Dan Patrick says he won’t accept donations during trial, after taking heat for pro-Paxton money

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gavels in the Senate on Aug. 10, 2021. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s campaign said Thursday he will not accept any donations during the Senate’s impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton. The Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses also said they will not fundraise as organizations during the trial, which starts Tuesday.

On Friday, the House impeachment managers announced they also would not fundraise during the trial.

The trial is casting a harsh light on Texas’ lax ethics laws because senators who will decide Paxton’s fate are free to take campaign contributions as the historic event unfolds. That has raised the prospect of the trial being wide open to outside political influence.

Patrick, who serves as presiding officer of the trial, has already attracted scrutiny for accepting $3 million in campaign support from a pro-Paxton group in June.

"During the impeachment proceedings, the lieutenant governor will be singularly focused on matters related to the impeachment proceedings,” Patrick spokesperson Allen Blakemore told The Texas Tribune. “He will not be doing any fundraising, meetings, speeches or other events of any kind during the impeachment proceedings.”

The chair of the GOP caucus, Sen. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, told the Tribune the caucus has not planned any fundraising activities during the proceedings and the caucus “is not accepting contributions while proceedings are underway.” His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston, similarly said her caucus “will not host any fundraising events or accept contributions during the impeachment trial.”

Their statements apply to each caucus as an organization. Individual members may still choose to fundraise on their own.

After the publication of this story Friday morning, the House impeachment managers released a statement saying they too "will not solicit or accept any campaigns contributions between the start of the impeachment trial and the trial's conclusion." The managers are a group of 12 House members — seven Republicans and five Democrats — who are responsible for presenting the case against Paxton. Their chair is Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction.

"We commend Lt. Governor Patrick and the Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses for setting this example and we are honored to follow their lead," the managers said in a statement.

Pretrial fundraising has already drawn significant attention to due to the $3 million in pro-Paxton money that Patrick accepted. In June, Patrick took a $1 million donation and $2 million loan from Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a group that is aggressively defending Paxton and spending millions attacking House Republicans who voted to impeach him.

On the Democratic side, the Republican pressure campaign has gotten the attention of Beto O’Rourke, who asked his supporters this week to counter “pro-Paxton special interest groups” by contributing to Senate Democrats.

“[Senate Democrats] should be commended — not punished — for upholding the rule of law, protecting our democracy, and holding corrupt public officials accountable,” O’Rourke said in an email. “We can’t allow shady special interest groups to run them out of office for doing their jobs.”

O’Rourke did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Democratic caucus’s statement, released Thursday evening, that it would not accept donations during the trial.

GOP senators are not just getting pressure from pro-Paxton forces with a lot of money to spend. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the GOP group that heavily funded one of Paxton's primary challengers last year, has a $33 million war chest and released a rare statement last week saying it expects senators to reject pretrial motions to dismiss the articles.

While Patrick and the caucuses are not fundraising during the trial, it remains to be seen whether the 31 senators will follow suit in their individual capacities. They are under a strict gag order that has largely kept them from answering questions about preparations for the trial.

Currently, statewide officials and state lawmakers do not have to disclose their campaign contributions again until mid-January — likely long after the trial is done.

Texas is already well-known for its lax ethics laws. State politicians are able to accept unlimited campaign contributions, and ethics regulators can be slow to act on alleged violations of campaign finance law.

Two good-government groups sounded the alarm about the big money that could influence the trial in a report released Thursday. The report, written by Texans for Public Justice and the Texas office of Public Citizen, detailed how three oil billionaires — Tim Dunn and Dan and Farris Wilks — have directed $12 million over the years to Paxton, Patrick and most of the senators.

“A few ultra-wealthy Texans are exploiting our state’s weak ethics laws like we’ve never seen before,” Adrian Shelley, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas office said in a news release. Shelley called for a list of reforms including “a ban on donations during an impeachment proceeding.”

Under Texas law, members of the Legislature cannot accept campaign contributions from 30 days before a regular legislative session through 20 days after. The prohibition not only excludes impeachment proceedings but also special sessions — a loophole that got attention in 2021 when House Democrats absconded to Washington D.C. to shut down legislative proceedings and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their stay outside Texas.

Two Republican lawmakers filed legislation earlier this year to close the special-session loophole. But in a sign of how hard it is to get the Legislature to agree on ethics reforms, neither of their bills received a committee hearing.

Andrew Cates, an Austin-based ethics attorney, said fundraising during a special session — when “substantive legislative policy” is at stake — is different from fundraising during an impeachment trial, an inherently political process. But Cates said there are still issues of perception that senators have to consider.

“To me, if I were advising the senators, I would say don’t take any money from anybody,” Cates said. “Honestly because it’s a bad look to take the money, but if you were going to vote to support Ken Paxton anyway, just take the vote. Taking the money feels more like those outside pressures came to bear on you.”

Patrick took the $3 million in pro-Paxton money in the final days of June, about a month after the House impeached Paxton and as the Senate was ramping up its preparations for the trial. Defend Texas Liberty PAC is largely funded by Dunn and the Wilkses.

The head of the group, former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, has vowed political retribution for any senator who sides against Paxton in the trial. And he has been open about the group’s intentions to continue spending big.

“This is just the beginning, wait till you see the next report,” Stickland tweeted hours after the $3 million support for Patrick was disclosed. “We will never stop. Ever.”

Depending on how long the trial lasts, it could collide with one of the biggest fundraising moments of the year for state lawmakers: the Texas-Oklahoma football game. Every year, the Red River Showdown brings dozens of legislators to Dallas for joint fundraisers during the weekend of the game.

This year, the game is set for Oct. 7, about a month after the start of the trial; Patrick has said he expects the trial to last two and a half to three weeks.

For example, two Republican state senators, Parker and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, have a joint fundraiser scheduled for the evening before the game in Dallas, according to a save-the-date that went out Aug. 1.

Asked about the fundraiser, Parker only said in a statement to the Tribune that “my attention will be solely focused on fulfilling my Constitutional duties” as a juror.

For some senators, the trial is coming as they run for other offices. One of those senators is Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who is running the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. A Gutierrez campaign spokesperson said he will continue fundraising for his federal campaign during the trial.

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