For Criminal Justice Advice, Trump Turns to State Leaders Like Indicted Texas AG

by | August 10, 2018

By Todd J. Gillman and Lauren McGaughy

President Donald Trump brainstormed on criminal justice reform Thursday with a few governors and state law enforcement leaders -- among them Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general whose fraud indictment has now been pending for over three years.

The invitation drew mockery from Paxton's Democratic challenger, Justin Nelson, who served as a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"It's absurd that Donald Trump would take advice from Ken Paxton -- who is staring down nearly a century in the Crow Bar Hotel -- on criminal justice reform. What's next? Tax preparation [advice] from Al Capone?" Nelson said in a campaign statement.

Paxton was indicted in July 2015 on three felony counts: two first-degree charges of securities fraud and one third-degree charge for allegedly acting as an investment adviser representative without being registered with the state.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and called the allegations politically motivated. He faces up to 99 years in prison if convicted, but trial has not been scheduled, more than three years later. The case is on hold and is likely to remain delayed until after the November election as the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals mulls a related lawsuit over the prosecutors' pay.

Although it's commonly assumed that the Texas attorney general is a law enforcement post akin to the federal attorney general, who oversees the Justice Department and FBI, the post entails limited jurisdiction over criminal matters and deals mostly with Medicaid fraud, consumer protection and white collar crime.

Trump met last week with key lawmakers to discuss ways to overhaul the federal criminal justice system.

"We want to treat Americans fairly," he said at Thursday's meeting.

The president has embraced a bipartisan Senate push to lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies. That would include cutting the "three strike" penalty from life behind bars to 25 years. Reformers also want to address disparities in cocaine-related crimes. Far longer terms have long been meted out for crack, leaving minority offenders behind bars far longer than people caught with the powdered form.

Thursday's roundtable at Trump's golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., includes a number of people who have had direct experience with the criminal justice system, among them Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser.

Kushner's father, Charles Kushner, served a two-year sentence for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. (Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who temporarily led the Trump transition team, was the U.S. attorney who sent the elder Kushner to prison.) He has urged the White House to focus in on criminal justice, including the improvement reentry programs like the project being piloted in Dallas by the Koch Foundation.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry was also on the list of attendees released by the White House. As Texas governor, he faced criminal charges brought by a special prosecutor after he vetoed $7.5 million for the Travis County district attorney's office. He cut the funds to prod District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign after her arrest for drunken driving.

Perry insisted the charges that he abused his office were politically motivated. They hung over him after he left office and during his short-lived bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Apart from Paxton, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi also met with the president Thursday.

She and Paxton's predecessor as Texas attorney general, now-Gov. Greg Abbott, have been criticized for taking donations from Trump and while their offices decided not to pursue charges against Trump University, his now-defunct real estate course, as other states had done.

Abbott received $35,000 from Trump a few years after his office dropped an investigation into Trump University, despite objections from his consumer protection office. Bondi received $25,000, although its unclear whether the donation was made before she became aware of a Florida investigation.

Both have denied any quid pro quo.

Others at Trump's brainstorming sessions Thursday include Govs. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, Nathan Deal of Georgia, John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, Phil Bryant of Mississippi, and Doug Burgum of North Dakota.

(c)2018 The Dallas Morning News