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Scandalized!

More on the Paxton self-exoneration report

More and more ridiculous.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office refuses to release the names of the authors or the taxpayer cost of the internal report published Tuesday that concluded that whistleblowers’ accusations that Paxton broke the law were unfounded.

Yet the body of the report indicates that a key author was Paxton’s top deputy, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, who was hired on Oct. 5 — the same day the internal investigation was initiated and just days after seven senior officials at the agency had notified Paxton that they had reported him to law enforcement.

Webster, whose annual salary was $265,000 as of July, was hired to replace Jeff Mateer, one of the whistleblowers, who resigned Oct. 2. Webster did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

[…]

An AG spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said Tuesday that the report was written by a group of lawyers who “were not involved in the underlying matters that were the subject of the report.” He did not respond to questions about why the office was declining to provide their names.

In response to an open records request by Hearst Newspapers, the attorney general’s office said it cannot calculate the cost to taxpayers of the 10-month internal investigation because the authors belong to the executive administration and do not keep timesheets. Lauren Downey, the agency’s public information coordinator, would not name the authors, saying the office did not have a list.

Under the General Appropriations Act, the state’s biennial budget, the office is required to “continue an accounting and billing system by which the costs of legal services provided to each agency may be determined.”

The internal report contains multiple references to Webster, including one instance in which Webster told the Travis County District Attorney’s office attorneys that he was conducting an investigation in an Oct. 8 email.

“General Paxton recently appointed me to be his First Assistant Attorney General,” he wrote. “One of my tasks is to collect our agency documents and other evidence to determine what has transpired internally with our agency … If you have any documents or email communications you are willing to release to me that would assist me in understanding what has transpired, I would appreciate it.”

Webster’s name also appears in annotations on various documents included in the report, and he is described at least five times in the report as someone asking questions of others at the agency or collecting information about whistleblower-related issues.

See here for the background. We’re not going to tell you who wrote this thing, we’re not going to tell you how much it cost to write it, and you’re just going to have to take our word on everything because we’ve established such a long track record of truthfulness and reliability. I think that about covers it.

Another ruling to allow whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton to proceed

So much for all the lawyers to do.

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A state judge has rejected a bid to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former executives at Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who said they were fired in retaliation after accusing their boss of misconduct.

In a brief order issued Tuesday evening, state District Judge Amy Clark Meachum gave no reasons for allowing the lawsuit to continue.

Shortly after the ruling, however, the attorney general’s office notified Meachum that it had filed an appeal, halting further action on the case, including a planned April 5 hearing on a request by two of the whistleblowers to be reinstated to their jobs.

[…]

During a March 1 hearing on the motion to dismiss, Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to defend the attorney general’s office, argued that there was no basis to sue because Paxton was allowed to fire the employees for any reason.

“Texas employees of any elected official always serve at the pleasure of the elected official,” Helfand told Meachum.

[…]

Meachum’s ruling on the motion to dismiss was delayed by an earlier appeal from Helfand, who objected when Meachum called a second hearing on March 1 — to consider whether to reinstate the jobs of two whistleblowers — without ruling on his motion to dismiss.

Helfand argued that no further action could be taken until his motion was ruled upon because it questioned whether Meachum had jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit. Meachum disagreed, held the second hearing, heard from two witnesses and recessed the hearing for the night, but her plans to resume March 2 were blocked by the 3rd Court of Appeals while it considered Helfand’s appeal.

The appeals court rejected that appeal on March 12, leading to Meachum’s ruling Tuesday.

See here and here for some background. I’m honestly a little confused by what that “April 5” hearing was supposed to be about. Clearly, I’ve missed a story or two along the way, but the gist appears to be that there was a motion to dismiss by Paxton and a motion to reinstate two of the fired employees that Paxton objected to, and along the way there have been rulings and appeals and now here we are. According to Chuck Lindell, the 3rd Court of Appeals will have a hearing on September 22, presumably to consider the ruling that the lawsuit can proceed. Maybe it will be more clear at that time. Mark your calendars and we’ll see.

State Bar investigating Paxton

Well, well, well

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The Texas bar association is investigating whether state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on bogus claims of fraud amounted to professional misconduct.

The State Bar of Texas initially declined to take up a Democratic Party activist’s complaint that Paxton’s petitioning of the U.S. Supreme Court to block Joe Biden’s victory was frivolous and unethical. But a tribunal that oversees grievances against lawyers overturned that decision late last month and ordered the bar to look into the accusations against the Republican official.

The investigation is yet another liability for the embattled attorney general, who is facing a years-old criminal case, a separate, newer FBI investigation, and a Republican primary opponent who is seeking to make electoral hay of the various controversies. It also makes Paxton one of the highest profile lawyers to face professional blowback over their roles in Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize his defeat.

[…]

Kevin Moran, the 71-year-old president of the Galveston Island Democrats, shared his complaint with The Associated Press along with letters from the State Bar of Texas and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals that confirm the investigation. He said Paxton’s efforts to dismiss other states’ election results was a wasteful embarrassment for which the attorney general should lose his law license.

“He wanted to disenfranchise the voters in four other states,” said Moran. “It’s just crazy.”

Texas’ top appeals lawyer, who would usually argue the state’s cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, notably did not join Paxton in bringing the election suit. The high court threw it out.

Paxton has less than a month to reply to Moran’s claim that the lawsuit to overturn the results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was misleading and brought in bad faith, according to a June 3 letter from the bar. All four of the battleground states voted for Biden in November.

From there, bar staff will take up the case in a proceeding that resembles the grand jury stage of a criminal investigation. Bar investigators are empowered to question witnesses, hold hearings and issue subpoenas to determine whether a lawyer likely committed misconduct. That finding then launches a disciplinary process that could ultimately result in disbarment, suspension or a lesser punishments. A lawyer also could be found to have done nothing wrong.

The bar dismisses thousands of grievances each year and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals, 12 independent lawyers appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, overwhelmingly uphold those decisions. Reversals like that of Moran’s complaint happened less than 7% of the time last year, according to the bar’s annual report.

See here, here, here, and here for the background on Paxton’s lawsuit, which you may recall was an effort by Texas and several other states to get SCOTUS to overturn the election result in four Biden-won states because the plaintiffs didn’t approve of their election laws. One reason why we can credibly claim that this lawsuit was not only without merit but that the lawyers who were filing it knew that it was without merit was that they would scream bloody murder if another state tried to meddle in their own jurisdictions. Following these (dangerous and seditious) legal shenanigans, one national group called for state bars to take action against the instigators. I don’t know if this filing was related to that, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.

Now whether anything comes of this, we don’t know. As the story notes, the odds against the complainants prevailing are slim. Still, it’s another front on which Paxton must battle to save his sorry ass, and I have no doubt that his response brief will provide some content of interest. I fervently hope that one witness who gets called is former Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, who notably declined to argue Paxton’s filing before SCOTUS, which is what someone in his role would normally do. We deserve to know what he thought of all this. A ruling is likely months away, which may be just in time for the 2022 elections to be getting into full swing. Reform Austin has more.

Paxton whistleblower lawsuit can proceed

First step in a long road.

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The 3rd Court of Appeals on Friday denied a petition from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to stop a trial court hearing in a suit filed by whistleblowers who claim they were wrongfully terminated after reporting Paxton to law enforcement for alleged bribery and other public corruption.

Attorneys for the office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but they are likely to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

“We were pleased, but not surprised, by the 3rd Court’s ruling,” said Carlos Soltero, who represents David Maxwell, the agency’s former director of law enforcement who was fired in November. “This brings us closer to being able to move forward and present our case on the merits, which we are looking forward to doing.”

[…]

A Travis County trial court on March 1 heard a motion by Paxton’s attorneys to dismiss the case. When the judge left the issue under advisement and continued on to entertain an injunction hearing in the case, Paxton’s attorneys appealed, arguing she needed to first rule on the motion to dismiss before proceeding. The appellate court temporarily stayed all further action in the case; the stay was lifted with Friday’s order.

We know about the whistleblower lawsuit. Paxton’s response to the charges against him are that the Office of the Attorney General is not subject to the state’s whistleblower laws and thus this lawsuit is moot and should be dismissed. Travis County judge Amy Clark Meachum denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit on March 1, and when she attempted to proceed to the next phase of the suit, which involved hearing from the plaintiffs, Paxton’s lawyers objected:

Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to represent the agency in the whistleblower case, argued that the motion to dismiss raised questions about the appropriateness of the lawsuit that needed to be addressed before any other matters could be considered.

Meachum noted that she had made no ruling that could be appealed, but Helfand insisted that “diving into the substantive issues” of the case was no different from issuing a ruling denying the motion to dismiss, allowing him to file an appeal that should have ended matters until the 3rd Court of Appeals could rule.

Meachum disagreed and opened the second hearing, where for the first time a court heard from two of those who accused Paxton of misconduct.

The first was Jeff Mateer, the former second-ranking executive at the attorney general’s office who resigned Oct. 2, two days after joining six other top executives in telling FBI agents that he believed Paxton was misusing the powers of his office to help Austin businessman Nate Paul.

Mateer, a lawyer, said he stood by his accusations against Paxton, but when he was asked to discuss them, he was interrupted by repeated objections from Helfand, who said providing details would violate attorney-client privilege and get into internal office deliberations that could not be discussed in court.

Mateer also testified that the two executives who want to be reinstated to their jobs — David Maxwell, former director of the agency’s Law Enforcement Division, and Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel — had performed their jobs well when he ran the office.

The court also heard from Vassar, who was fired in November and testified that he had received no criticism of his job performance or reprimands before speaking to FBI agents last year. Vassar was in the early stages of his testimony and was set to resume Tuesday morning.

The Third Court of Appeals initially ruled for Paxton and halted any further testimony until it issued a decision. This was the decision, which will now be appealed to the Supreme Court. Remember how every little thing in the securities fraud case against Paxton got appealed all the way up to the Court of Criminal Appeals before anything could be done, which is why that case is more than five years old now? Yeah, that’s the likely situation here as well. The FBI can’t arrest his ass fast enough.

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

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When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.

Quid pro Paxton

How tawdry. And I can’t wait to hear more.

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Late last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fired multiple senior aides who accused him of accepting a bribe. A court filing obtained by The Texas Tribune reveals for the first time what four of those aides believe Paxton received in exchange for helping a donor with his business affairs.

An updated version of a lawsuit filed by the four whistleblowers claims that Austin real estate developer Nate Paul helped Paxton remodel his house and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair.

In return, the aides allege, Paxton used his office to help Paul’s business interests, investigate Paul’s adversaries and help settle a lawsuit. The claims in the filing provide even more details about what the former aides believe Paxton’s motivations were in what they describe as a “bizarre, obsessive use of power.”

“Some of Paxton’s actions directing the [Office of the Attorney General] to benefit Paul were criminal without regard to motive,” the amended petition reads. “Others were so egregious and so contrary to appropriate use of his office, that they could only have been prompted by illicit motives such as a desire to repay debts, pay hush money, or reciprocate favors extended by Paul.”

[…]

The latest filing is vague on many details. It says that Paxton purchased a home worth around $1 million in the Tarrytown neighborhood of Austin in 2018. In 2020, the filing says, the house underwent renovations, “although permitting records in Travis County could not be located.”

“In mid-2020, some of the Plaintiffs received information suggesting that Nate Paul, either personally or through [a] construction company he owns and controls, was involved in the project,” the lawsuit states.

The filing doesn’t describe the nature of Paul’s alleged involvement or how they received the information.

The whistleblowers for the first time also allege that Paxton may have helped Paul because the developer gave a job to a woman with whom he had an extramarital relationship. The lawsuit notes that the woman had no previous experience in the construction industry, “much less managing construction projects.” The woman, who the Tribune is not naming because she is not a public figure, did not return a call for comment.

See here, here, and here for some background. It’s important to remember that what have here are allegations, not evidence. This could all fall apart in court, if it ever makes it that far. Which doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it for what it is, and hope that it all makes Paxton SO MAD. We just need to maintain perspective for the time being.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

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As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.

