials in the states.

RAGA’s Corrupt Leadership: A Brief History

Past RAGA chairs who have been riddled with scandals and plagued their offices with ethical lapses include Steve Marshall (RAGA Chairman from 2022-2023), Chris Carr ( RAGA Chairman from 2020 – 2021), Jeff Landry (RAGA Chairman from 2019 – 2020), and Ken Paxton (RAGA Chairman from 2018-2019.) Their legacies include everything from needlessly siphoning millions in taxpayer funds to outside counsel, to weaponizing state resources to criminalize constitutionally-protected speech, to funneling public funds into AG’s own private companies, to accusations of bribe taking, and much much more.

These constant scandals at the highest echelons of RAGA leadership matter in and of themselves. But they are also uniquely concerning given the long tradition of AG offices serving as a stepping stone to other positions of ever-increasing political power. 

Jeff Landry himself left Louisiana’s AGs office just this year to become the state’s governor, where he will have even more opportunity to abuse state resources for his own personal gain, at the cost of basic protections for women, along with low-income, LGBTQ+, and Black communities across the state. 

Other former Republican AGs who have climbed up the political ladder include Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Texas Attorney General from 2002-2015), Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine (Ohio Attorney General from 2011-2019), South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (South Carolina Attorney General from 2003-2011), and more.  

Still others have found themselves launching into federal positions of power, including Donald Trump’s notorious Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was Alabama’s Attorney General from 1995-1997 and a U.S. Senator from Alabama from 1997-2017. Josh Hawley, U.S. Senator from Missouri, was Missouri’s Attorney General from 2017-2019, and Missouri’s other Senator, Eric Schmitt, was also state AG from 2019-2023. Sen. John Cornyn was also Texas’s Attorney General from 1999-2002.

We Must Take These Powers, and Abuses of Them, Seriously 

The political launching pad that state-level attorneys general offices provide officials has fostered an unfortunate breeding ground for impropriety, which Republican AGs have long taken advantage of and seem poised to test to even further extremes. 

Progressives and government watchdogs alike should begin to take seriously the institutional powers of attorneys general themselves, and their habitual ethical lapses. In truth, there seems no real mechanism for formal oversight of many of these positions. In most states attorneys general are elected officials nominally held accountable by voters, but in deep-red venues that accountability is usually in name only, as Republicans routinely win their races. Impeachment is another nominal accountability measure, yet the inability of the Texas legislature to impeach Paxton just last year for his misdeeds is a testament to the consequence-free zone in which many red-state AGs operate.

The weaponization of these offices by corporate-backed right-wingers to undermine democracy, gut environmental regulation, lionize horrifying (and illegal) immigration regimes at the border, cater to the whims of corporate bad actors, provide legal cover for insurrectionists, and more, is bad enough all on its own. Yet this legacy is slowly but surely extending into federal offices across the country, painting a dire picture of the emergent political landscapes these figures—accustomed to so little accountability—are set to launch in upcoming months and years.

Ethics in GovernmentState Attorneys General

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