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Brent Webster

State Bar complaint against Ted Cruz was dismissed

This story ran a few days ago.

Not Ted Cruz

A lawyer group that brought ethics complaints against Trump attorneys is trying to make it tougher for lawyers to use the legal system to overturn elections.

The group, called the 65 Project, aims to change bar rules of professional conduct in 50 states and the District of Columbia to eliminate “fraudulent and malicious lawsuits” against fair election results.

“Lawyers purport to be self-regulatory and special stewards of the rule of law,” Paul Rosenzweig, a group advisory board member, told reporters Wednesday. “They failed in that responsibility” with the 2020 election.

The effort is a new front in the group’s self-described battle to protect democracy from abuse of the legal system. 65 Project has already filed 55 state bar ethics complaints against lawyers for former President Donald Trump over their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The group’s targets have included former Foley & Lardner partner Cleta Mitchell, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and lawyers Joseph diGenova and Boris Epshteyn.

Part of 65 Project’s new effort includes proposing rules to prevent attorneys in public office from violating attorney standards by amplifying false statements about elections.

The group is focusing initially on about a dozen states, including Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, and Pennsylvania, and DC, said Michael Teter, a former Utah assistant attorney general who is Project 65’s managing director.

See here for the background. The Bloomberg Law story says that all of the 65 Project’s complaints are active, but that is not accurate. According to the DMN, which I was able to quickly peruse before the paywall came up, the complaint was dismissed by the State Bar of Texas on June 13, a few weeks after it was filed. The reason, as noted in the sub-head of the story, is that the State Bar said they lacked oversight since Cruz was acting as a Senator and not a lawyer; their dismissal letter didn’t address the merits of the complaint. A minor consolation, that. We are still waiting for a ruling in the complaint against Ken Paxton; a ruling by a different judge in the case against Paxton deputy Brent Webster does not bode well for the complainants, but I suppose it’s not over till it’s over. There’s still a possible appeal of that ruling, which as far as I know has not yet been filed. I fear all of them will get away with it, which is too depressing to contemplate. We’ll know soon enough.

District court judge dismisses State Bar complaint against Brent Webster

This is a bad ruling, and it needs to be appealed.

A Texas district judge has dismissed a professional misconduct lawsuit against a top aide of Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to discipline them for their effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Milam County Judge John W. Youngblood ruled last week that his court lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the matter, agreeing with the attorney general’s argument that doing so would violate the separation of powers doctrine by interfering in an executive branch matter.

“To find in the commission’s favor would stand for a limitation of the Attorney General’s broad power to file lawsuits on the state’s behalf, a right clearly supported by the Texas Constitution and recognized repeatedly by Texas Supreme Court precedent,” Youngblood wrote.

A similar case filed by the State Bar against Paxton is still before a Collin County judge and has not yet been decided.

[…]

Jim Harrington, a member of Lawyers Defending American Democracy, a coalition of lawyers including two former State Bar presidents, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the State Bar, called the ruling a “legal charade.” The group also filed complaints that prompted the bar to file suits against Paxton and Webster.

“The logic of the judge’s decision is that, if a lawyer works for the Attorney General, there is no way to hold the lawyer accountable for ethical violations and professional misconduct,” Harrington said in a statement. “In other words, the attorney general’s office is above the law. That is contrary to the principle of the Constitution, and we hope the State Bar will appeal the ruling.”

Ratner, a co-founder of the group and a Maryland attorney, said he, too, was disappointed in the ruling and added that it misconstrued the premise of the suit.

“While separation of powers authorizes the Attorney General to decide what lawsuits to file on the State’s behalf, we believe it does not authorize him to make misrepresentations and dishonest statements to a court in violation of his duties as a Texas-licensed lawyer,” Ratner said. “That’s what’s involved here.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the letter the judge sent. Not a formal opinion, though I suppose he could still write one, just a one page letter. Obviously, if this judge fully bought into Ken Paxton’s sleazy and self-serving line of defense, it doesn’t bode well for the complaint against him. I think Jim Harrington has this exactly right, and I hope the State Bar has the wisdom and the guts to appeal this. Anything less would be a dereliction of their duty. The Trib has more.

Where are we with the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit?

We are in the familiar position of waiting for the drawn-out appeals process to conclude. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.

Best mugshot ever

The appeals process has grown a bit longer in state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit by four top agency officials who claim they were improperly fired in 2020 after accusing him of accepting bribes and other misconduct.

Paxton turned to the Texas Supreme Court 7½ months ago after two lower courts rejected his bids to toss out the lawsuit.

Last month, the Supreme Court told Paxton and the whistleblowers to provide justices with a deeper dive into the legal issues involved, kicking off a second round of legal briefing that was recently extended when the court granted Paxton’s request for an extra month to file his expanded brief.

Paxton’s brief is now due July 27, and although the court told Paxton that additional extensions aren’t likely to be granted, the move means the final brief isn’t due until Aug. 31 at the earliest.

That moves the case into election season as Paxton seeks a third four-year term against a Democrat, Rochelle Garza, who has made questioning Paxton’s ethics a campaign centerpiece. Three opponents tried the same tactic against Paxton in this year’s GOP primaries without success.

The timing also puts the case close to the two-year anniversary of when eight top officials of the attorney general’s office met with FBI agents and other investigators to relate their suspicions that Paxton had misused the powers of his office to help a friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.

