AUSTIN — The cost of prosecuting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now tops $617,000, a hefty price tag that’s sure to spur a renewed fight over who should foot the bill.
According to a new invoice submitted this week, the three attorneys representing the state of Texas in its criminal lawsuit against Paxton have racked up just more than $510,726 in costs since he was indicted in July 2015. This newest bill of $205,191 included more than a year’s worth of fees and expenses.
Collin County is also fighting a lawsuit from a taxpayer who wants local officials to refuse to pay the prosecutors their hourly rate. This suit has cost the county an additional $106,433, bringing the grand total of Paxton-related costs to $617,159, according to the Collin County auditor.
Judge Keith Self, who as a member of the commissioners court helps approve the county’s budget, said county leaders will discuss paying the bill when they next meet on Jan. 23.
“This is like a lot of court cases: Nobody is happy with it. I don’t care who you are,” Self told The Dallas Morning News. “Does that change any of the dynamics of the case? I’m not sure. We’ll see when the court meets on the 23rd.”
Taxpayers in Collin County are on the hook to foot the bill for any costs related to Paxton’s prosecution because the attorney general lives in McKinney and that’s where his alleged crimes took place. While nearly a year and a half has passed since his indictments, the case has not yet reached trial because Paxton spent that time appealing the charges all the way to the state’s highest court.
He lost each time, but every appeal meant a further delay for a potential trial on the case’s merits. The longer Paxton fought, the more expensive the case became. Collin County taxpayers will continue paying for the prosecution through Paxton’s trial, which is scheduled to start May 1.
Local officials like Self are not happy with the arrangement and have tried to figure out how to halt or lower the amount going to the three prosecutors in charge of the case.
The battle boiled over at the end of 2016, when the five members of the all-Republican Collin County Commissioners Court fought over how to answer constituent concerns about the prosecution’s cost. At that time, the county hadn’t received a bill from the prosecutors in more than nine months, and Self argued they had to wait until the next invoice was received to take action.
Other members of the county court disagreed, wanting instead to take some kind of legal action against the state or prosecutors to block payment. Eventually, they ended up voicing their opposition to the payments without taking any legal steps.
Now, with the new bill in hand, Self said the county plans to challenge the prosecution’s costs.
The issue hinges on the hourly rate of the attorneys who are prosecuting the charges. District Attorney Greg Willis recused himself from the case because of his longtime friendship with Paxton, so the state of Texas had to find other lawyers who would agree to prosecute the case.
The state tapped three criminal defense attorneys from Houston — Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer and Nicole DeBorde — to act as “special prosecutors” handling the case. Wice and Schaffer were guaranteed payments of $300 an hour, plus reimbursement for travel and other expenses.
Paxton supporters say the $300-an-hour fee violates local rules that cap how much special prosecutors can be paid. But the Tarrant County judge overseeing the case disagreed, citing the “unusual circumstances” of the case, and ordered the county to pay up or possibly be found in contempt of court.
The News found the $300-an-hour rate not out of the ordinary for how much special prosecutors have been paid in other high-profile cases. Michael McCrum, for example, the San Antonio lawyer who prosecuted Rick Perry’s abuse of power case, was originally to receive $300 an hour for his work. The hourly rate was decreased to $250 when a second special prosecutor was added.
Rusty Hardin, appointed on the case that re-examined Michael Morton’s wrongful murder conviction, was paid roughly $235 an hour, negotiated down from nearly $300 an hour.
On Friday, Wice declined to comment other than to say, “We’ll be ready.”
Paxton faces three felony fraud charges for allegedly duping investors in an investment scheme involving a McKinney tech company, and is also accused of getting paid for recommending a friend’s investment firm without being properly registered with the state.
Paxton also faces federal civil charges on the same allegations. The charges were thrown out in October, but the federal government soon renewed its allegations against Paxton and former Servergy CEO William Mapp III, who is a co-defendant on that case.
The federal case isn’t likely to go to trial until late 2017 or even 2018, the year Paxton’s term expires. Texas taxpayers are not on the hook to pay for this prosecution.
Updated at 6 p.m.: The total costs in an earlier version of this story had to be adjusted after the Collin County auditor found an error in the accounting for the prosecutors’ total payments vs. the total costs associated with the taxpayer lawsuit. The total cost of $617,159 remains unchanged.
Texas vs. Paxton [State Criminal Case]
Current status: Paxton is headed to trial May 1.
Charges: Two first-degree felonies of securities fraud and one of failing to register with the state as an investment adviser representative.
Allegations: Persuaded others to invest in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that he received a commission for doing so. Received a commission from people he steered to his investment adviser without registering with the state as the adviser’s “representative.”
Paxton is the sole defendant. The state is represented by special prosecutors Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer and Nicole DeBorde.
Possible sentences: Five to 99 years plus a fine of not more than $10,000 for each first-degree felony charge; two to 10 years plus a fine of not more than $10,000 for the third-degree felony charge.
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission vs. William E. Mapp III, Warren K. Paxton Jr. [Federal civil case]
Current status: The SEC refiled the charges Oct. 21.
Charges: Civil securities fraud.
Allegations: Same as in state criminal case.
Paxton and ex-Servergy CEO William E. Mapp III are both defendants. Caleb White, who faced allegations similar to those faced by Paxton, and Servergy itself were also defendants, but both settled with the SEC by repaying a combined $260,000 in penalties.
Possible consequences: The return of any “ill-gotten gains or unjust enrichment.”