Ken Paxton couldn’t be more on brand if he tried

News item: Texas laws protecting whistleblowers don’t apply to Attorney General Ken Paxton, his agency argues in bid to quash lawsuit. Who among us didn’t already know that Ken Paxton doesn’t think the law applies to him?

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The Texas Attorney General’s Office is attempting to fight off efforts by four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in their lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed Attorney General Ken Paxton was breaking the law.

The agency is arguing that Paxton is “not a public employee” and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, which aims to protect government workers from retaliation when they report superiors for breaking the law.

Four former Paxton aides claim they were fired in retaliation for telling authorities they believed Paxton had done illegal favors for a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.

In seeking reinstatement and other financial damages, the whistleblowers want to question Paxton himself under oath, as well as Brent Webster, his top deputy at the attorney general’s office, and Brandon Cammack, a Houston lawyer Paxton hired to investigate complaints made by Paul in what aides say was a favor to the donor. They also issued subpoenas to Paul’s company and a woman alleged to have been Paxton’s mistress.

[…]

The whistleblowers sought to question Paxton, Webster and Cammack under oath as soon as next week. Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, accepted the subpoenas for both World Class and the woman, court documents show. She could not be reached for comment and Wynne did not return a request for comment.

But in a filing last week, the attorney general’s office asked the judge to quash the depositions and the subpoenas, and prevent the whistleblowers from conducting any discovery.

“The OAG is doing everything they can muster to avoid having Ken Paxton answer basic questions under oath about the facts,” said Carlos Soltero, an attorney for one of the whistleblowers.

Instead, the agency said, the Travis County judge should dismiss the case entirely on procedural grounds.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — the basis for the lawsuit — is designed to provide protection for public employees who, in good faith, tell authorities they believe their superiors are breaking the law. But the attorney general’s office claims the agency cannot be sued under the law because Paxton is an elected official.

“The Attorney General is neither a governmental entity nor a public employee and, thus, the Whistleblower Act does not extend protection to reports of unlawful conduct made against the Attorney General personally,” the agency argued. “The Act does not apply… for reports made about actions taken personally by the elected Attorney General.”

Comparing Paxton’s authority to that of the president of the United States, the agency claimed that the attorney general had the right to fire the employees, despite their claims of retaliation.

Under that theory, “he’s saying that elected officials aren’t accountable” for violating the Whistleblower Act, said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases.

“It appears that General Paxton is trying to get off on a technicality that doesn’t exist,” he added.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything clever to add here, just that I hope this defense is as successful as his lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election was.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

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Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

Trump commutes Stockman sentence

Crooks of a feather.

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President Donald J. Trump on Tuesday commuted the remaining prison sentence of former Republican Texas congressman Steve Stockman, who was sentenced to 10 years in 2018 after he was convicted of nearly two-dozen felonies, including fraud.

Prosecutors said the conservative firebrand from Friendswood misused $1.25 million in funds from political donors to pay for expenses like hot air balloon rides, kennel bills and a new dishwasher — rather than for charity like the donors were told. He was also accused of planting an undercover intern in the state House office of a political rival.

Former U.S. Reps. Bob McEwen and Bob Barr, Republicans from Ohio and Georgia respectively, were among the public figures who called for Stockman’s release, according to a statement from the White House Press Secretary, announcing the outgoing president had pardoned 15 people and commuted the sentences of five.

Stockman, 64, has underlying health conditions that place him at heightened risk during the pandemic. He has already been infected with the coronavirus while in prison, the release said.

He has served more than two years of his decade-long sentence, and will “remain subject to a period” of supervised release and a requirement that he pay $1 million in restitution, the release said.

See here for the background. The Chron story mentions a pardon as well as the commutation, but it’s not clear to me that was the case. What is clear is that this latest batch of pardons is another hive of scum and villainy, and we’ve still got four weeks to go.

I suppose I should feel some outrage about this particular order, as one of the nation’s leading Steve Stockman obsessives, but my reaction when I saw the Chron headline was a sigh and a head-shake. It’s not like this was a surprise, after all. Steve Stockman is exactly the type of person Trump is moved to help. I’m a little surprised it hadn’t already happened. At least he still has the restitution to pay. Either Stockman will fade back into obscurity from here, or he’ll find another way to get arrested, because that’s the kind of person he is. I don’t know what else to say.

Paxton denies whistleblower allegations

Pretty standard response.

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The Texas attorney general’s office will pay outside counsel $540 an hour to defend the state agency against accusations that it was retaliating against top aides when it fired them just weeks after they reported their boss, Ken Paxton, to authorities for possibly breaking the law.

William Helfand, a Houston attorney with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, will make $540 per hour for his work on the case while an associate attorney and a paralegal will make $350 and $215 per hour, respectively, according to a contract with the agency.

They filed the agency’s first official response Monday to a lawsuit filed by four of eight whistleblowers who left the agency after leveling the accusations. Paxton’s attorneys roundly rejected pages and pages of allegations of wrongdoing and retaliation in just a few brief sentences.

The agency “generally denies each and every claim and allegation” made by the whistleblowers, attorneys for the state wrote in the brief filing.

“Any action Plaintiffs allege to be an adverse employment action was the result of each Plaintiff’s own misconduct, lack of competence, and/or disloyalty to the Office,” the outside attorneys for the agency wrote.

Paxton is reportedly being investigated by the FBI over the allegations raised by the aides.

Separately, he has been under indictment since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges but has yet to stand trial amid side issues over venue and prosecutor pay. Notably, his defense team and political allies have loudly objected to the special prosecutors in the case making $300 per hour — far lower than the pay scale for the outside attorneys in the whistleblower case.

That point was not lost on Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors, who said it was “ludicrous for Paxton to believe that a seven-year attorney, not to mention a paralegal, should be paid more for defending him than two lawyers with over 80 years of combined experience should be paid for prosecuting him.”

“And it is outrageous that the taxpayers of Texas will be obligated to pay the legal fees for defending Paxton’s alleged misconduct that has reportedly triggered an FBI investigation,” Wice added.

See here and here for some background. Even I recognize this as Basic Lawyering 101, nothing new or unusual to see here. Where it gets exciting is in discovery, where Paxton will have to start coughing up some documents. As for how much the defense attorneys are being paid, as a theoretical matter the office of Attorney General deserves competent representation in matters like this. But the same is very much true for the special prosecutors, who have had to deal with a huge amount of political interference on Paxton’s behalf just to get paid. Surely if Paxton’s defense attorneys are worth that kind of fee, then we ought to see Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer as relative bargains. At least if Paxton does eventually get busted by the FBI, it’ll be the feds paying for that trial. In this case, we know Ken Paxton is going to raise money off of his latest legal travails. If the plaintiffs win, he can damn well kick in some of that loot to pay for the defense of his misdeeds.

FBI serves subpoenas in Paxton case

Quite the timing, no?

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Federal agents served at least one subpoena Wednesday on the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an ongoing investigation into allegations that Paxton abused his authority by helping a friend and campaign donor.

Three sources confirmed to the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV that FBI agents delivered the request for information to the agency’s headquarters on West 14th Street. The sources did not immediately know how many subpoenas were issued or what information FBI agents sought.

Federal authorities are investigating claims by former top Paxton aides that he used his position to aid Austin investor Nate Paul, whose offices were raided by the FBI last year.

FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee said Thursday that she could not comment, and the bureau has not publicly confirmed an investigation.

Paxton said in a statement Thursday evening: “At all times, as in every matter, I ask my staff only to search for the truth, wherever it leads. That’s my responsibility as Attorney General of Texas.”

The issuance of a federal subpoena on a state agency, and especially involving the state’s top attorney, is a highly unusual move that likely would have required higher level approval from the U.S. Justice Department.

You saw the tweet, now you see the story. We’ll know more when there’s more to be known. In the meantime, Paxton is building his brand with the sedition section.

But even as the investigation deepens, Paxton’s political star looks to be rising, at least on the right. In contesting the results of the election in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, he has catapulted himself into the country’s biggest political news story — a settled election that the president continues to contest, now relying heavily on an unprecedented lawsuit that has drawn the involvement of nearly every state. On Wednesday, Paxton joined Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck to talk about the case, which conservatives have cheered; on Thursday, he joined Trump for lunch at the White House.

It wouldn’t be the first comeback for the attorney general. He managed to hold on politically after a failed bid for Texas House speaker 10 years ago. And he was reelected as attorney general in 2018 despite the felony indictment that has dogged him for years.

In fact, the long-shot election case — which has become yet another high-stakes test of loyalty to the president — has played so well for Paxton that some are accusing him of filing it for his own benefit.

“It looks like a fella begging for a pardon filed a PR stunt rather than a lawsuit — as all of its assertions have already been rejected by federal courts and Texas’ own solicitor general isn’t signing on,” U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said.

Progressive groups have eagerly made similar accusations.

A spokesperson for Paxton dismissed the pardon speculation as “an absurdly laughable conspiracy theory” and said “this lawsuit is about preserving the integrity of our elections.”

[…]

It’s not hard to imagine Paxton filing such a lawsuit even under better personal circumstances. He has made himself a staunch Trump ally who plays up their relationship in public appearances and often greets Air Force One when it touches down in Texas. The two often line up in legal fights, and Paxton is frequently the first — or at least loudest — state attorney general to support a controversial Trump move, like a ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations.

Whatever Paxton’s intentions, the lawsuit has already had helped bring him back into the good graces of some prominent conservatives, and back into the spotlight — to tout his pro-Trump message, not to defend himself against serious criminal accusations. State officials who distanced themselves from Paxton or avoided speaking about the attorney general entirely have now emerged as cheerleaders for the lawsuit.

On his radio show this week, Beck asked Paxton about criticism that the attorney general filed the lawsuit to distract from his personal political problems — or in a bid for a presidential pardon.

“Look, for six years I’ve been fighting for what I thought was right,” Paxton responded. “I’m not gonna stop just because people have assaulted me. … No matter what they accuse me of, no matter what they want to do to me — I’m here to do my job.”

He’s got the victim rhetoric down, you have to give him that. The story suggests that even if Paxton gets the pardon he’s so clearly seeking, the current investigation could be done at the state level, if the Travis County DA wanted to pick it up. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Keep your eye on the game Paxton is playing right now.

Of course Nate Paul’s attorney donated to Ken Paxton

I mean, duh.

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Several weeks after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made the unusual move of intervening in a civil lawsuit involving his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, Paxton received a $25,000 donation from the law firm hired by Paul in the case, records show.

Involving his office in the civil case was just one of a handful of apparent interventions by Paxton on behalf of Paul that troubled the attorney general’s top aides, leading seven of them to report Paxton to law enforcement for potential corruption charges in early October, including bribery and abuse of office. Those accusations are now being investigated by the FBI.

A political action committee for the Austin-based law firm Hance Scarborough — the HS Law PAC — gave Paxton donations of $20,000 and $5,000 on June 30, records show.

Neither the attorney general’s office nor a campaign spokesman for Paxton responded to requests for comment. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

Reached Tuesday, Paul’s former attorney Terry Scarborough said he “did not know anything about our PAC contributions” because he is not the managing partner of the firm and declined to comment. Scarborough withdrew from the still-pending civil case this fall and no longer represents Paul’s business entities.

Managing partner Jay Stewart, who is trustee of the PAC, said it operates independent of the firm’s litigation section and that the donation had nothing to do with any cases.

“That was a contribution that we routinely make,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t even aware of that piece of litigation that Mr. Scarborough worked on.”

He said the firm, which represents clients in matters relating to regulatory and public policy law, has been giving to the attorney general’s office for years, even before Paxton took office. The firm has also donated to Paxton since his days as a Texas legislator, he said.

State campaign finance data shows the PAC last donated to Paxton in 2014, a total of $10,000 in the runup to Paxton’s first election.

Still, the donation this past summer marks the second financial tie, albeit an indirect one, between Paul and Paxton to come to light. The Houston Chronicle first reported in October that Paul had donated $25,000 to Paxton in 2018 for his re-election campaign.

