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Criminal Trial of Texas AG Delayed a Third Time

Attorney General Ken Paxton won't face trial on a trio of criminal felony charges until next year, possibly right after the primary election, a Harris County district judge ruled Wednesday.

By Andrea Zelinski

Attorney General Ken Paxton won't face trial on a trio of criminal felony charges until next year, possibly right after the primary election, a Harris County district judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Robert Johnson granted a motion for continuance in the case at the behest of special prosecutors who pointed to the disruption Hurricane Harvey has had on the Harris County court system and said they are still waiting to be paid for building a case against the attorney general.

The judge declined to say whether he was delaying due to the storm that dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of Houston and flooded several of the special prosecutors' offices, or because the special prosecutors want to resolve their pay issue before the trial proceeds.

Brian Wice, one of three special prosecutors assigned to the case, said if they are not paid, they will eventually withdraw from the case.

The parties are due back in court Nov. 2 to decide when to reschedule the trial for, but are eyeing March 6 or March 12. The primary election is March 6.

The decision is the latest twist in a long-running saga over the first-term attorney general's legal troubles. More than two years after he was indicted and charged with two counts of felony securities fraud and a lesser charge for failing to register with the state, this is the third time his trial has been rescheduled this year.

Paxton's legal team verbally sparred with special prosecutors on the 16th floor courtroom of the Civil Court building prior to the ruling trying to convince the judge to keep a previously scheduled December trial date.

The special prosecutors' arguments are "like the Menendez brothers complaining that they are orphans," said Dan Cogdell, one of Paxton's attorneys, referring to the infamous case of two brothers convicted in 1996 for killing their parents.

Wice, representing the state, called Paxton's legal response to the motion to delay the case "bush league," and equated it to a "stump speech [Paxton would] give to the tea party in McKinney, Texas."

Paxton's claims that he wants a speedy trial are disingenuous, Wice said, given his legal defense team "burned a year on the shot clock" filing appeals to get the case dismissed."

Johnson, who took over the case in June when it moved to Harris County, peppered both parties with questions about how a delay would hurt their case. He later stressed that since Hurricane Harvey damaged the Harris County Justice Center where his court is located, he is sharing a courtroom with another judge.

Special prosecutors say they want to delay Paxton's trial because they haven't been paid. The Collin County Commissioners Court declined to pay the trio of appointed special prosecutors for about $200,000 in billable hours in January, saying a lower court judge promised them too high a fee.

The Dallas 5th Court of Appeals agreed, saying the fee busted the local cap for appointed attorneys fees.

According to court records, Collin County limits the fees to $1,000 for first-degree felony pleas, $500 for third-degree pleas, $1,000 for pretrial work and $500 for each one-half day of trial. A lower court judge promised Houston-area attorneys Wice, Kent Schaffer and Nicole DeBorde $300 per hour.

"Why should we continue to work for free," said Wice, who in September convinced the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to look into the case. He argues the law allows judges to use discretion when setting attorneys fees in special cases.

The high court is now soliciting responses and has yet to decide whether to rule on the case.

Paxton's lawyers accused the special prosecutors of milking taxpayer dollars with the Paxton case, saying the three have billed for more than 1,400 hours but have yet to take Paxton to trial.

"They should be more than ready after 1,400 hours," said Cogdell.

Philip Hilder, one of Paxton's other criminal defense lawyers, said he is sympathetic that the special prosecutors not getting paid but, "that's not Mr. Paxton's problem."

His attorneys argue Paxton is entitled to a speedy trial and the criminal matter has been hanging over his head for more than two years. With a trial delay, that could turn into three years, said Hilder.

Paxton, whose attendance was waived for Wednesday's hearing, was indicted in Collin County in July of 2015 and is charged with two counts of first degree felony securities fraud and one third-degree felony charge of failing to register with the state as an investment adviser.

He is accused of failing to tell friends and colleagues he would make a commission off their investment in Servergy, Inc., a North Texas tech company that purported to sell a revolutionary new server.

Paxton as maintained his innocence and contends he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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