By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) -The prosecution in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment trial on Tuesday urged state senators to convict the Republican on corruption-related charges and remove him for using the power of his office for his personal benefit, while his lawyer derided the case as "a lot of nothing."
Paxton's lawyer sought to paint the impeachment effort, which fellow Republicans have spearheaded in the state legislature, as an attempt by his political enemies to thwart the will of Texas voters who elected him three times to the post - even after the allegations of wrongdoing were publicly known.
Paxton, also under investigation by the FBI, entered pleas of not guilty as the impeachment trial got underway in the Texas Senate. After senators voted down his pretrial motions to dismiss the charges, Paxton, rose on the Senate floor to hear the 16 articles of impeachment he faces, but did not speak as his lawyer announced his pleas. Paxton, 60, did not return to the Senate chamber after a lunch break.
An ally of former President Donald Trump, Paxton has been suspended from his post since the Texas House of Representatives voted in May to impeach him on corruption charges, including aiding a wealthy political donor and persecuting whistleblowers from his office who accused him of wrongdoing. Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature.
Trump has strongly backed Paxton. The political dynamics in a Paxton trial pitting Republicans against one another echo divisions in the party at the national level as Trump seeks to regain office. The former president leads a crowded field of candidates vying to become the party's nominee to face Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 U.S. election despite facing criminal charges in four separate cases.
"This whole case is a whole lot of nothing," Tony Buzbee, Paxton's main defense lawyer, told senators in his opening statement.
Buzbee promised to present evidence knocking down every allegation. He portrayed Paxton as the innocent target of establishment Republicans - whose power in Texas has waned as party figures focused on hot-button issues such as curbing abortion and transgender rights and securing the border have gained power.
Republican state Representative Andrew Murr, delivering the prosecution's opening statement, said the witnesses he would present are diehard conservatives who were Paxton's hand-chosen top aides but were forced to report him to the FBI because of "Paxton's slow creep of corruption."
"Mr. Paxton has been entrusted with great power. Unfortunately, rather than rise to the occasion, he's revealed his true character and, as the overwhelming evidence will show, he's not fit to be the attorney general for the state of Texas," Murr said.
Murr's team called as its first witness Jeff Mateer, who is a top legal officer for First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights group; the former No. 2 official in Paxton's office; and one of the whistleblowers.
Lawyers from Paxton's camp repeatedly objected to Mateer's testimony Tuesday, saying his accounts of discussions with his former boss were private. Most of those objections were overruled.
As attorney general, Paxton backed powerful oil and gas interests and pursued restrictions on abortion and transgender rights. He has led Republican state opposition to the policies of Democratic presidents, and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn Trump's 2020 election defeat.
A two-thirds majority vote in the 31-member state Senate would be needed to remove Paxton from office. The last impeachment trial of a statewide officeholder in Texas was in 1917.
Thirty of the 31 senators will serve as jurors. Paxton's wife, Angela, is a Republican senator but is not acting as a juror due to concerns over conflict of interest.
The Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. If all the Democrats vote to convict Paxton as expected, nine Republicans would need to join them to reach the two-thirds majority required to permanently remove him from office.
Senators rejected a motion to dismiss all the charges by a vote of 24-6, and voted down additional motions to throw out individual charges.
Paxton's impeachment was triggered by his request that House lawmakers approve a $3.3 million settlement he reached with four former staff members who accused him of abuse of office and were subsequently fired. State lawmakers did not do so.
The House voted 121-23 to impeach him on 20 articles that accused him of improperly aiding real estate developer and political donor Nate Paul, conducting a sham investigation against the whistleblowers in his office, and covering up wrongdoing in a separate federal securities fraud case, among other offenses.
The Senate's impeachment rules committee set aside four charges involving Paxton's private business dealings that House charges called obstruction of justice and false statements in official records. The Senate could dismiss those charges or hold a separate trial on them.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Longmont, Colorado; Editing by Will Dunham, Donna Bryson, Andy Sullivan and Jonathan Oatis)