There’s almost too much backstory on this to read if you need to catch up, but this and this will get you started. There are two obvious facts here to state. One is that contributions like this are in fact routine and common and under normal circumstances would not merit any scrutiny. You can feel about that however you want to feel about it. The second is that Ken Paxton deserves zero benefit of the doubt at this point. These contributions by themselves are perfectly legal and don’t mean anything, and yet in the context of the larger story they’re yet another piece of a big puzzle. The picture that puzzle represents is already quite clear.

The last whistleblower

Nothing like a fully cleaned house.

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The Texas attorney general’s office has fired the last remaining whistleblower who alleged Ken Paxton broke the law in doing favors for a political donor — just days after aides had sued the agency alleging they suffered retaliation for making the report.

Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar — who had already been placed on paid leave — was fired Nov. 17, according to internal personnel documents obtained by The Texas Tribune, making him the fifth whistleblower to be fired from the agency in less than a month. The three others who reported Paxton to law enforcement have resigned.

On Nov. 12, Vassar and three of his former colleagues filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Texas attorney general’s office, claiming they had suffered retaliation after they told law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by using the agency to serve the interests of a political donor and friend, Nate Paul.

Joseph Knight, Vassar’s attorney in the lawsuit, said the justification Vassar was given for his termination amounted to “made-up, nonsense reasons” — and that he believes the firing was an act of retaliation. Vassar was hired by the agency in 2015.

Neither the attorney general’s office nor Ian Prior, a political spokesman for Paxton, returned requests for comment on why Vassar was terminated, though Prior has said previous terminations were not acts of retaliation but rather related to policy violations.

See here for more on the whistleblowers’ lawsuit. As we know, the FBI is investigating Paxton for the allegations that have been leveled against him regarding Nate Paul. Nothing else new to report here, so just let the anticipation wash over you.

So the FBI is indeed investigating Ken Paxton

Sources say so.

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The FBI is investigating allegations that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton broke the law in using his office to benefit a wealthy donor, according to two people with knowledge of the probe.

Federal agents are looking into claims by former members of Paxton’s staff that the high-profile Republican committed bribery, abuse of office and other crimes to help Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, the people told The Associated Press. They insisted on anonymity to discuss the investigation because it is ongoing.

Confirmation of the criminal probe marks mounting legal peril for Paxton, who’s denied wrongdoing and refused calls for his resignation since his top deputies reported him to federal authorities at the end of September.

A criminal defense attorney for Paxton, Philip Hilder, declined to comment. Spokespersons in the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

[…]

Paxton said in a Tuesday statement to the Austin American-Stateman that, “after reviewing the claims made by former employees of this office, their allegations are overblown, based upon assumptions, and to a large degree misrepresent the facts.”

KXAN has Paxton’s full statement, if for some reason you need to see it. Just the other day I was saying that we needed to be patient, because it usually takes a long time to find out what’s happening with this sort of thing. This is one of those times when I’m quite happy to be wrong. The Trib has more.

The life and times of Ken Paxton

This long Trib story is basically a biography of Ken Paxton, with a focus on his ethical and legal travails since 2014. Most of what’s in here you already know, but if you need a refresher or you know someone who wants to get up to speed on the saga, this would be an excellent starting point. I’m going to highlight a couple of bits, mostly from the end, to illustrate where we are now.

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Although Democrats continue to make major hay of the [2015 securities fraud] charges, Paxton maintained enough support from conservatives to stay in office. Supporters compared his case to that of former Gov. Rick Perry, whose team spun the former governor’s indictment for abuse of power as a political hit job, and whose case was eventually dismissed.

With the securities fraud accusations, conservatives didn’t necessarily think Paxton was blameless — but he looked “sloppy” more than anything else, conservative political consultant Luke Macias said.

“The past accusations were more like Democrats trying to impeach Trump,” Macias said. This time is different, he said: The allegations are more serious, and they’re coming from attorneys respected on the right for their legal abilities and their conservative credentials.

[…]

Federal authorities have declined to say whether they are investigating Paxton, and the Texas Rangers said they referred complaints against Paxton to the FBI. But legal experts say it’s all but certain federal authorities are vetting the accusations against Paxton.

It would be “highly unusual” for federal authorities not to investigate, given the seriousness of the allegations and the presumed credibility of the accusers, said Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice who handled public corruption investigations.

“That is a serious claim made by law enforcement professionals who, we expect, understand the gravity of such an accusation,” Loya said. He added that it’s unlikely any major developments would become public about the investigation for several months.

We may grind our teeth at Luke Macias’ words, but we must recognize that having a Jeff Mateer call Ken Paxton a crook is going to be taken more seriously by Republicans than having any Democrat call Paxton a crook. And yes, I know, it was a grand jury in Collin County that returned the indictments, but don’t let the facts get in the way of the story. Also, we need to be patient, because it will be a long time before we know for sure if this is a real thing that is going somewhere or just a lot of smoke that was never a fire.

Now, Paxton sits at the head of an agency that is hemorrhaging senior staff even as its workload — a slew of election-related lawsuits, thousands of child support cases, an argument at the U.S. Supreme Court — remains heavy and urgent.

In addition to the eight whistleblowers, Paxton has lost Ben Williams, who had worked with the attorney general since his days in the Legislature and ran Paxton’s campaign for House speaker and state Senate. Williams resigned just days after the allegations were made public. Katherine Cary, the agency’s chief of staff, was already set to retire this fall. Marc Rylander, a longtime Paxton ally and the agency’s former communications director, left in September. And Simpson, who headed the agency’s human resources department during the debacle, retired at the end of October.

At a senior staff meeting last month, before the whistleblowers had left or been fired, Darren McCarty, a former senior aide, asked Paxton whether the agency would stop bashing them in statements to the media. There was no response.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the Legislature, Paxton insisted that the agency was forging ahead full bore — a characterization some current and former agency staff members consider far rosier than the truth.

Some attorneys in litigation-heavy divisions of the agency fear his reputation will hurt their credibility in court.

“Any action taken by the AG’s office under General Paxton is suspect,” said Shane Phelps, who was a senior deputy at the agency under former attorneys general Cornyn and Dan Morales. The agency has to keep litigating its thousands of cases, on everything from child support to the death penalty, but now judges will “be on the lookout for any indication that it’s being handled irregularly, in any way that is coming from the top and for all the wrong reasons.”

“It has damaged the credibility and the ability of the AG’s office to further the interest of the state of Texas in court,” Phelps said, and “given all sorts of ammunition for anybody opposing the AG’s office in court to start talking about these things.”

“Something needs to happen,” Phelps said. “It sounds like he’s getting pretty brazen.”

I’d say Ken Paxton been pretty brazen for some time now, but I take his point. As for the current functional capacity of the AG’s office, on the one hand I’m happy to have our eventual Democratic candidate beat Paxton over the head about how his own actions have severely shackled the agency. But on the other hand, given that this AG’s office almost never does something I approve of, I’m not exactly heartbroken by this turn of events. May he stay limited in his ability to cause damage until such time as he is ejected from that office. Reform Austin has more.

(Note: This story came out one day before the four whistleblowers filed their lawsuit against Paxton. I had figured I could wait to publish this till the weekend, since it wasn’t breaking news or anything. Life comes at you fast.)

Paxton sued by four whistleblowers

Start popping the corn.

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Despite his role as the state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Ken Paxton “believes he is above the very law” he is supposed to uphold, several whistleblowers say in a new lawsuit seeking damages after he allegedly retaliated against them.

In the lawsuit filed this week in Austin, four top former Paxton aides recounted some of the extraordinary efforts the attorney general allegedly made on behalf of his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor — everything from empowering Paul to go after business adversaries to helping him stave off foreclosure.

They say Paxton frequently met with Paul without his security detail present and abused his office to “advance the legal and personal interests” of the Austin businessman. Over time, Paxton “became less rational in his decision making and more unwilling” to listen to criticism of his actions, they said.

[…]

“The most senior members of the [office of the attorney general] believed in good faith that Paxton was breaking the law and abusing his office…,” ” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit provides more detail about allegations that have been leaking out in press reports since early October, including Paxton’s efforts to hire an outside lawyer to oversee a criminal investigation sought by Paul.

The FBI raided Paul and his businesses last year, and he has complained vociferously that he was treated unfairly and illegally by state and federal law enforcement. Those complaints reached Paxton and eventually led the attorney general to launch a probe — at Paul’s urging.

“Paxton rarely showed an interest in any pending criminal investigations, but he showed an extraordinary interest in the investigations sought by Paul,” the lawsuit alleges.

Among the “perceived adversaries” that Paul wanted the attorney general’s office to investigate: a federal magistrate judge, FBI agents, a federal bankruptcy judge, a local charity and a credit union, according to the lawsuit.

Though criminal investigators concluded “no credible evidence existed” to warrant state charges, Paxton pressed on and eventually hired an outside lawyer to oversee an investigation, which has since collapsed amid the controversy.

The lawsuit doesn’t just give more detail about the accusations that have already been reported. It also provides fresh allegations about Paxton’s abuse of his power to make rulings in disputes over the release of government records — once again to benefit Paul.

Though the attorney general’s office makes rulings in up to 40,000 open records disputes each year, the whistleblowers say they are “only aware of Paxton taking a personal interest in decisions that relate to Paul.”

In one instance involving records that Paul was seeking from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Paxton “personally took the file,” which included records sealed by a federal court, and “did not return it for approximately seven to ten days.”

In other open records cases involving Paul he told his deputies what conclusion he wanted them to reach even if it was unsupported by the law, according to the lawsuit.

Oh, mama. Let’s look at the Trib story for more details.

The whistleblowers are asking for reinstatement, as well as compensation for lost wages, future loss of earnings and damages for emotional pain and suffering. If they succeed, it will be taxpayers, not Paxton himself, who bear the majority of the litigation costs.

Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, any adverse action taken against whistleblowers within 90 days of their report to authorities is “presumed” to be retaliation for that report. The firings, as well as other actions alleged in detailed complaints to the agency’s human resources department, all fit within that three-month time frame.

Paxton has dismissed the whistleblowers as “rogue employees” wielding “false allegations.” But media reports in The Texas Tribune and other outlets, as well as public documents, show four instances when the attorney general’s office intervened in a legal matter in a manner that seemed to help Paul — events that are also detailed in the new lawsuit.

Paul and Paxton are friendly, but the full nature of their relationship remains unclear. Paul donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. Paul said in a court deposition last week that they have known each other for years, and sometimes had lunch together. Asked whether they were friends, Paul said “I consider the relationship, you know, positive.”

[…]

But for the whistleblowers, the most troubling example came this fall, when Paxton hired a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney, Brandon Cammack, to vet complaints made by Paul that he had been mistreated during the 2019 raid on his home and office.

Maxwell and Penley had been tapped to look into Paul’s complaints given their leading roles in law enforcement and criminal justice. But they had found, according to the lawsuit, “no credible evidence existed to support any state law charges.”

When Penley said he believed the investigation should be closed, Paul, his attorney and Paxton all “pushed back.”

Paxton soon turned to an outside investigator, Cammack, to vet Paul’s complaints against authorities, hiring the young lawyer through a process his top aides characterized as unusual and improper.

The office also considered hiring Joe Brown, a former U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas and onetime Grayson County district attorney — experience, legal experts say, that would have better positioned him for the position. Brown told The Texas Tribune he interviewed for the job in late August but eventually negotiations stalled.

Emails Brown sent the agency show he was concerned about allowing the attorney general’s office — or Paxton himself — to direct a probe that would ultimately lead to prosecution. One of the authorities Paul targeted in his complaint was the Texas State Securities Board, which in 2014 fined Paxton $1,000 for violating the Texas Securities Act, a law he was later indicted for violating.

“While I will fully investigate the circumstances related to the referral received, and provide a report related to any potential criminal charges, I am not committing to handling the prosecution of any resulting case,” Brown said in an email to the agency.

But he added that he might be willing to take on such a prosecution “after any ethical conflicts which could arise have been fully considered.”

Ultimately, the agency opted to hire the less experienced Cammack — Paxton’s decision, according to the lawsuit.

