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In yet another sign of turmoil at the embattled Texas Attorney General’s Office, two of Ken Paxton’s top lieutenants have left the agency, just months after they sacrificed their own paychecks to help defend him in his impeachment trial.
Solicitor General Judd Stone and Assistant Attorney General Christopher Hilton resigned “to continue private practice at the Stone Hilton Law Firm,” attorney general spokesperson Paige Willey confirmed in an email on Wednesday. She would not answer questions about when they resigned.
The attorney general’s office also did not answer questions about who would succeed Stone as solicitor general, the state’s top appellate lawyer.
Stone and Hilton were among six attorney general lawyers and one executive assistant who took leave without pay starting in May to help Paxton’s defense team as he prepared to face an impeachment trial in the Texas Senate. The Senate acquitted Paxton of the House’s charges of bribery and misuse of office on Sept. 16. Paxton denied any wrongdoing, calling the proceedings a political witch hunt.
Emails obtained through a public records request by The Texas Tribune show the attorneys, along with others who left to work on Paxton’s defense, were expected to return to the agency after the impeachment trial ended. They all were back — or had plans to be back — by Oct. 9, according to the emails, but their extended absence raised concerns internally about the offices’ ability to function properly.
“There are important responsibilities these employees maintain at the OAG, and although the OAG has to date been able to continue operations uninterrupted without these employees, the agency cannot fulfill its statutory obligations in the long term with these employees absent, particularly the employees who hold leadership positions,” OAG general counsel Austin Kinghorn wrote in a Sept 28 email.
Kinghorn wrote that, at that point, none of the employees had communicated whether they intended to return to the agency.
“Moreover, I am concerned about reports of one or more of these employees potentially soliciting business and/or practicing law outside the scope of the limited authorization granted by the OAG,” he said.
Kinghorn advised First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster and head of human resources Henry De La Garza to ask them to return by Oct. 2. Webster agreed.
“Given the fact that I approved this and the justifications I gave for approving it, I think I am obligated to end the leave, and return things back to pre-impeachment status,” Webster responded.
A spokesperson for the Stone Hilton law firm said Stone and Hilton always intended to return briefly to the attorney general’s office after the trial, finishing some remaining work and then leave permanently to continue with their new private practice. The spokesperson, Alejandro Garcia, said Stone and Hilton believe they handled the process appropriately.
Stone and Hilton had risen to the top of the attorney general’s office amid the departure of some of the agency’s highest-level employees in fall 2020, including several who went on to file a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton that would become one of the catalysts for state House leaders to impeach him. The whistleblowers alleged that Paxton was misusing his office to help his friend and donor Nate Paul, who believed he was the target of a sprawling conspiracy by federal and local law enforcement.
As solicitor general, Stone was the agency’s top appellate lawyer, a high-profile position whose previous occupants include Ted Cruz, now a U.S. senator, and Jim Ho, now a federal appeals court judge. He was appointed to the position in January 2021 after the departure of Kyle Hawkins.
Ho provided the Tribune with a statement on Stone’s departure.
“As a proud alum of the SG’s office, I predict that Judd will long be known as one of the most influential and talented advocates Texas has ever had,” Ho said.
Hilton led the general litigation division, which handles some of the agency’s biggest cases. He became a deputy chief in the position by fall 2020 and rose to chief by March 2022, according to agency organizational charts.
Hilton interrupted a House General Investigating Committee meeting in May as members discussed whether to impeach Paxton, demanding to testify on behalf of the attorney general’s office. He was rebuffed by the impeachment managers who went into executive session almost immediately after gaveling in.
“The people deserve to hear from this office in the context of this investigation,” Hilton said at the time. “The voters want Ken Paxton. And this committee — by investigating him, by not allowing us to be heard here today, by never reaching out to us at any time during this investigative process — is trying to thwart the will of the voters. We deserve to be heard here today.”
Zach Despart contributed to this story.