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.
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.