The four plaintiffs are David Maxwell, Mark Penley, Blake Brickman, and Ryan Vassar. I wonder if the other whistleblowers have their own legal action planned, or will just be witnesses in this one.

Reading these stories crystallized something for me that I hadn’t consciously considered before, which is why would Ken Paxton do all this stuff for one asshole like Nate Paul? Not to be too crude about it, but a $25K campaign contribution only buys you so much. There’s plenty of that kind of money out there for Paxton, so why would he (allegedly) do all of this crazy and maybe illegal stuff for that guy? There has to be more in it for him than that. All of these stories note that the “full nature of the relationship between Paxton and Paul is unclear”, and that just has to be the key to cracking this. There is something else we don’t know, maybe more than one something else, and until we find out what that is, we are not going to understand this story. Maybe this lawsuit will be the fulcrum that helps unearth whatever that is.

New details about the Paxton-Paul relationship

From depositions in a civil lawsuit, we learn more about Ken Paxton’s dealings with Nate Paul, the Austin real estate developer who’s at the root of Paxton’s current problems.

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In a transcript of the deposition obtained by The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Paul said that he could not recall exactly when he met Paxton but that it was “several years ago.”

Paul said he considers “the relationship, you know, positive,” when asked by a lawyer in the deposition whether they were friends.

The two sometimes ate lunch together, but Paul could not say how many times, he said in the deposition. He also said they had been in touch recently, when he offered condolences to Paxton, whose mother died in late October.

Paul did not answer several questions during the hourslong deposition, which came as part of a legal dispute between Paul and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that provides grants to charitable organizations and academic scholarships for financially needy students. The nonprofit sued Paul’s firm in 2018, claiming he wasn’t sharing financial information about jointly owned investments managed by his businesses.

Paxton’s office took the unusual step of intervening in that lawsuit this summer, but reversed its decision shortly before the senior aides’ complaints were made public.

[…]

The agency handles tens of thousands of cases a year, so it was highly unusual that Paxton took such a close interest in so many low-profile matters tied to Paul, according to former agency staff and legal experts.

Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, did not respond to several questions from the Tribune, including inquiries about the nature of the investigation at the attorney general’s office. A spokesperson for Paxton said the agency is investigating some of the whistleblowers who reported Paxton to law enforcement for “making false representations to the court, illegally leaking grand jury materials, and violating numerous agency policies” but did not provide further details.

The attorneys also asked Paul about some of the legal matters in which actions of the attorney general’s office have benefited Paul.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that Paul faced foreclosure on a number of properties this summer — but that the foreclosure sales didn’t take place after Paxton rushed a legal opinion that made it harder for such sales to proceed.

[…]

Paxton’s involvement in the case was not just unusual, but unethical, said Shane Phelps, who worked in the attorney general’s office under Dan Morales and was deputy attorney general for criminal justice under former attorney general John Cornyn.

“The only reason an AG would get involved in a case like that, if they were not minding their ethics P’s and Q’s, would be because they’ve got a donor who’s got an interest in it,” Phelps said. “If they have a donor who has an interest in a case, any ethical and appropriate attorney general is gonna say, ‘I can’t do that’ and is not gonna do it.”

See here for some background, and go read the rest because there’s a lot that I couldn’t include. There’s been a ton of information about this case, all of which sounds deeply fishy, though it’s hard to summarize. We’d probably not know about any of it had it not been for the shocking and explosive allegations by Paxton’s now-former aides, all of whom deserve a lot of credit for taking action in the face of significant consequences. When we finally free ourselves of Ken Paxton, they’ll be a big part of the reason why.

Oh, yeah, more Paxton news

The damn election has made it so hard to keep up with L’Affaire Paxton, and I use that term with a bit of a wink, as you’ll soon see. I’ve got four stories to catch you up on, and the last one is a doozy. Let’s take them chronologically. First up, from last week (too much news!), we have this AP story about the complaint Nate Paul filed that led to the Paxton investigation that led to all his top deputies accusing Paxton of taking a bribe.

An Austin real estate developer at the center of recent allegations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked for an investigation into his uncorroborated claims that other businessmen have an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million worth of his properties with the help of a federal judge.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of a Nate Paul’s undated complaint, which reveals that the developer’s claims focused on his business to an extent not previously known and raises new questions about the Republican attorney general’s handling of allegations made by a wealthy donor.

After Paxton hired an outside lawyer to investigate Paul’s claims, his seven top deputies reported the attorney general to the FBI for alleged abuse of office, bribery and other crimes linked to his relationship with Paul.

In his complaint to prosecutors in Austin, Paul said the owner of a chain of Texas car dealerships schemed with lawyers, investors and others to seize his assets. The developer accuses 11 people of an intricate fraud that was allegedly set to include the judge and another court-appointed official facilitating a “rigged auction.”

The signed, 10-page “request to investigate” is one of two from Paul that were referred to Paxton’s office, setting off the remarkable revolt by the Republican’s staff.

Paul’s complaint is largely based on things he says he heard second-hand. Many of those accused are in business and legal fights with Paul, and some derided his claims as ridiculous. None have been charged with crimes.

A retired FBI agent who reviewed the complaint called the plot as likely as “winning the lottery.”

“I’m confident these allegations are all a bunch of complete nonsense,” said Keith Byers, an attorney in the Houston area who previously oversaw FBI public corruption cases. “The unfortunate part of this is that the good name of a seemingly reputable judge is being smeared by these wild and farcical allegations.”

[…]

Paul’s lawyer, Michael Wynne, said his client has “significant evidence” to support his allegations but declined to elaborate. “I will reserve further comment since this is an ongoing investigation,” he said.

I’ll bet you do, sunshine. I’m skipping the details because my eyes kind of glazed over, but you get the picture. Remember, Paxton’s staff looked into this and concluded it was without merit. It was then that Paxton hired the wet-behind-the-ears “special prosecutor” Brandon Cammack to continue “investigating” under his direction, and that’s when his staff rebelled. It got ugly from there.

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At a senior staff meeting one Thursday morning in May, with much of the Texas attorney general’s office working from home and morale seeming low, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton arrived at the Price Daniel Sr. State Office Building in downtown Austin with a surprise honor for a top deputy: a copy of “Scalia Speaks,” the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice’s book.

Paxton had inscribed it with a congratulatory note for Blake Brickman, and presented it personally at the meeting of about 20 people.

“Blake, I am so grateful you joined our team at the Texas AG’s office,” Paxton wrote in blue ink, honoring the top deputy in a new, if short-lived, tradition, according to two people who attended the meetings. “I am confident that you will continue to make a difference for our office and all of Texas.”

Lacey Mase and Ryan Bangert, two other senior aides, would soon win similar accolades. But by October, Paxton had publicly disparaged Brickman, Mase, Bangert and several of his other most senior aides as “rogue employees” — and by the first week of November, Paxton had fired Brickman, Mase and two other top aides.

The week before his termination, Brickman had told the agency’s human resources department, in a formal complaint obtained by The Texas Tribune, that he was being blocked from meetings and prevented from seeing critical documents; that he believed his computer was being monitored; and that a superior had brought an armed “sergeant” to a staff meeting. His allegations echo formal complaints filed by five other whistleblowers.

The abrupt change, interviews and internal agency documents show, came after seven senior aides and whistleblowers in the attorney general’s office— Brickman, Bangert and Mase among them — reported Paxton to law enforcement on Sept. 30, alleging criminal violations. An eighth senior aide made a similar report to authorities on Oct. 1.

[…]

In their complaints, several of the whistleblowers allege that Paxton and First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, who Paxton hired to replace Mateer Oct. 5, created a “hostile environment” after they reported Paxton to law enforcement.

On Oct. 5, Webster’s first day at the agency, an armed guard was posted on the eighth floor of the Price Daniel Sr. building, where the agency’s executive team works, according to the complaints.

Bangert wrote that he asked Webster why the guard had been brought there — since he had never observed someone stationed there before — and that Webster said the guard was there for Webster’s own protection, as “he trusted no one and was not about [to] ‘leave his flank exposed.’”

“Other OAG staff complained to me that the presence of an armed officer in meetings was an unprecedented attempt by Mr. Webster to intimidate senior members of OAG staff on his first day as First Assistant,” Brickman wrote in his complaint.

On the same day, Bangert wrote in his complaint, a large stack of empty cardboard boxes was delivered to the eighth floor — which he considered an unspoken signal “that we were to pack our personal belongings in those cardboard boxes and leave.”

During a senior staff meeting on Oct. 8, a week after the group reported Paxton to law enforcement, McCarty asked Paxton and Webster whether the office would continue to publicly disparage whistleblowers. The agency had called them “rogue” and told reporters, without providing evidence, that it was investigating their behavior. There was no answer to McCarty’s question, according to several of the complaints.

The whistleblowers reported being excluded from meetings, sidelined from their routine job responsibilities and denied access to documents they needed to perform their duties.

Several also wrote that they believed superiors at the agency were monitoring them through their electronic devices.

You really need to read that whole story. The armed guard is just off the charts bizarre. These were apparently exemplary employees, with stellar personnel records, who suddenly became rogue and insubordinate rule-breakers in record time. All are now gone from the office, having been fired or resigned. (That’s story number 3, I’m skipping it because there’s not much to add from it.) As I’ve said before, even if Paxton is telling the truth about this, it sure doesn’t say much about him as a manager, if all these people he once trusted turned out to be such scurrilous characters.

And then there was this, which totally dropped my jaw.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had an extramarital affair with a woman whom he later recommended for a job with the wealthy donor now at the center of criminal allegations against him, according to two people who said Paxton told them about the relationship.

The two people, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to fears about retaliation, said the high-profile Republican official acknowledged the affair in 2018 to senior members of his office and political staff. They said he told them that he had ended the affair with the woman, who then worked for a GOP state senator.

Austin developer Nate Paul said in a deposition this week that Paxton recommended the woman for her job with Paul’s real estate company, according to a transcript of his deposition obtained by the AP. The woman had stopped working as a Senate aide at the end of 2019, though her reason for departing wasn’t immediately clear.

Paul’s hiring of the woman at Paxton’s recommendation sheds new light on the relationship between the two men.

[…]

During his Monday deposition, Paul explicitly denied employing the former Senate aide at his company, World Class, as a favor to Paxton.

“World Class has hundreds of employees, including (the woman), and in accordance with federal and state laws does not invade their privacy including to inquire about their personal lives,” the developer’s lawyer, Michael Wynne, said in an email.

The woman is named in a transcript of Paul’s deposition and both people who said Paxton told them of the affair independently identified her by name. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment. AP is not naming her because she is not a public figure.

Under questioning during the deposition, Paul said he did not know how the woman he hired and the attorney general knew each other. He said he couldn’t recall how long the woman had worked for him, what she was paid and whether he met her before or after Paxton recommended her.

The senator’s office has not responded to requests for comment. The woman’s personnel records are blank where the reason for her departure would be indicated.

[…]

Paxton acknowledged his affair with the woman during his hard-fought 2018 reelection campaign at least partially out of concern that it would become public, the people who he told about it said.

That September, Paxton gathered a small group of top staff in his Austin campaign office. A person who attended the meeting said Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, walked into the conference room holding hands. The attorney general told the group he had an affair but had since ended it and recommitted to his marriage, the person said.

Damn. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t remember hearing about this two years ago. And look, it’s not like having an affair makes you unfit for holding public office, but let’s just say I have less patience with people who are such strong defenders of “traditional marriage” who it turns out don’t seem to have all that much respect for their own marriage vows. I didn’t think it was possible for me to think less of Ken Paxton than I already do, but here we are. Who knows what we’ll find out about him next.

UPDATE: Meant to point to this Twitter thread by DMN reporter Lauren McGaughy as well.

Paxton completes his housecleaning

Only loyalists left.

Best mugshot ever

The last of the seven top aides who accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of criminal violations has resigned from the agency.

Ryan Bangert, who served in one of the agency’s highest posts as deputy first assistant attorney general, resigned Wednesday, he told The Texas Tribune. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request Wednesday seeking to confirm Bangert’s employment status.

