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This week in Texas, there’s an elected official fighting impeachment proceedings stemming from accusations that he abused his government office.
Well, make that two elected officials fighting impeachment proceedings.
In College Station, about 100 miles away from the Texas Capitol, Hudson Kraus, the Texas A&M student body president, is in the midst of an impeachment that echoes the state’s historic trial of the state attorney general, Ken Paxton.
Instead of the gray hair and expensive suits of the state Legislature, this impeachment was prompted by student senators hunched over laptops splattered with stickers and carrying backpacks full of homework.
Less than a month into the fall semester, the Texas A&M University student Senate made a motion to initiate the impeachment process for Kraus, after they claimed he misused his office to benefit his younger brother, also a student at the university, according to The Battalion, the student newspaper at Texas A&M.
Kraus and multiple members of the student Senate did not respond to emails from The Texas Tribune. All members of the Texas A&M Student Government Association are currently under a gag order — just like the one Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued before Paxton's trial.
The parallel impeachment proceedings — at two very different levels of government — highlight how the once obscure political tool to hold elected officials accountable for grave errors in judgment and malfeasance has become en vogue. The everyday proceedings may erode its effect, political experts say.
The student Senate was poised to hold the impeachment trial this week, but proceedings were temporarily halted Wednesday after the Texas A&M Judicial Court, a court of seven student justices, filed an injunction after the president filed an appeal. The move sends the case to the student judicial system to rule before an impeachment trial can begin. The last time the Texas A&M student government tried to impeach a sitting president was in 2013. The vote failed.
While the student trial offers many similarities to the goings on in Austin, Kraus’ contrition for his actions is a stark contrast from how Paxton has approached the allegations against him.
Paxton’s lawyers vow to disprove the accusations and say they will present evidence showing they are based on assumptions, not facts. They and several other Paxton supporters portray the proceedings as a political witch hunt carried out by “Republicans in name only.”
Impeachment prosecutors allege that Paxton directed his office to conduct sham investigations into the rivals of Nate Paul, a real estate investor and political donor who was under federal investigation. Paxton is accused of improperly providing his friend with sensitive information about the FBI investigation into his businesses and improperly involving the attorney general’s office in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin nonprofit.
Affair could play key role in impeachment
Impeachment prosecutors argue that Ken Paxton went to great lengths to conceal an alleged extramarital affair from his wife and deeply religious voters who have supported him. Nate Paul allegedly hired Paxton’s girlfriend in exchange for the attorney general using his public office to help the real estate investor’s faltering businesses.
The trial features several high-profile Texans
Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial involves a massive cast of elected officials, high-profile lawyers, whistleblowers from within his office, an indicted real estate investor and the attorney general’s former personal assistant.
Paxton, who was also student body president when he attended Baylor University, faces 16 articles of impeachment that accuse him of misusing his office to help Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, a friend and political donor who has been charged with eight counts of making false statements to financial institutions.
The suspended attorney general hasn’t attended his trial since the first day when he was required to appear as his lawyer pleaded not guilty on his behalf. Paxton has vehemently denied the accusations and his lawyers have vowed to present evidence showing the accusations are based on assumptions, not facts.
Historically, impeachment has been reserved as a nuclear option when other solutions to give a duly-elected official the boot have failed. However, the threat of impeachment has picked up steam in the last decade.
“It’s being seen now more as a common occurrence than a rare one,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston. “Political opponents are looking for a way to ramp up their attacks on opponents, so using the institutional levers of government to do that is the next step.”
Over the last few years, Republicans and Democrats have made their fighting more public than ever before, and the rest of the country has watched like spectators at a boxing match. Smaller governments are taking notes, Rottinghaus said, and using practices like recall elections — or “little impeachments” — to get their way.
In one case out of Lubbock, former Council member Victor Hernandez was the subject of a recall campaign in 2014. A constituent was angry that Hernandez failed to return phone calls from supporters. The recall effort failed.
“These are small-scale politics, but they’re taking their cues from institutional friction,” Rottinghaus said.
The impeachments in Austin and College Station also come as U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, announced his support of an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden calling it the “logical next step” after months of probing by House Republicans into the Biden family.
Back in Texas, The Battalion reported the conflict in College Station started in late August. A student senator revealed that Kraus had edited the job description for a cabinet position to fit his younger brother’s qualifications the same day as the student Senate was set to vote. The student Senate then blocked Kraus’ brother from being appointed to a cabinet position.
Last week, Kraus apologized to the student Senate privately.
“As family is incredibly important to me, I just wanted to try and protect my brother and see what was best for him to occur,” Kraus wrote in an apology letter published by The Battalion. “Unfortunately, I made inaccurate decisions that were not indicative of my character in trying to defend a member of my family.”
In the letter, which the Battalion reported that Kraus presented to senators on Sept. 8, Kraus pleaded with senators to reconsider impeachment, arguing he made a mistake that did not reflect a broader pattern of behavior.
But student senators demanded a public apology, The Battalion reported.
On Wednesday, just before the start of the trial, Kraus filed an appeal to the Judicial Court of Texas A&M. According to The Battalion, the request is made if someone believes there is an error in student government procedures.
And in both cases, senators are taking the imposed gag order seriously.
“The court will be unable to release any statement prior to the trial in order to protect all parties that may be involved with the court,” Sawyer Bagley, chief justice of the student court at Texas A&M, wrote in a Sept. 13 statement to The Battalion. “We have a process we must follow, and this is part of it.”
At the start of the trial last week, state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, reminded his constituents he and his staff are prohibited from discussing the trial.
“As your Senator, I hold my constitutional duty as a member of the Court of Impeachment in the highest regard and will continue to honor my oath,” he wrote in a statement. “While I cannot discuss the impeachment trial, please know that my staff and I are here to assist you with all other matters.”
In Austin, the trial is wrapping up its second week. And closing arguments are expected to begin at 9 a.m. Friday.
At College Station, the student court gave each side 72 hours to prepare before they present evidence in the case “Student Body President Kraus v. Student Senate.” Both sides will present their case in front of the justices who will make a decision on the appeal, which will determine if the trial moves forward.
With impeachment continuing to waft in the political sphere, Rottinghaus said the constant threat may erode people’s faith in the process.
“Impeachment is something people, historically, hope to use as a last resort and in very specific circumstances,” Rottinghaus said. “If they are perceived to be just business as usual or a political weapon, it’ll cease to be effective.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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