Two Houston attorneys have been appointed to replace Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis in any potential prosecution of Attorney General Ken Paxton for violating state securities law.
The Texas Rangers are currently investigating Paxton, whose relationship with Willis has raised questions about how Collin County would handle the case.
Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice will serve as criminal district attorneys pro tem, according to an order signed Tuesday by Scott Becker, a judge in Collin County district court. The order leaves open the possibility of "further additional appointments."
Earlier this week, Willis asked to step aside as the Rangers look into Paxton, a friend and business partner. Becker granted that request, ensuring Willis will not be involved in any potential prosecution of Paxton for breaking state securities law in Collin County.
Paxton admitted last year to soliciting investment clients for another friend and business partner without properly registering with the state. He was reprimanded and fined $1,000 by the State Securities Board.
While neither Schaffer nor Wice have worked as prosecutors, both have extensive criminal defense backgrounds. Wice recently worked on the defense team of NFL Star Adrian Peterson with attorney Rusty Hardin and is the legal analyst for KPRC-TV in Houston. Peterson pleaded no contest to a child abuse charge for disciplining his son with a wooden switch. He was sentenced to probation.
Wice is most known as a member of the team that won an appeal of the 2010 conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. A Travis County jury convicted the former lawmaker of conspiring to launder $190,000 in campaign donations to seven Texas legislative candidates. But the 3rd Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and that decision was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Shaffer has represented high-profile politicians and business leaders, including R. Allen Stanford and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington, and has handled legal affairs for athletes and celebrities including Farrah Fawcett.
Disclosure: Rusty Hardin is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Earlier story: Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis has asked to step aside as the Texas Rangers begin investigating whether his friend and business partner Attorney General Ken Paxton should be criminally prosecuted for violating state securities laws.
In a motion filed Monday in Collin County district court, Willis asked Judge Scott Becker to appoint a criminal district attorney pro tem in his place as investigators probe Paxton, who admitted last year soliciting investment clients for another friend and business partner without properly registering with the state. Paxton was "reprimanded" and fined $1,000 by the State Securities Board.
Willis' motion notes the request is somewhat unusual because a criminal case does not exist from which Willis can ask to be removed. Instead, Willis said he is seeking recusal in response to Travis County's referral of the case to Collin County, as well as a complaint by a "political group" thought to be the liberal Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
"Normally any recusal considerations are prompted after a law enforcement agency’s submission of an investigated case to our office. This has not happened," Willis wrote. "Nevertheless, now that an investigative agency has been tasked to investigate this matter, and to avoid any potential appearance of impropriety arising from his business and personal relationship with Ken Paxton, the undersigned Criminal District Attorney of Collin County respectfully requests this Honorable Court to appoint a Criminal District Attorney Pro Tem of Collin County in this matter."
A criminal district attorney pro tem is seen as less beholden to the person stepping aside than a special prosecutor, which some have called for given the relationship between Willis and Paxton.
If accepted, Willis' request means he will not be involved in any potential prosecution of Paxton in Collin County.
Earlier this month, Willis said he had asked the Texas Rangers to "follow up" on allegations referred to his office about Paxton. That move came shortly after a letter surfaced indicating a Collin County grand jury was interested in Paxton.
In January, the Travis County district attorney's office shut down its investigation of Paxton without bringing criminal charges. It then sent a referral letter reiterating the allegations — not the same as criminal case — to Collin County, where Paxton copped to breaking the law.
Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm emphasized earlier this month that Collin County still has not received a criminal case on which Willis or any other prosecutor can take action. Holm did not return a call late Tuesday.
Willis first disclosed his request for recusal in an interview Tuesday with The Dallas Morning News.