“It has been my honor and privilege to serve alongside the men and women of the Office of the Attorney General,” Bangert said in a statement. The Dallas Morning News first reported the information.

Two of the other whistleblowers were fired last week, two more were put on leave, and two others have already resigned — leaving the sprawling agency without seven of its top officials. A spokesman for Paxton denied that the firings were retaliation, citing unspecified violations of agency policy.

See here for the previous update. Just a coincidence that this all happened at this time, I’m sure. Having such a mass exodus, mostly forced, of one’s most trusted staff isn’t a great sign no matter how you spin it. Even if we believe Paxton’s story that a bunch of rogue underlings cooked up this lie about him to distract from their own bad behavior, the fact would remain that he hired and trusted all those people who then went on to do such bad things. I’ll agree that’s better than if those allegations about him are true, but it still paints a picture of a guy who isn’t good at his job. But better incompetent than incarcerated, I suppose. Only if you buy his story, of course. And I see no reason to do that.

Time to check in on Ken Paxton again

It’s good to know, in times of crisis, that there are friendly fake media outfits one can run to to deny all the allegations against you.

Best mugshot ever

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton decided to break his silence about accusations by his top aides that he had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office, he turned to a little-known legal outlet called the Southeast Texas Record.

In the exclusive interview, he trashed the aides and claimed that before his top deputy resigned, Paxton had planned to put him on leave anyway.

The website where that interview was posted has been identified as part of a national network of some 1,300 pay-for-play news websites that publish on-demand coverage for Republican political campaigns and public relations firms. According to The New York Times, those websites, whose names sound like ordinary local news outlets, have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups.

Ian Prior, who promoted the story for the Paxton campaign, denied to The Texas Tribune that the campaign had paid the outlet to run the story — “definitive no,” he said — saying he had merely reached out to set up an interview with an outlet that had already covered the story.

The Southeast Texas Record describes itself as a legal outlet focused on informing readers about the courts, with a weekly print edition published on Sundays.

After the interview was published, Prior shared it with reporters via email.

He declined to answer questions about why the campaign chose a little-known legal publication as opposed to a news outlet with wider readership, such as The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle or Austin American-Statesman, which had all been following the Paxton story closely.

“Appreciate the question but not going to get into [public relations] strategy/discussions,” Prior said in a text message Tuesday.

[…]

In the Oct. 13 Paxton story, the Record foregrounds Paxton’s point of view in the ongoing scandal and elaborates less on the allegations against him, which remain murky, with federal authorities refusing to confirm whether there is an investigation into Paxton’s behavior at all. The author, David Yates, writes that Jeff Mateer — the top Paxton deputy who resigned after accusing his boss of criminal wrongdoing — did not return requests for comment.

It gives no indication that the author attempted to reach David Maxwell or Mark Penley, two top aides whose work is questioned in the story and whom Paxton placed on leave from the agency.

And the story elides details that raise questions about Paxton’s role in the scandal. In an internal email that was obtained by the Tribune, top aides alleged Paxton was using the power of his office to help a donor, real estate investor Nate Paul, who accused federal authorities of wrongdoing after the FBI raided his home and office in 2019. Paxton has claimed his office was investigating Paul’s allegations merely because local authorities in the Travis County district attorney’s office referred the complaint to the agency. But Travis County DA Margaret Moore has disputed that timeline, telling reporters that Paxton sought a meeting with her office about the complaint before it was referred.

The Record story does not include those details, nor does it extensively detail the accounts of the seven senior aides who have leveled accusations against Paxton.

The strategy is obvious: Talk to friendly people who won’t ask any embarrassing questions, and avoid any outlets that will probe or push back. That way, the core supporters will only hear your side of the story and can thus dismiss anything that comes out elsewhere, since it’s not from a “trusted” source. This doesn’t stop all the bad information from getting out, but it does put a barrier up to it for the base.

Also, the retributions have begun.

Lacey Mase, one of the top aides who accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, has been fired, she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday evening.

“It was not voluntary,” she said, but declined to comment further.

Mase was hired in 2011 and worked most recently as the deputy attorney general for administration. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

[…]

Mase’s personnel file, obtained through a public records request, shows she rose quickly through the agency’s ranks, earning frequent promotions. She was promoted as recently as Sept. 1, 2019, earning a nearly 12% pay bump to $205,000 annually. When Mase was promoted in April 2018, a supervisor wrote that she “consistently exceeded standards” in all her roles at the agency. Her salary has multiplied over the past few years, from $50,000 in 2013 to more than $200,000 most recently.

Texas law “protects public employees who make good faith reports of violations of law by their employer to an appropriate law enforcement authority,” according to the Texas attorney general’s website. “An employer may not suspend or terminate the employment of, or take other adverse personnel action against, a public employee who makes a report under the Act.”

Firing Mase so soon after she and the other top aides made their report is “suspicious,” said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases and who worked in the attorney general’s office in the 1990s.

“This looks and smells like classic whistleblower retaliation,” Smith said. “This situation looks like what the Texas Whistleblower Act was designed to prevent. And the timing looks bad.”

Smith said the aides appear to have taken all the proper steps to invoke whistleblower protections, reporting suspect behavior to “an appropriate law enforcement authority” as specified in the law, and making their employer aware of the allegations through the letter to human resources. The aides used that exact language — “appropriate law enforcement authority” — in their Oct. 1 letter to the agency.

I mean, maybe there was a reason for this, but it sure looks suspicious, and there’s no way Ken Paxton deserves any benefit of the doubt. And hey, now there’s a pattern.

A second whistleblower has been fired from the Texas attorney general’s office after reporting his boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, to law enforcement for crimes including bribery and abuse of office, according to a former senior official with the agency who had knowledge about the firing but did not want to be named for fear of legal repercussions.

Blake Brickman, who had served as deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives for less than a year, was fired Tuesday, the official said.

[…]

Brickman and Mase were among seven top aides in Paxton’s office who alerted law enforcement weeks ago that they believed their boss had run afoul of the law. In internal emails obtained by the Tribune, they accused Paxton of using the power of his office to serve the financial interests of a donor, Nate Paul.

I mean, once you’ve fired one whistleblower, why not go all in and fire another? In for a penny and all that. I hope Ms. Mase and Mr. Brickman find themselves some good employment attorneys. The Chron has more.

Paxton accuses his accusers

Well, that’s one way to do it.

Best mugshot ever

In Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first interview since seven of top aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing his office, he said Tuesday that he was about to put one of them, first assistant attorney general Jeff Mateer, on administrative leave when Mateer made those accusations and resigned instead.

“I think he found out about it and decided he wanted to leave and set the narrative,” Paxton told the Southeast Texas Record.

Paxton also told the paper that he has placed two remaining executive employees — David Maxwell, director of law enforcement, and Mark Penley, deputy AG for criminal justice, who were among his seven accusers — on administrative leave while he investigates their actions.

Paxton’s statements on Tuesday provide the public’s first glimpse into how he is handling the matter inside the office of the Attorney General, where more than half of the executive staff has accused him of committing crimes.

[…]

In his interview Tuesday, Paxton reiterated his counterclaims against the whistleblowers, saying that they were trying to impede a legitimate investigation of the law enforcement agencies.

“It seems like my office did everything possible to stop an investigation of some law enforcement agencies,” Paxton said. “I can only come to the conclusion that there was an effort to cover up the reality of what really happened. This wasn’t supposed to be a complicated investigation.”

[…]

Paxton also backed accusations by Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, who said in a letter released late Sunday that Maxwell, a former Texas Ranger, berated Paul for even bringing the complaint. Paxton said he watched a video of the meeting between Maxwell and Paul.

“It was not a good interview — it was pretty harsh,” he said. “It was clear he had no interest in doing an investigation.”

In the interview, Paxton said Mateer also insisted that the attorney general did not have the authority to sign contracts and that only he, as first assistant, did. Paxton said he reviewed support documentation provided by Mateer and found it to be false.

“I don’t know why there’s so much turmoil over this investigation. I’m not impugning every law enforcement agent,” Paxton said. “We all should be held accountable. We all have to follow the law.”

Well, he was going to defend himself one way or another, and given what the accusations were, a defense of “no, they’re the real criminals” seems like the best option. That would then lead to the question of how it is Paxton managed to hire so many bad actors for high-ranking positions in his office, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, keeping his own ass out of trouble is the main goal.

Here we must pause and note that so far all we know is there were a bunch of accusations leveled against Paxton. We don’t know if there’s an investigation into the actions he’s alleged to have taken, much less if he did do the things he’s accused of. We do know that his accusers are fellow travelers in conservative circles, and that former Paxton lieutenant Chip Roy sided with them. We know that folks like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and John Cornyn have been in full “wait and see” mode, which may suggest that they genuinely don’t know what to make of all this, or that they’ve heard enough scuttlebutt to think there’s something to it, but they’re either not ready to throw Paxton overboard, or they’re seeking a more graceful way out of this mess. A lot of information has come out so far, none of which looks great for Paxton, but nothing yet that would force him to resign. That may be what this is like for awhile, and then either the feds do something to make it clear they’re going after him, or we get a press release saying he’s in the clear. Until then, this is what we have to sustain ourselves.

Well, there’s also this.

[Brandon] Cammack declined to answer questions about his work for the agency or speculate as to why Paxton called him about the job. But said he “rose to the occasion” in accepting a major assignment from the state’s top lawyer and that the fallout has been “unexpected.”

“When one of the highest elected officials in the state reached out to me to go conduct this investigation, knowing what my background and knowing what my experience was, with regards to state law claims… I took it seriously,” Cammack told The Texas Tribune Tuesday.

“I don’t know anything about office politics… I don’t know anything about [the relationship] between people. I was called to duty. I showed up for duty,” he said.

Cammack’s work for the attorney general’s office has ended, though he said it was “beyond” him to know if the review would go forward in someone else’s hands.

[…]

Legal experts have questioned the precise nature of Cammack’s job — Paxton described him as both an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel” — and asked how he was able to issue subpoenas that aides said “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul.”

They also raised concerns that Cammack — who is connected to [Nate Paul’s attorney Michael] Wynne through their involvement in the Downtown Rotary Club of Houston and the Houston Bar Association — lacked the experience for such a high-profile assignment.

Cammack said the subpoenas were issued by a Travis County judge and that he never went before a grand jury. He submitted an application for subpoenas to the Travis County district attorney’s office and they assisted in getting them issued, he said. He declined to answer other questions about the subpoenas, including which judge issued them, and his role.

Cammack also disputed the notion that he lacked experience, saying he’d had a “successful practice” in Houston for about two and a half years, handling primarily criminal defense work. His investigation for the attorney general’s office centered on violations of the Texas penal code — “something I’m very well versed in having handled hundreds of cases for hundreds of families here in Harris County and contiguous counties.”

He said he was “not friends” with Wynne, but declined to say why Wynne was present when at least one subpoena was delivered. He also would not specify Paxton’s involvement in his work or provide specifics about his investigation.

Cammack said he was interviewed for the outside counsel position on Aug. 26 by Paxton and Mateer. He declined to provide specifics about the conversation, but said he understood there were a few other candidates for the job, and that Paxton asked about his educational and professional history.

A few days later, Cammack received a call from Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about his contract, he said. Signed in early September, the agreement says Cammack would be paid $300 an hour to investigate a complaint and compile a report about any potential criminal charges. It did not give him the authority to indict or prosecute, and said he could work only as directed by the office of the Attorney General.

Cammack’s work on the case largely ended in late September when he received a cease and desist letter from Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and then Mateer.

I mean, we still don’t know much, but what we do know just looks sketchy. And so we wait for more.

Nate Paul strikes back

Just when I think this can’t get any better.

Best mugshot ever

When Ken Paxton announced Friday his office was dropping the investigation into an Austin real estate investor’s claims of mistreatment during a federal raid of his home and business, the attorney general may have hoped the questions swirling around his relationship with Nate Paul would dissipate.

But a letter released late Sunday by Paul’s attorney that appears to be laying the foundation for a lawsuit against Paxton’s office dispelled any notion the controversy would go away soon.

