The Right Kind of Criminal: How men like Ken Paxton evade prison

Criminal 1. Ken Paxton

President Donald J. Trump called it “the big one”.  Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General, was suing the swing states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan and seventeen red states had thrown their weight behind the effort.  By encouraging mail in voting, Paxton alleged, these four states opened the door to voter fraud and made it too easy to vote the president out of office.  If the Supreme Court would substitute Republican electors for the voting public, the suit implied, an outcome more acceptable to the people of Texas would be achieved.

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Ken Paxton announces suit against swing states

Paxton’s suit ignored the fact that Texas had altered its own election law in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  No clear crime was alleged; no evidence proffered.  Legal experts scoffed at the suit.  No one expected it to succeed except the president and his most rabid followers. 

It’s entirely possible that Paxton never expected the Supreme Court to take his suit seriously.  If so, why did he file it?  Was it simply because Trump is popular in the most rural and religious sections of Texas society and the AG was throwing his base some red meat? 

Savvy journalists tossed out a more convincing theory.  Paxton has spent the past years fighting a securities fraud indictment.  And that was before shortly before seven of his closest staffers accused him of doing political favors for a wealthy campaign donor.  Then it emerged that Paxton had tried to get his benefactor to find a cushy job for his mistress.  Finally, hours before Paxton filed “the big one”, his offices were raided by the FBI.  The man was angling for a presidential pardon. 

You may be wondering why, if Paxton was indicted five years ago, the case wasn’t resolved long ago?  A little background will help.  Paxton wasn’t indicted back in 2015 because a prosecutor caught wind of his dirty dealings and decided to press charges.  Not at all.  Paxton hails from Collin County, north of Dallas, and the district attorney is a golfing buddy.  

June 10, 2016 - The FBI/DOJ and Cheryl Mill's attorney, Beth Wilkinson,  together write and agree to rules that grossly limits the scope of the  Clinton email investigation - The Clinton Foundation Timeline
Ty Clevenger

Paxton’s legal difficulties are the work of Ty Clevenger, a maverick defense attorney.  Specifically, the Texas AG stands accused of persuading unwitting investors to buy stock in a friend’s technology firm.  What’s wrong with that?  Two things.  First, Paxton didn’t disclose that he would be receiving 100,000 shares of stock as his commission for roping in his friends.  Secondly, you need a license to peddle securities and Paxton didn’t have one.  He had been reprimanded a few years earlier for committing precisely the same crime, so he couldn’t claim ignorance of the law.  He’s guilty as sin itself, and everybody knows it.

Like Paxton, Clevenger is a conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian.  Both men are avid Trump supporters.  The key difference is that Clevenger is highly suspicious of both major political parties, the abuse of power drives him nuts, and he loathes religious hypocricy.  He calls Paxton, “a Peacock Baptist,” the kind of man who defrauds his customers Monday to Friday, gets drunk with his buddies on Saturday night, and shows up at First Baptist Sunday morning with a big Bible and a bigger smile.  Texas is crawling with Peacock Baptists, Clevenger believes, and it’s giving Jesus a bad name.about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URL

When the Collin County DA refused to indict his friend, Ken, Clevenger tracked down the names and contact information for every member of the current Collin County grand jury and spilled the beans.  This desperation move had little chance of success.  Like Paxton, some grand jurors attended Prestonwood Baptist, a prestigious Collin County megachurch.  (One of the fifty pastors on Prestonwood’s staff, incidentally, lost $500,000 in Paxton’s scheme.) But they were so incensed by Clevenger’s revelations that they voted to indict anyway.

Prestonwood Baptist is one of the nation’s largest megachurches

When the DA recused himself, a special prosecutor was appointed to the case.  Paxton’s friends in county government decreed that the prosecutor’s fee should be capped at $1,000.  Since that only covered the first couple of work days, the prosecution ground to a halt. (Paxton, incidentally, is currently paying over $500 to his lead defense attorney and over $200 an hour to a paralegal.) 

The Texas electorate responded to Paxton’s legal woes by enthusiastically electing him to a second term in 2108.  The Republican politician may be guilty of criminal activity; but he’s the right kind of criminal.  He won the undying love of his base by suing the Obama administration at every opportunity.  The suits had little practical effect, but they were a hit in the Texas heartland.  Paxton is the self-declared champion of “religious liberty”, a fancy way of saying that Christians should continue their social and political dominance of the state.  

This stuff is political gold.  When his wife, Angela, ran for the Texas Senate, she adopted a jingle that took pandering to a whole new level: “I’m a pistol packing mama, and my husband sues Obama.”  Unfortunately, it now appears Ken had some extracurricular interests that poor Angela won’t feature in her political doggerel.  Paxton’s base will likely be more forgiving. 

