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In FBI probe, Texas AG faces aggressive, ethical prosecutor

FILE - In this June 28, 2020 file photo, Texas' Attorney General Ken Paxton waits on the flight line for the arrival of Vice President Mike Pence at Love Field in Dallas. A longshot lawsuit that President Donald Trump is now calling "the big one" in his effort to subvert the will of the voters is helmed by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is likewise trying to reverse his own skidding fortunes. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez File)
FILE - In this June 28, 2020 file photo, Texas' Attorney General Ken Paxton waits on the flight line for the arrival of Vice President Mike Pence at Love Field in Dallas. A longshot lawsuit that President Donald Trump is now calling "the big one" in his effort to subvert the will of the voters is helmed by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is likewise trying to reverse his own skidding fortunes. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DALLAS – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has spent years dodging legal and public relations blows that might have knocked others out of politics. The Republican has so far proven too wily for political opponents and prosecutors, winning reelection and rising to national prominence as a conservative crusader even while under felony indictment.

But criminal allegations from Paxton’s top deputies have set him up to square off against a formidable new opponent: A federal prosecutor with a team of seasoned FBI agents and a track record of getting corrupt public officials sent to prison.

Paxton has not been charged with a crime in the months since eight senior officials in the attorney general’s office reported him to the FBI for bribery, abuse of office and other offenses allegedly committed in helping a wealthy donor trying to fend off his own federal investigation. Federal investigators are digging into the attorney general’s actions and connections to Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer who employs a woman with whom Paxton is said to have had an extramarital affair.

Overseeing the effort is San Antonio-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Blackwell, according to a person familiar with the probe who insisted on anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Paxton has denied any wrongdoing. His unsuccessful recent lawsuit trying to overturn the presidential election has raised questions about whether he’s seeking protection from a powerful ally — President Donald Trump.

The U.S. attorney’s office in West Texas declined to comment or make Blackwell available for an interview. Federal prosecutors and the FBI generally do not confirm ongoing investigations.

Blackwell, who coordinates public integrity cases across a region stretching more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) to El Paso, is a hard-charging but fair prosecutor, according to former colleagues and opposing lawyers alike. He has a knack for boiling down the complex facts of white-collar investigations, a down-to-earth demeanor and slight Louisiana accent that endears him to juries.

“He’s probably the best trial attorney I’ve ever seen,” said Sean O’Connell, a Virginia lawyer who worked with Blackwell as a federal prosecutor in Texas.

Blackwell, 45, earned his law degree from Louisiana State University in 2000. Before joining the U.S. attorney’s office, he worked as a military prosecutor and in private practice, former colleagues said.

Blackwell handled a variety of immigration, narcotics, financial crime and other cases in El Paso before moving to San Antonio, where he began prosecuting more complex white-collar cases. His most high-profile case was the 2018 money laundering and fraud trial of former state Sen. Carlos Uresti.

Erica Benites Giese, who was a senior federal prosecutor in San Antonio during the trial, said Blackwell made a “very impassioned” argument that Uresti deserved a prison sentence, and a judge gave the longtime Democratic lawmaker 12 years. But Blackwell is not the type of prosecutor “who just wants heads on his wall,” she said

“No politics plays into his analysis whatsoever,” said Benites Giese, who is now in private practice.

Politics has, however, been part of Paxton’s defense strategy.

The attorney general has long used political connections and legal maneuvers to stall the prosecution of his state securities fraud case. Five years after Paxton pleaded not guilty it remains unclear where or when he’ll face trial.

More recently, Paxton’s failed effort to have the U.S. Supreme Court throw out Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election prompted speculation that the attorney general is angling for a preemptive pardon in the waning weeks of Trump’s administration. Paxton’s defense attorney, Philip Hilder, declined to comment.

A broad pardon would foreclose federal prosecution. But it would not necessarily end the investigation into Paxton, according David Crump, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. He said it’s possible the FBI could hand off its findings to state prosecutors.

People who know Blackwell said he’s unlikely to be scared away or put off a case if the government decides to bring one. And he’s more than capable of legal hardball.

During Uresti’s trial, Blackwell successfully got the judge to remove the senator’s lawyer, Mikal Watts, for conflict of interest. Watts said he still disagrees with the decision and Uresti’s eventual sentence, but that as aggressive as Blackwell might be, he is also ethical.

“He will try the case heads up and let the jury decide,” said Watts. “Joe is a guy I would trust my wife with on a weekend away.”

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Follow Jake Bleiberg: https://twitter.com/jzbleiberg.