[…]

Until now, Paul and his attorney, Michael Wynne, have remained mostly silent. But Sunday’s letter, in which Wynne demands that the attorney general’s office preserve documents related to the investor’s contact with Paxton’s office, flips that narrative.

In it, Wynne asserts that, far from helping his client’s cause, deep dysfunction inside Paxton’s office scuttled his client’s legitimate claim of abuse at the hands of federal investigators and has led to “A chaotic public spectacle of allegations.”

In Wynne’s telling, investigators’ behavior during the August 2019 raid against Paul were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials that I have witnessed in my professional experience.” The searchers tampered with records and then gave testimony contradicted by documents, he wrote.

Paul took his complaints to District Attorney Margaret Moore, who advised him that Paxton’s office was the correct agency to conduct any investigation of wrongdoing on the part of the searchers, including the FBI. But when Paul detailed his complaints, Paxton’s staff was dismissive and abusive, Wynne wrote.

At a July meeting, Paul’s team was “met with open hostility,” Wynne wrote. Paxton’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted my client for bringing the complaint.”

Wynne said additional meetings with Paxton’s staff yielded the same “hostile attitude.”

Paxton personally attended a third meeting, Wynne wrote. At it, Paul demonstrated that the attorney general’s review of his complaint had been cursory and contained several errors, and that “this appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne recounted in the letter.

Oh, my. Paul and his attorney are mad about the way Paxton’s office handled his demand for an investigation into the way he was treated by the feds, whom you will recall were investigating him for various alleged financial misdeeds. The seven senior members of Paxton’s staff found Paul’s complaint to be without merit, and the fact that Paxton proceeded – including the hire of the inexperienced and unqualified Brandon Cammack – is what led to them sending Paxton a letter alleging that he was taking a bribe. Maybe this is Paul’s way of saying he expected better service at that price.

The Trib adds some details.

Wynne’s letter places the blame for the debacle on the attorney general’s office, alleging top aides there failed to investigate his client’s claims as they should have and “deprived [Paul] of a proper review.”

“The mishandling of this complaint as outlined below has risen to an alarming level,” Wynne wrote in the letter, which also demands that the agency retain all related documents and files in preparation for potential litigation.

[…]

Wynne questioned the attorney general’s office’s basis for closing the inquiry, accused employees in the attorney general’s office of making “numerous inappropriate and false statements to the media” and said their handling of Paul’s complaint culminated in a “chaotic public spectacle of allegations, mudslinging, and an apparent power struggle” within the agency last week.

Top aides to Paxton have said internal investigations showed that Paul’s complaint lacks “any good-faith factual basis” and have accused their boss of serving a donor’s interest by hiring an outside attorney to pursue it.

Wynne said the circumstances of the federal search were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials” that he had witnessed.

In May 2020, Paul “sought guidance on the protocol for reporting a complaint” about the search and was told by Paxton to file it with the Travis County district attorney’s office.

The next month, the district attorney’s office referred the complaint back to Paxton’s agency after determining it would be “inappropriate” to send it to the Department of Public Safety, which was named in the complaint.

Wynne said “seven weeks of inaction” were followed by a series of meetings between him, Paul and officials in the attorney general’s office, whom he accused of being “hostile.”

At a meeting on July 21, the attorney general’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted” Paul for bringing the complaint and attempted to intimidate them into dropping the matter, Wynne alleged.

He wrote that Maxwell and another top official — Mark Penley, one of the signatories on the letter about Paxton — attended a second meeting, in which Maxwell at one point yelled at Paul and asked “who [does] he think he is?”

At a third meeting, personally attended by Paxton, the review was found to be flawed and “appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne alleged.

The Karen-like “I want to speak to your manager” energy out of this is strong, isn’t it? I’m dying for them to file a lawsuit against the AG’s office over this, because discovery is sure to be a hoot. The capacity this scandal has had to surprise and amaze me has been quite the source of joy these past few days.

And speaking of Brandon Cammack, the Paxton special prosecutors have some thoughts – and a motion – about how much Paxton paid him.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued that $300 an hour is too much to pay the two special prosecutors appointed to take him to trial in a long-running felony securities fraud case — but that’s the rate his agency is paying the inexperienced attorney Paxton hired last month to investigate a complaint by a political donor.

[…]

The prosecutors, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, pointed out that irony in a spirited filing Friday before Harris County District Judge Jason Luong, asking that they be compensated at the same rate as Cammack, whom they dismissed as “an untested and unqualified rookie.”

“If this hourly rate sounds familiar, it should: it is the very rate the Pro Tems were promised when they were appointed,” they wrote in a Friday filing. “If the defendant’s choice to pay Cammack $300 an hour appears to be disingenuous, it is only because it is: in successfully derailing this prosecution by spearheading a concerted effort to defund it, the defendant has repeatedly referred to the Pro Tem’s $300 hourly rate in his filings as unreasonable and unwarranted.”

Wice and Schaffer, who told the court that between them, they have 80 years of experience in the criminal justice system, questioned why they should not be entitled to the same sum as Cammack, “whose own experience, training and expertise, compared to the Pro Tems, is virtually microscopic.”

Paxton can “run but not hide” from his “concession that $300 an hour is reasonable,” Wice and Schaffer argued.

In their own filing to the court, Paxton’s defense attorneys told the judge that Cammack’s contract is irrelevant to the issue of pay for the prosecutors.

[…]

The issue of prosecutor pay in the securities fraud case against Paxton was raised by a Paxton donor, Jeff Blackard, in December 2015, when he sued, calling the fees exorbitant. Since then, the issue has dragged through the courts for years, bouncing all the way up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters.

Paxton’s defense attorneys told Luong he should rely on the high court’s ruling — which found the $300 hourly rate fell outside legal limits — in determining how much Wice and Schaffer should be paid.

Nothing in the prosecutors’ filing, “which contains unsubstantiated gossip about an irrelevant matter and no legal argument, authorizes this court to disregard the holding of the CCA and grant the relief requested by the pro tems,” Paxton’s attorneys wrote.

I don’t know if Wice and Schaffer’s motion can be a justification to essentially overturn that CCA ruling, but it certainly shows (again) why that ruling was ridiculous, and why the current system for hiring special prosecutors is fundmentally flawed. They may not be able to do more than score political points, but even just a reminder of how much Paxton has been coddled and protected by his political buddies all these years is useful. The Chron and Rick Casey, who notes a connection between Michael Wynne and Brandon Cammack, has more.

Why did Ken Paxton hire a newbie attorney to be a “special prosecutor” or whatever he meant to call him?

The Trib has some questions.

Best mugshot ever

It was a baffling, perilous, perhaps unprecedented task.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hired an outside lawyer last month to look into a complaint of misconduct by a host of state and federal officials, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. attorney’s office. The claim had been made by a Paxton donor whose home and office were reportedly raided by federal agents last year.

Some legal experts say the investigation should never have been in the hands of the attorney general’s office at all. But if it was, longtime Texas attorneys say, it’s a job for a seasoned prosecutor, perhaps someone with years of experience as a U.S. attorney or district attorney, someone who’d already established a reputation, someone who’d taken dozens of cases all the way from investigation to sentencing.

Instead, Paxton personally signed off on a $300 hourly rate for Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney with ties to the donor’s attorney and five years of experience whose docket, court records show, largely comprises cases involving driving while intoxicated, low-level theft or assault.

Paxton’s office abruptly ended that investigation Friday after political backlash from both parties and criminal allegations from his own top aides. But questions about Cammack’s role — and the process of his selection — persist.

“That’s the $64,000 question: How did Paxton come to hire this particular lawyer?” said Tim Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “You’d expect, for something that would have the possibility for serious consequences, that you’d want to have somebody that had a great deal of experience in the criminal justice system. And it doesn’t appear that they did that.”

Equally inscrutable is the precise job Cammack was hired to perform for the attorney general’s office. Paxton has described him both as an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel,” and one subpoena obtained by The Texas Tribune refers to Cammack as a “special prosecutor.”

But Cammack’s contract, which Paxton released this week, shows that Cammack was never independent, nor was he a prosecutor. Cammack can investigate “only as directed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” and his contract specifies that he will not be involved in any indictment or prosecution born out of his investigation. He’s submitted an invoice for more than $14,000 of work, according to media reports.

I’ll get back to this article in a second, but I should note that it’s a pretty good overview of the story so far, and includes a lot of new details. Because this is a sprawling story that’s being told in multiple places, it also covers some stuff we’ve already talked about. No one is going to be able to write a short article for anything related to this just because recapping the backstory will take at least six paragraphs.

Legal experts and lawyers who’ve worked with Cammack, including his estranged father, questioned whether he has the experience needed to take on such a high-profile assignment.

As recently as 2018, a judge appointed a more senior attorney to assist Cammack when he was working as a defense attorney on a felony manslaughter case.

Mark Hochglaube, the longtime prosecutor and defense attorney who was brought in, said it wasn’t clear whether the judge or Cammack himself considered the young lawyer too inexperienced to handle the case alone — but that both were on board with getting Cammack some help.

Their client, who was found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to 50 years.

He praised Cammack’s effort on the case but questioned his selection for the high-profile appointment.

“If I were the attorney general, and I was in this predicament, would the name Brandon Cammack be the first name that popped into my mind? No, it wouldn’t,” Hochglaube said.

Young attorneys can often punch above their weight and rise quickly through the ranks, Hochglaube said, but he added, “I have a hard time saying, based on my experience with Brandon, that I would’ve thought this was suitable for him.”

[…]

Beyond questions about Brandon Cammack’s qualifications, the scope of his role is murky, too.

Why, some legal experts wondered, would a state attorney general be investigating claims against federal authorities at all? Some called the situation unprecedented.

“I guess every politician is limited only by his imagination,” said longtime Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin, “but that’s a pretty unique event.”

Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said FBI agents are not above the law, and, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the state attorney general looking into FBI misconduct for violations of Texas law.

But he added that it is unusual — and raises serious ethical questions — for a state attorney general to take on an investigation of FBI misconduct in a case involving alleged criminal activity of one of the attorney general’s donors. The prudent course, he said, would have been to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent division within DOJ that probes such claims made against DOJ employees.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever happened before,” said Johnson, the former U.S. attorney, adding that if he had been asked to fill Cammack’s role, “I would’ve stayed as far away as I could.”

“Anybody with half a brain would’ve gotten as far away from this as they possibly could,” Johnson said. But Cammack “may not have had enough experience to realize this is something he really shouldn’t want to get involved with.”

Lawyers interviewed by The Texas Tribune said Cammack’s official role as outside counsel raises questions about whether he had the authority to issue subpoenas, a power limited to prosecutors and assistant attorneys general. His actions in the case could open him up to legal liability if he usurped his authority, and Phelps, the former official in the attorney general’s office, questioned whether the issuance of the subpoenas amounted to a criminal offense.

“An outside counsel is not a ‘special prosecutor’ and has no authority to issue subpoenas, appear in front of a grand jury, or prosecute a criminal case,” said Phelps, who also worked for a decade as first assistant district attorney in Brazos County, and head of a special prosecutions division under Morales.

“I wish someone would pull that Brandon Cammack aside because I think he’s being used, because of his inexperience,” Phelps said.

I skipped over a couple of paragraphs that describe Brandom Cammack’s relationship with his father, who is also an attorney and who comes across as an abusive. It’s icky stuff.

After several days and a whole lot of reading, I’ve been thinking about how to summarize what we know so far, so if we get into a conversation with someone who knows nothing about this other than a vague recollection of some headlines or Facebook posts, we can help them understand. The basic gist of it is that a real estate hotshot in Austin named Nate Paul had been the target of an FBI investigation into his finances, which involved raids on his offices. Paul filed a complaint about the investigation and searches of his properties with the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom he had contributed $25K in the last election. Paxton did open an investigation, going through the Travis County DA’s office first with a somewhat shady legal pretext to get the investigation handled by his office instead of the DA. He then hired Brandom Cammack, an inexperienced attorney, in a role that is not clearly defined but is something like a special prosecutor, except that Cammack was not independent of Paxton, and no one thinks he had the qualifications or experience for the job. All of this looked like Paxton doing some legal work on behalf of Nate Paul but with the official seal of the AG’s office. That caused a revolt among Paxton’s senior assistants, who told him all of this was highly inappropriate at the least. In the end, seven top assistants to Paxton asked for a federal investigation of Paxton’s involvement in the Nate Paul situation, accusing him of being paid off by Paul to help Paul defend himself against the feds in their investigation of him. Whew!