When you are the right kind of criminal, as Trump would say, “they let you do it, you can do anything”.

Criminal 2. John Paschall

Paxton isn’t the only Texas politician to find himself in Ty Clevenger’s crosshairs. 

On May 23, 2012, in a Robertson County courtroom, a red-faced district attorney named John Paschall launched into a tirade.  Clevenger had accused Paschall of stealing a small fortune from an elderly widow.  In response, the DA called Clevenger every insult in his extensive vocabulary, starting with “homo” and ending with “drug addict”

Former DA John Paschall

In 1992, Paschall became the executor of Marium Jeanette Oscar, the last surviving member of a once-thriving Jewish community in Calvert, Texas. Ms. Oscar’s family had lived in Robertson County since before the Civil War, and her dying wish was that her remaining wealth, a little over $300,00, would be used to construct a modest museum to keep the memory of the Jewish community alive. 

In 2012, Clevenger had been asked to look into the status of Marium Oscar’s estate by one of her relatives.  It quickly became obvious that, desperate for money to solve his own financial problems, Paschall had been dipping into the estate for at least two decades. 

This wasn’t Paschall’s first flirtation with fraud.  In 1985, the Internal Revenue Service discovered that Paschall had been failing to pay income tax and began placing liens against his assets.   He had also failed to keep up his school loan payments.  In 1986 and 1987, Paschall had been indicted for siphoning money from the county’s hot check fund.  He was able to make those charges go away, but the indictment hurt his reputation and he had been voted out of office.  In 1992, the year Paschall took over Ms. Oscar’s estate, he was back in the DA’s office and hungry for cash.

Which explains Paschall’s courtroom temper tantrum.  The charges initially filed against the district attorney (like those filed against Paxton) carried a maximum penalty of 99 years in prison and Paschall was running scared.  Working through friends in high places, Paschall was able to get Clevenger removed from the case.  That allowed him to plea to greatly reduced charges, reimburse the estate for the remaining $186,000, surrender his law license and spend thirty nights in prison.

By that time Paschall was no longer district attorney, having lost the 2014 election in a landslide.  He had escaped serious prison time, but the public airing of his shabby behavior had left his reputation in tatters. 

Like the Texas AG, Paschall had friends in high places.  These were men and women who, to hear Clevenger tell it, shared the DA’s penchant for backroom deals.  Clevenger calls these people the “Booger County mafia”.  When I first heard that term, I dismissed it as an adolescent pejorative; but Robertson County has been called Booger County from its earliest days—and nobody knows why

Clevenger worked as a journalist in an earlier incarnation and it shows.  He wields blogposts the way Trump uses tweets.  He once created a blog called “red-faced drunk” specifically for Paschall and had another reserved for lowdown judges.  The Booger County mafia, in Clevenger’s view, was comprised of the county judge, the mayor of Hearne (the county’s largest town), the newspaper editor and several city council members. 

Only when a slate of Black candidates was elected to the city council was it possible for Clevenger to proceed against Paschall.  With the Booger County Mafia firmly in control, Paschall had been untouchable. 

When you’re the right kind of criminal “they let you do it, you can do anything.”

Criminal 3. Billie Sol Estes

Paschall’s first flirtation with the national spotlight came in 1984, shortly after winning his first DA’s race.  Billie Sol Estes, the most famous conman in Texas history, had been released from federal prison a year earlier.  Billie Sol (as he was called in Texas) had been sentenced to 24 years in federal prison back in 1963, but that sentence was whittled back to 7 years by the federal supreme court.  Billie Sol argued that the publicity surrounding his case had influenced the jury, and the court bought it.  Like Paxton and Paschall, Billie Sol was the right kind of criminal.  After a few years in the free world, the feds nailed Billie Sol on tax evasion charges. 

At the height of his powers, Billie Sol reigned as the unofficial king of Pecos, a West Texas town of just over 12,000 people. Primarily self-educated, he possessed a genius for concocting elaborate shell games involving cotton leases, anhydrous ammonia trailers, phony mortgages and kickbacks to bankers and public officials.   

Billie Sol Estes

Like Paxton, Billie Sol wore his religion on his sleeve.  A dedicated lay preacher with the Church of Christ, he didn’t smoke or drink or cuss.  Dancing and fornicating (synonymous pursuits in his book)  were right out!  Fortunately for Billie Sol, the brand of evangelical religion practiced in Texas rarely intruded into the realm of “bidness”

Billie Sol’s scheme might have worked if he hadn’t decided to run for the Reeves County school board.  He made a handsome gift to the local newspaper and let it be known that, in return, he expected positive, even adulatory coverage.   The editor, Oscar Griffin Jr., told Estes that, although paid advertising was always welcome, his editorial opinion was not for sale.  Estes responded in true Trumpian style.  He pumped half a million dollars (over 4 million in 2020 dollars) into his own local newspaper.  Billie Sol had the kind of coverage he was looking for, but at a price.

