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October 12th, 2020:

Interview with Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

I knew I wanted to talk to freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher this cycle, because there’s just so much to talk about. You know her story from 2018 – the crowded primary, the unprecedented amounts of money raised and spent, the eventual victory in a district that had been held by Republicans for over 50 years – but none of us could have known what the first two years in Congress would entail. Rep. Fletcher serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and has passed multiple bills out of the House. This is my last interview for the fall, and as you may imagine, we had a lot to talk about.

PREVIOUSLY:

Hank Gilbert, CD01
Rashad Lewis, CD36
Julie Oliver, CD25
Elizabeth Hernandez, CD08
Sima Ladjevardian, CD02
Rep. Christina Morales, HD145

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.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

Endorsement watch: For Biden

Duh.

Character, without question, is the starkest divide between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. For all his faults — and there are a few — the latter possesses a rare ability in these polarized times to see the humanity in those who cross his path, even from the opposing side.

At 77, Biden is a politician who Washington, for all its trying, has been unable to break. Even his political foes preface criticisms with caveats of grace or shrewdly aim their arrows askew — at his gaffe-prone speech, at his younger son, and at his tenuous affiliation with the “radical left,” conveniently forgetting that Biden, a lifelong moderate, already fought the fringe and won.

Biden’s humble roots in Scranton, Penn., the personal hardship he endured after a car crash killed his wife and daughter, the 120-mile commutes back and forth to Washington so he could tuck his sons in bed each night — these are experiences Americans can relate to and they help Biden relate to us.

Still, many who plan to vote for Trump, some with pinched nose, act as though character itself were a luxury — nice if you can get it, but not essential.

We disagree. Character, in this election, is everything.

You know, I’m old enough to remember when the people who now dismiss concerns about Donald Trump’s character were the ones who loudly and repeatedly insisted that character was The Most Important Thing for a President and every other elected official. Funny how that works. Anyway, this is a long editorial and there’s much that they have to say about the depraved and destructive individual who now occupies the White House, and you can read it if you wish. I doubt anyone reading this blog needs to be given reasons to vote for Joe Biden to oust Donald Trump, but they’re there if you need them for someone else. For the rest of us, early voting in person starts tomorrow. You know what to do.