That’s where things stand now, and there are various subplots and unanswered questions and who knows what else. You can see what I mean when I say that it will be impossible any time soon to write a short article relating to this. I feel like there are still some big shoes to drop, but I couldn’t even guess at what that might mean. It’s becoming quite the political hot potato, as US Rep. Chip Roy – a former top lieutenant to Paxton – has called on him to resign (as have a couple of newspaper editorial boards), and Sen. John Cornyn, himself a former AG, has expressed his disappointment in Paxton’s handling of this. I have to believe that this will be an issue in 2022, in a bigger way than the existing Servergy indictments of Paxton ever were.

One more thing, just to expand on an item noted in the story above: Paxton has officially closed the Nate Paul investigation that started all this, shortly after Travis County DA Margaret Moore told him her office was not going to be involved any more in any way.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office is closing its investigation into a complaint made by one of his donors, hours after the Travis County District Attorney formally distanced itself.

Also on Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was not investigating allegations by aides in Paxton’s office that he committed bribery and other corruption crimes but instead the matter had been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A DPS spokesman said the Texas Rangers are available to assist.

Paxton had argued that he only pursued an investigation urged by the donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, after getting a referral from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office. Moore already told the Houston Chronicle that it was Paxton who first brought Paul’s request for an investigation to her and not the other way around.

A letter she sent Paxton Friday upped the ante and made clear her office is cutting all ties to the probe. Moore noted all the revelations that have come out in recent days — revelations that demonstrate Paxton has more than gone out of his way to assist Paul and his troubled real estate dealings.

“Any action you have already taken or will take pursuing this investigation is done solely on your own authority as provided by Texas law,” Moore said. “The newly surfaced information raises serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”

She said the referral of the Paul matter from her office to his — until now in the hands of an outside Houston lawyer Paxton hired — “cannot be used as any indication of a need for an investigation …or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral.” She also said she had instructed her employees “to have no further contact with you or your office regarding this matter.”

Paxton said in a statement Friday that he closed the investigation because his office “can only investigate in response to a request for assistance from the District Attorney’s office.”

I wonder if we’ll hear some more about this from the perspective of someone in Moore’s office, now that they are free of any constraint. We’re almost a week into this story and it’s still a total firehose of new information. The Statesman has more.

More on Nate Paul

This Trib story delves into the life and times of Nate Paul, the young Austin real estate entrepreneur whose relationship with Ken Paxton is the underpinning of the current scandal surrounding Paxton. The story goes into some detail about Paul’s life, which includes a habit of stiffing creditors and a general dickishness that I find crummy but which apparently don’t bother Paxton, but the key bit is right here:

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Meanwhile, Paxton’s office has come to Paul’s defense in at least one other legal matter, records show. Paul’s World Class firm works through a complex web of more than a dozen affiliated business partnerships, which jointly own properties with investors.

A dispute arose two years ago between companies affiliated with World Class and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which invested in multiple Austin properties with the companies. The foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides grants to charitable organizations and academic scholarships for students with financial needs.

The Mitte Foundation sued Paul in 2018, claiming he wasn’t sharing financial information on their jointly owned investments that Paul’s businesses managed. The case went to arbitration, and on July 1, 2019, a company affiliated with World Class agreed to buy out Mitte’s interest in the real estate partnerships for $10.5 million with payment due that August.

It never came, said Ray Chester, the lawyer representing the Mitte Foundation in the case.

In October 2019, the judge in the case ordered a receiver to take over the business partnerships, which would compel Paul to reveal the financial records that Chester said still hadn’t been shared with the Mitte Foundation. Chester said that within days, Paul “blatantly defied” the arbitrator’s ruling and said he had sold the partnerships at less than half of their market value.

But the sale was to another company affiliated with Paul, Chester said.

“He basically sold it to himself at below market value,” Chester said, although court records show the sale was never consummated.

As Paul’s firm cycled through teams of attorneys and held back on making the $10.5 million payment, Paxton’s office intervened in the case on behalf of World Class and its business affiliates this June, court records show. Paxton argued that his office needed to “protect the interests of the public” because the suit involved a charitable trust.

In July, Paxton asked a judge to halt the case. During that time, Chester said Paxton’s office called him five to 10 times per day to try to get him to settle for “pennies on the dollar,” calls that Chester characterized as “vaguely threatening.”

On Sept. 20, less than two weeks before news broke about the allegations against Paxton, the attorney general’s office reversed itself and announced its intention to step away from the case, which is still ongoing.

After filing for bankruptcy in August, the World Class affiliate handling investments in the property did not pay the $10.5 million or turn over the records, Chester said. But a clause in the settlement agreement does allow the Mitte Foundation to take a valuable, larger ownership share in the downtown property, Chester said.

One can certainly see some parallels to another well-known real estate personality, but that’s not what caught my interest. The obvious question here is why was Ken Paxton inserting himself into this particular dispute? It sure seems like a standard fight between a creditor and a debtor, so what was the state’s interest? I didn’t publish this post on Thursday because of Too Damn Much Other News, which is just as well because I then saw this Statesman story, which helped with some of these questions. As noted above, Ray Chester is an Austin attorney who has been representing the Mitte Foundation in its legal battles against Nate Paul and World Class, and apparently also Ken Paxton.

Chester contends the attorney general’s office exerted undue pressure to push for a settlement financially advantageous to Paul — or “pennies on the dollar” compared with what the foundation was owed under a previous $10.5 million settlement reached in 2019.

“We suspected all along that something fishy was behind the AG’s intervention in our case,” Chester said. “There is no legitimate reason why they would be helping Mr. Paul’s companies at the expense of a charity.”

The limited partnerships are called WC 1st and Trinity LP and WC 3rd and Congress LP, named after the locations of their properties. The 1st and Trinity partnership owns prime waterfront land on East Cesar Chavez, next to the Four Seasons Hotel and across from the Austin Convention Center. The WC 3rd and Congress partnership owns several tracts around the Austonian high-rise condos downtown.

In court documents and in an interview with the Statesman, Chester said Paul didn’t pay the $10.5 million settlement.

And as things continued to “go south” for Paul, Chester said Paxton started taking an interest in the legal fight.

Any time a charity is involved in litigation, the charitable trust division of the attorney general’s office must be notified because it has a right to intervene on behalf of the public interest in the charity.

But the only reason the attorney general should get involved in such cases “is to help the charity — not help the criminal guy against the charity,” Chester said. “And that’s what happened here, and that’s what’s made it so unusual.”

Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, told the Statesman that the foundation “refused to engage in any meaningful resolution” to the litigation, however, and also “colluded” with a court-appointed receiver in the case, squandering “over a million dollars in legal fees to line their lawyers’ pockets.”

Those are the among the reasons Paul brought the case to the attention of the attorney general’s charitable trust division, he said, disputing a contention by Chester that Chester’s office did so when the lawsuit was first filed — as it was required to do by law.

Wynne also said he is unaware of anyone from the attorney general’s office attempting to pressure Mitte to accept a settlement.

“We were obviously not privy to any of those conversations and have no basis to comment on them,” he said.

This at least helps me understand the claim that the AG needed to step in because the case involved a public trust. I’d love to hear from someone with actual experience what they think about all this.

Paxton mounted an investigation into allegations made by Paul that federal agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Treasury acted unlawfully during [2019 searches of some of his properties]. Paxton tapped an outside attorney, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, to conduct that probe.

Seven senior Paxton aides — including his first assistant, who recently resigned — subsequently filed a criminal complaint against the attorney general that they say stems from his dealings with Paul, who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. They’ve asked federal agents to investigate their boss for potential crimes that include bribery, abuse of office and improper influence.

Cammack’s appointment was among the actions that prompted the complaint. Paxton’s intervention in the Mitte case also has sparked controversy.

A senior official in the attorney general’s office recently voiced concerns to the American-Statesman about Paxton’s involvement in the Mitte lawsuit, saying attorneys in the agency’s charitable trust division were instructed by Paxton to weigh in, even though Paxton doesn’t typically take such a hands-on approach.

“I saw just no interest why our office should get involved in this thing,” the official said. “Legally, and just the optics of doing something for a guy who is under FBI investigation — I am like, ‘This is reckless.’”

Documents obtained by the Statesman indicate Paul prodded some staffers of the attorney general’s office to discuss with him their handing of the Mitte case and what Paul alleged to be improprieties by the foundation.

“Your decision to not even respond to my emails has only amplified my concern about your bias toward helping the Mitte Foundation,” Paul wrote in a July 1 email to Josh Godbey, head of the attorney general’s charitable trust division. “I have raised many issues and you have chosen not to respond.”

In a July 23 email, Paul complained to Jeff Mateer — Paxton’s former first assistant who recently resigned — about Godbey’s lack of action. Mateer responded to Paul’s attorneys, asking that all communications be conducted through them, and he also attempted to make clear the agency’s position on such matters.

“It is not our role to assist a party adverse to a charity in pending litigation or provide status updates on those matters,” Mateer wrote in a July 24 email. “Any such non-privileged communications subject to public disclosure might be perceived as questioning our office’s necessary impartiality, which we carefully guard at all times.”

Chester said his firm notified Paxton’s office about the lawsuit as required when it was filed, but was told the agency’s involvement wasn’t needed.

“A junior attorney called me, asked me a few questions and said, ‘You’re fine, we don’t need to intervene,’” Chester recalled.

That was the end of it, he thought.

But subsequently, Paul suffered a series of setbacks in the case. In addition, the court-appointed receiver started making plans to sell the 1st and Trinity property.

“The next thing you know, (the attorney general’s office) intervened,” Chester said. “At that point, we knew there was some connection between Nate and the attorney general’s office.”

“We quickly started getting pressure to settle the case,” Chester said, and “for much less” than the 2019 agreement of $10.5 million.

“They were strong-arming us to settle,” Chester said. “It was very uncomfortable and very threatening. Multiple people told me the pressure was coming straight from Paxton.”

There’s been a lot more reporting on this saga, which I have covered in another post. This is going to be a challenge to follow because multiple publications are all chasing different leads and advancing the story in a variety of ways. We still don’t have a clear picture of what was happening, and some facts are in dispute. But boy, everything we’ve seen so far looks deeply sketchy. I have no idea what Ken Paxton is thinking, but I suspect he’s in for some very rough times. And deservedly so.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Here, have a Paxton scandal roundup

At first I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put the juiciest bit up front or at the end. I decided to put it at the end, to hold your interest throughout.

From the Trib, life and business tries to go on at the AG’s office.

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It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.

The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.

Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.

“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.

Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.

Yes, so many distractions they must deal with as they work so hard to take away your health care and restrict your access to the ballot box. I don’t know how they manage to do it all.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”

And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.

“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.

Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.

For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.

Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.

Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”

Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.

Yes, it would be nice to know what if anything is happening with these accusations. As per usual custom, there won’t be any comment from the FBI or US Attorney’s office, so unless someone leaks to the press, or until people with badges and search warrants show up at the office, all we can do is wait and speculate. I hate to say it, but there may not be much news on this for awhile.

The Chron goes into the politics and gets some detail on one of the more alarming charges.

Texas political analyst Mark Jones of Rice University, who has studied the felony case that has been hanging over Paxton for five years now, said these allegations are different.

“This isn’t an accusation that comes completely out of left field regarding a public servant who has an unblemished track record,” Jones said. “This is someone, from when he arrived in the state House, moved to the state Senate, moved to the office of the attorney general, has had a trail of questionable ethical behavior.”

Jones added: “We’re talking about the chief law enforcement official in the second-largest state in the country.”

Most state Republicans, watching as Paxton has weathered such allegations in the past, have backed him or stayed silent over the years. This time likely will be different, Jones said.