Since Pecos couldn’t support two newspapers, editor Griffin’s paper was soon hanging by a thread.  But he was the kind of enterprising small-town editor for which Texas was once famous.  Up to that point, no one, including federal inspectors, had the time, the tenacity or the inclination to figure out how Billie Sol was making his millions.  Griffin started asking hard questions and didn’t let up until he had solid answers.  Then he published a ten-part series of investigative pieces on Billie Sol’s empire.  A few months later, Billie Sol Estes was indicted and a federal investigation was underway.  Griffin’s efforts saved his newspaper and won him a Pulitzer prize.  He ended up covering the Johnson administration for the Houston Chronicle before working for Richard Nixon.

Oscar Griffin Jr.

The story soon became a gigantic scandal and Billie Sol Estes made the cover of Time magazine.  Then things got ugly.  Henry Marshall, one of the federal agents tasked with investigating Billie Sol, was found dead on his modest Robertson County ranch.  His head had been bludgeoned, he had lethal amounts of carbon monoxide in his system and he had sustained five rifle blasts to his abdomen, two of them lethal.  The death was ruled a suicide, and Marshall was hurriedly buried. 

It eventually came to light that seven of the men assigned to the Estes investigation had met untimely ends, but agent Marshall’s death received the most publicity.  Billie Sol had been a close friend, and a generous financial supporter, of senator Lyndon Johnson.  By the time Billie Sol’s empire collapsed, LBJ was vice president and the scandal sheets were bristling with conspiracy theories.  Richard Nixon, now running for governor of California, made the most of the Marshall imbroglio.  Eventually, thanks to escalating rumors and the insistence of Marshall’s family, the body was exhumed and the cause of death changed from suicide to homicide

Months after Billie Sol was released from prison, he contacted the Robertson County DA and asked to testify to the grand jury.  Not only was he willing to reveal the identity of Marshall’s killer, Estes told Paschall, he was prepared to discuss the details of seven murders perpetrated at the behest of LBJ.  There was a catch, of course.  Billie Sol wouldn’t talk unless Paschall granted him full immunity from prosecution. 

Paschall agreed to these terms, but, as he admitted to reporters, there was little point.  All the men Billie Sol implicated, LBJ included, were long dead by 1984.  Besides, who would take the word of a twice-convicted conman? 

Nobody, and everybody.  When the Justice Department asked Billie Sol to elaborate, the Texas conman asserted that LBJ had ordered the Kennedy assassination because he wanted to be president.  No one knew what to think.  Conspiracy theorists like Roger Stone still treat Estes’ testimony as gospel.

As excited speculation warred with passionate denials, the Robertson County DA became a minor celebrity, his words quoted copiously in the national press.  He wasn’t going to prosecute anyone, Paschall told reporters, because all the principal actors were in their graves. 

Reporters flocked to Pecos to see what the locals thought of their boy now.  Surprisingly, he remained popular.  As one farmer told the New York Times: “Billie Sol was like God in this town.  Anyone opposed to him might as well pack up their bags and leave town.”

Billie Sol refilled his depleted bank account by writing a tell-all book, Billy Sol Estes, a Texas Legend: “The Man Who Knows Who Shot JFK“.

When you’re the right kind of criminal they let you do it, you can do anything.

It is virtually impossible to put the right kind of criminal in prison, and even harder to keep them there.  In fact, it takes the self-sacrificial effort from dedicated parties working outside the system to produce a day of reckoning.  Take Ty Clevenger out of the equation and Paxton and Paschall might never have been indicted. If Billie Sol hadn’t pissed off editor Griffin, his byzantine schemes might never have come to light.  More recently, Paxton might have escaped federal scrutiny if his own staff hadn’t blown the whistle.

The wrong kind of criminal

Netflix ought to produce a ten-episode series about men like Paxton, Billie Sol and Paschall.  Their stories may not be edifying, but they are highly entertaining and instructive.

But what about the wrong kind of criminal?  You know, they guy with no friends in high places, no education to speak of, no fancy job and no network of support.  Well, as men like DA Paschall quickly discover, the wrong kind of criminal doesn’t even have to commit a crime to land in prison.  Paschall made the most of this fact.  He became so good at putting innocent people in prison, in fact, that Hollywood made a move about him.  But that story is for next time.