(The Center Square) – A key witness on Thursday refuted one of the main charges brought by the House General Investigating Committee against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that accuses him of misusing taxpayer money when he went to the legislature to ask it to approve a $3.3 million settlement reached with employees who sued after they were fired for insubordination.
After the House rested its case late Wednesday, on Thursday, Paxton’s legal team began calling witnesses.
Paxton’s attorney, Chris Hilton, who took a leave of absence from the Office of the Attorney General, questioned Austin Kinghorn, who is currently associate deputy attorney general for Legal Counsel at the OAG.
Kinghorn’s testimony contradicted allegations the House made in impeachment articles 7 and 8, among others. Article 7 alleges an August 24, 2021, an OAG report was based on a “sham investigation” into the fired employees’ actions and includes “false or misleading” statements. Kinghorn was involved in writing it.
Article 8 alleges Paxton entered into an agreement with fired staffers “that provides for payment of the settlement from public funds.” It also alleges Paxton was involved in a “conspiracy” that “deprived the electorate of its opportunity to make an informed decision when voting for attorney general.”
The articles allege 16 crimes, with four held in abeyance, claiming Paxton was engaged in bribery, abused the public trust, is unfit for office, among others.
In response to being asked, “Were you given a directive to ensure the report had a false or misleading statement in it?” Kinghorn replied he was not.
In response to being asked if Paxton “directed employees to conduct a sham investigation” was true, Kinghorn replied, “I’m not aware that occurred.”
He also said the report has been continuously on the OAG website since August 24, 2021, before, during and after Paxton won his March 2022 primary race and was reelected in November 2022. “There has been extensive reporting on the issues discussed in the report,” he added. News “reporting began when fired staffers reported Paxton to law enforcement and is something we’ve been dealing with ever since.”
In response to being asked what contingencies a settlement agreement must satisfy, Kinghorn said funding, which depends on the legislature.
“Why is legislative appropriation necessary?” Hilton asked. The OAG, “like all state agencies, is prohibited by the General Appropriations Act from settling” when the amount is over $250,000,” Kinghorn answered.
Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who chairs the GIC and led the impeachment charges against Paxton, maintains that Paxton bringing the settlement to the House was the basis for the impeachment charge.
The Center Square previously reported that the legislature didn’t authorize the $3.3 million. Hilton and others have argued because the OAG didn’t receive the money to “misuse,” as the House alleged, Murr’s claim is baseless.
Hilton asked Kinghorn if the OAG followed the GAA process. Kinghorn replied, “yes.”
“Was the [settlement] funding appropriated?” Hilton asked. Kinghorn replied, “no.”
“Has the OAG paid a single dime on the settlement? Has a single dime of taxpayer money been spent on that settlement?” Hilton asked. “It has not,” Kinghorn replied.
“Who decides if a settlement is funded?” Hilton asked. “The legislature,” Kinghorn replied.
“The attorney general can’t force them [the legislature] to do that [fund a settlement], can he?” Hilton asked. “He can only ask,” Kinghorn replied.
Hilton then addressed a state Whistleblower Act provision governing reporting requirements and asked Kinghorn, “When you pay out on a settlement, the agency is required to put together a report on the case?”
“Following the report, the state auditor’s office may initiate an investigation,” Kinghorn replied. “If an investigation is initiated, another report must be issued. If the settlement is approved, the attorney general has to prepare a memo and send it to the state auditor’s office. Then SAO reviews the report and has the option to investigate or conduct an audit.”
When asked if the SAO contacted the OAG, Kinghorn replied, “Yes. We were made aware of the statute in light of the settlement.”
“Who would receive a state auditor’s report?” Hilton asked. “The Legislative Budget Board, Legislative Audit Committee,” among others, Kinghorn replied.
“What would that report contain?” Hilton asked. It would include “a recommendation on changes necessary to correct problems that gave rise to whistle blowers,” Kinghorn replied.
Hilton then asked, “Are audits and a coverup the same thing?” Kinghorn replied, “No, they are the opposite.”
“If someone is trying to conceal acts, should they subject themselves to an audit?” Hilton asked. Kinghorn replied they wouldn’t.
Referring to Article 10 allegations, Hilton asked Kinghorn, “Do you have any personal knowledge of Paxton forming an agreement with Nate Paul accepting a bribe?” He replied, “I do not.”
“Do you have any knowledge of vast criminal conspiracy using OAG resources?” Hilton asked, referring to several impeachment allegations. Kinghorn replied he had “no such knowledge.”
“If there were, would you continue working at the Attorney General’s Office?” he asked.
“No, I would not,” Kinghorn said. “I’m proud of the work we do, proud to serve General Paxton.”