Hearst Newspapers reported Sunday that Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, whom Paxton hired as a special prosecutor, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, according to a senior attorney general’s office official. There were 37 subpoenas that targeted actions of federal authorities in an August 2019 raid of Paul’s home and offices, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state District Court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to quash them was granted Friday, records show.

Many questions remain about the nature of the alleged bribery and how Cammack came to work for the office in a move that has been opposed by half of Paxton’s executive staff.

Paxton has not responded to questions about any contract the office had with Cammack, when he was hired, how much he is being paid or any other details.

Hearst Newspapers has filed open records requests for records of payments to Cammack as well as any agreement the office had with him.

This right here is what I want to know more about, and it won’t be dependent on any loose lips or federal action. Let’s get those records and see what they tell us.

The Chron also has a timeline of Paxton’s malfeasance and pettifoggery. The MontBlanc pen episode is probably my favorite of them. The Trib reminds us that AGs in Texas often go on to run for other things, though not always with success. I don’t see much of a future in higher office for Paxton, but he went from the House to the Senate to the AG’s office pretty quickly, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

And finally, the bit you’ve been waiting for, from Law.com:

Appointed prosecutors who have been pursuing felony securities fraud charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for five years are researching new allegations that Paxton committed crimes in office.

If Paxton gets charged with new crimes, the prosecutors would seek to revoke his bond.

[…]

“We’re making contact with the individuals involved to determine what exactly happened and what evidence exists that suggests he was involved in misconduct,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the appointed prosecutors in Paxton’s pending case.

If Paxton does get charged with new criminal offenses, the prosecutors in his current felony case would file a motion to revoke Paxton’s bond, explained Schaffer, partner in Schaffer & Carter in Houston.

“When you’re under indictment in a felony case and you’re on bond, if you get a new violation, then your bond can be revoked and you can be held without bond,” he noted. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen. So far, we don’t have any evidence. He is not charged in a new case.”

Also, if Paxton eventually goes to trial in the securities fraud case, and he were also charged for crimes related to the new allegations, then Schaffer said the prosecutors would tell the jury about the new alleged crimes during the sentencing phase of the trial in order to argue for a harsher sentence.

Now, this could all be many months off, if it happens at all, but still. Enjoy the thought for a moment. You deserve it.

Chip Roy calls on Paxton to resign

Interesting.

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U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former top aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, called on his former boss to resign from his post after top members of Paxton’s staff said the attorney general should be investigated for multiple crimes, including bribery.

“For the good of the people of Texas and the extraordinary public servants who serve at the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Ken Paxton must resign,” he said in a statement. “The allegations of bribery, abuse of office, and other charges levied against him by at least 7 senior leaders of the Office of the Attorney General are more than troubling on the merits.”

“But, any grace for him to resolve differences and demonstrate if the allegations are false was eliminated by his choice instead to attack the very people entrusted, by him, to lead the office – some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”

Roy called the office of the attorney general “too critical to the state and her people to leave in chaos.”

“The Attorney General deserves his days in court, but the people of Texas deserve a fully functioning AG’s office,” he added.

Roy served as Paxton’s initial first assistant attorney general during Paxton’s first term, but resigned upon Paxton’s request in a major shake-up of senior staff in 2015. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2018.

See here and here for the background. I have some speculation about this, but before I get to that let me answer a question here that was raised in the comments to the previous post. If Paxton does resign, Greg Abbott will appoint a new AG. That person will serve until the next election, which in this case is the 2022 election, when Paxton’s term would be up. Had this all happened earlier – if, say, Paxton had stepped down in January, for example – then Abbott’s appointed AG would have been on the ballot this November as well, in the same way that there’s an election for Harris County Clerk to replace Diane Trautman. Because of the timing here, if Paxton does resign then whoever is appointed in his place will serve out the rest of his term.

Now then. Chip Roy, a former top lieutenant to Paxton, is the first prominent Republican to call for him to resign; as noted before, Abbott and Dan Patrick both issued very milquetoast “wait and see” statements in that Chron story. What might be the reason for this? Three possibilities I can think of:

1. It’s a principled move by someone who has seen enough evidence of wrongdoing and believes in the office enough to want to protect it. Yes, I know, my eyes are rolling as well, but we wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for the principled action of multiple people who are – or were, anyway – closely aligned with Paxton. I think very little of Chip Roy, but he didn’t have to put out a statement at all, or if he did he could have followed in Abbott and Partick’s extremely timid footsteps. I’m about to give two much more cynical reasons for this, but even if one or both of these other reasons are true, the fact remains that Chip Roy didn’t have to do this, and will almost certainly suffer some blowback for it. Give credit where credit is due.

2. Locked in a tight race for his Congressional seat, in a year where Donald Trump is doing his best to wreck Republican political careers around the country, the last thing Chip Roy needs is for people to think of him as a onetime head honcho for the consistently corrupt Ken Paxton. Getting out ahead of that mushroom cloud of scandal and putting as much distance between himself and Paxton is just Survival 101.

3. Did I mention that part about Greg Abbott appointing a replacement AG if Paxton does step down? And that part about Chip Roy maybe losing his re-election? Now who would be a better and more obvious choice to step in for Ken Paxton than a former Top Man in the office who was the first Republican to call on him to resign, thus giving him the cred he’ll need to clean up after Paxton’s mess and restore some faith in the Attorney General? Don’t tell me Chip Roy isn’t keeping his options open.

By the way, Ken Paxton says he ain’t resigning, but that’s what you’d expect him to say, and it’s what he says now, when we have very little information about these allegations. Let’s see what happens when we all learn more.

Anyway. Speaking of appointments, Paxton has named a replacement for his departed First Assistant AG, Jeff Mateer. Good luck with that, dude. I may need to seriously rewrite this entry if more Paxton news breaks this afternoon, but in the meantime you can read this Texas Signal story that recaps what we know so far. Catch up if you need to, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come. The Chron, Texas Monthly, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board joins the “Paxton should resign” bandwagon.

More details emerge about the latest Paxton allegations

The Chron advances the ball.

Best mugshot ever

The top state officials who staged a mutiny against Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that he was using his office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an embattled Austin real estate investor.

Paul, a once high-flying businessman whose offices were reportedly raided by the FBI last year, gave Paxton $25,000 ahead of the attorney general’s hard-fought re-election battle in 2018.

The No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, put Paul at the center of allegedly illegal activities by Paxton in a text message sent Thursday. Mateer, who resigned Friday, joined six other high-ranking employees in accusing Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement officer, of abuse of office, bribery and improper influence.

“Each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul,” Mateer wrote in the text message, which was obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The group requested an immediate meeting with Paxton, but the attorney general said he was “out of the office” and asked them to email him with their concerns. The Austin American-Statesman, which first reported on the allegations against Paxton, published a letter the officials sent to the attorney general’s human resources office on Oct. 1.

Neither Paul nor his attorney returned calls or messages left on their voicemail.

Paxton said in a statement Sunday: “The Texas attorney general’s office was referred a case from Travis County regarding allegations of crimes relating to the FBI, other government agencies and individuals. My obligation as attorney general is to conduct an investigation upon such referral. Because employees from my office impeded the investigation and because I knew Nate Paul, I ultimately decided to hire an outside independent prosecutor to make his own independent determination. Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations, the AG’s office will continue to seek justice in Texas.”

The uprising against Paxton crystallized when a special prosecutor he appointed, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, a senior AG official told Hearst Newspapers.

The official who spoke with Hearst Newspapers said those subpoenas spurred the seven top deputies in the attorney general’s office into action. One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state district court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to “quash” them was granted on Friday, records show.

In filing the subpoenas, Cammack “represented that he was acting on behalf of the office of the Attorney General as a Special Prosecutor,” Penley’s motion said. “He is not properly authorized to act as a Special Prosecutor, and … has no authority to appear before the grand jury or issue grand jury subpoenas.”

See here for the background. The information about the special prosecutor appointed by Paxton who’s been issuing subpoenas that “target adversaries” of this Nate Paul character is what really made my hair stand on end. If there is any truth to that, then this is a massive violation of the AG’s office and I can see why his top lieutenants rebelled the way they did. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are quoted in the story issuing “this sounds bad but let’s wait an see” statements – which, in all honesty, is reasonable enough for now – but the pressure is going to be on them, too.

There’s more in the story about Nate Paul, who sounds like a typical “more money than brains or ethics” sort, and I’ll leave that to you to read. This is the other bit that had me going “hmmmm”:

Kent Schaffer, a special prosecutor in [the long-running financial fraud case against Paxton], said Saturday that the latest accusations, if they leads to charges, could imperil Paxton’s odds of securing any kind of deal to resolve the criminal case.

“We were trying to get this case resolved, but if this guy’s out committing crimes while he’s on bond, then it’s going to become an extremely serious matter,” Schaffer said. “I’m not saying that he has — I don’t know the specifics, (but if he has) then it’s game on.

“Maybe the people that reported him are not shooting straight, but I want to hear from both sides, if possible. We’re going to do what we can to investigate.”

Schaffer said he contacted the Texas Rangers on Saturday immediately upon hearing the news. He declined to comment on whether the agency mentioned any existing investigation on the matter.

Paxton has also been accused by his staff of accepting bribes in the past.

Those 2016 bribery allegations did not lead to charges, though they did give us all a momentary thrill. The idea that the special prosecutors in the current case against Paxton might be able to get some leverage against him from this scandal-in-the-making is also giving me a thrill. I should know better by know, but I can’t help myself.

The revelations over the weekend appeared to have shaken the agency, where Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven officials who reported Paxton to the authorities, sent out a letter of reassurance to staff.

“I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office and the people of Texas,” Bangert wrote. “Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all.”

Jordan Berry, Paxton’s political adviser, said he resigned after news of the allegations broke.

Watch what the people around Paxton do. We could be in for a mass exodus. I will try to stay on top of things. The Statesman has more on Nate Paul, and there’s national coverage from Bloomberg and CNN.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

The subpoenas come for Rick Perry

The first law of Donald Trump is that everything he touches turns to mud. Sooner or later, that mud gets on you.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Democrats on the three U.S. House committees overseeing the presidential impeachment inquiry have subpoenaed documents from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Texas’ former governor.

Last week, Perry was identified as a potential player in allegations against the president that accuse Trump of threatening to withhold military funding to Ukraine if foreign officials didn’t investigate the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a likely Trump opponent in next year’s general election. Trump reportedly told Republicans during a conference call that the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is the premise of the impeachment inquiry, was instigated by Perry.

Perry and energy officials said he encouraged Trump to reach out to the Ukrainian leader — but to discuss energy and economic issues, not about investigating the Bidens.

The subpoena requests documents “that are necessary for the committees to examine this sequence of these events and the reasons for the White House’s decision to withhold critical military assistance to Ukraine that was appropriated by Congress to counter Russian aggression,” U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., wrote in a letter attached to the subpoena.

[…]

The committees are requesting information about whether Perry sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to make changes to the advisory board of its state-owned oil and gas company, Naftogaz, as well as records from Perry’s attendance to the May inauguration of Zelensky in Kiev. According to the letter, Perry allegedly gave Zelensky a list of potential board members, which included previous campaign donors and Robert Bensh, a Houston energy executive.

The subpoena also requests documents related to “all meetings and discussions” related to Ukraine between Perry and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who is also implicated in the Ukraine controversy. Perry’s relationship with Giuliani dates back to at least 2008, when Perry was still governor, and he endorsed the former New York City mayor for his presidential run.

I have to admit, I’d kind of forgotten that Rick Perry was even still in the Trump Cabinet. Honestly, that’s the best thing you can say about any Trump Cabinet member, that they’ve been sufficiently out of the news to slip your mind. It’s not clear that Perry has done anything wrong here, unlike “Congressman 1” Pete Sessions and pretty much everyone else, but the potential for making a fool of oneself, let alone committing perjury, is non-trivial, and a price I’ll bet Perry had no idea he might have to pay when he agreed to be Secretary of Energy. Hire a better attorney than Rudy Giuliani, that’s my advice. The Chron has more.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.