See here and here for the most recent updates. Paxton’s argument is that as an elected rather than appointed official, he doesn’t count as a “public official” under the Texas Whistleblower Act, so the employees who fired him have no grounds to sue. He has other arguments, but that’s the main thing that will be of interest to the Supreme Court. I’m sure you can surmise what I think, but if you want to dig deeper you can click the Texas Whistleblower Act tag link and review other posts in this genre.

Just as a reminder, we are also waiting for the FBI to take some kind of action in their investigation of the Ken Paxton-Nate Paul dealings, the State Bar complaint against Paxton for his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election should have a hearing sometime later this summer, and of course there’s the granddaddy of them all, the original state charges that Paxton engaged in securities fraud, which are now eight years old. He’s sure been a busy boy, hasn’t he?

State Bar finally files that professional misconduct lawsuit against Paxton

We’ve been eagerly awaiting this.

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A disciplinary committee for the State Bar of Texas on Wednesday filed a professional misconduct lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential elections in four battleground states won by President Joe Biden.

The filing in Collin County by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a standing committee of the state bar, is an extraordinary move by the body that regulates law licenses in the state against the sitting attorney general. It stems from complaints against Paxton for a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out, saying Texas lacked standing to sue and that Paxton’s political opponents called “frivolous.”

It seeks a sanction against Paxton, which will be determined by a judge, that could range from a private reprimand to disbarment.

In its filing, the commission said Paxton had misrepresented that he had uncovered substantial evidence that “raises serious doubts as to the integrity of the election process in the defendant states.”

“As a result of Respondent’s actions, Defendant States were required to expend time, money, and resources to respond to the misrepresentations and false statements contained in these pleadings and injunction requests even though they had previously certified their presidential electors based on the election results prior to the filing of Respondent’s pleadings,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit also says Paxton made “dishonest” representations that an “outcome determinative” number of votes were tied to unregistered voters, votes were switched by a glitch with voting machines, state actors had unconstitutionally revised their election statutes and “illegal votes” had been cast to affect the outcome of the election.

The lawsuit says Paxton’s allegations “were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the Court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law.”

The complaint asks for a finding of professional misconduct against Paxton, as well as attorney’s fees and “an appropriate sanction.”

[…]

The lawsuit against Paxton stems from multiple complaints filed by Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Wellington Chew, former chief justice of the Eighth District Court of Appeals; attorney Neil Kay Cohen; attorney Brynne VanHettinga; and Gershon “Gary” Ratner, the co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

See here, here, and here for some background; this post contains some technical details from the original complaint. As far as I can tell, this encompasses all of the 2020 election-related complaints against Paxton; there’s a separate complaint having to do with his threats against the Court of Criminal Appeals for not letting him prosecute “voter fraud” cases at his discretion, whose disposition is not known to me at this time. There’s also the complaint against Brent Webster, which will be litigated in Williamson County, and more recently a complaint against Ted Cruz that will presumably take some time to work its way through the system. That first 2020 election complaint against Paxton was filed last June, so it took nearly a year to get to this point. I have no idea if that’s a “normal” time span for this – I suspect nothing about this is “normal” anyway.

One more thing: I presume this was filed in Collin County because that’s where Paxton passed the bar, or some other technical reason like that. The Chron adds a bit of detail about that.

Under the state bar’s rules, disciplinary suits are filed in the county in which the attorney primarily practices. If there’s more than one, the bar files in the county where the attorney lives — Paxton indicated Collin County. Similarly, the suit against Webster was filed in his hometown of Williamson County. That determination is up to the subject of the suit, according to the rules.

Also per the bar’s rules, these suits are heard by an appointed judge from another district.

In Paxton’s case, it will be Judge Casey Blair of Kaufman County, a Republican elected in 2014. Webster’s case will be heard by Judge John Youngblood of Milam County, also a Republican who was first appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 and first elected in 2012.

Good to know. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

State Bar complaint filed against Ted Cruz

Good.

Not Ted Cruz

A group of lawyers want the State Bar of Texas to investigate Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for his “leading” role in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

Lawyers with the 65 Project, an organization aiming to hold attorneys accountable for trying to keep former President Donald Trump in power despite his reelection loss, filed an ethics complaint with the association Wednesday. It cites Cruz’s role in a lawsuit seeking to void absentee ballots, numerous claims he made about voter fraud, plus an attempt to stop four states from using 2020 election results to appoint electors — all of which failed.

“Mr. Cruz knew that the allegations he was echoing had already been reviewed and rejected by courts. And he knew that claims of voter fraud or the election being stolen were false,” the complaint says.

[…]

Cruz represented Pennsylvania Republicans in their efforts to cast out nearly all 2020 absentee ballots in their state, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected. Cruz accused the state court of being “a partisan, Democratic court that has issued multiple decisions that were just on their face contrary to law.”

The complaint wants to see Cruz disciplined. It does not say how, though it mentions a New York appellate court’s suspension of Rudy Giuliani’s law license. Guiliani was one of Trump’s lawyers who also repeated false voter fraud claims.

Cruz also agreed to represent Trump in a Texas lawsuit aiming to bar Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin from using its election results. The complaint argues Cruz pushed forward with a frivolous claim, which the U.S. Supreme Court quickly denied.

Here’s the 65 Project webpage; the “65” refers to the “65 lawsuits based on lies to overturn the election and give Trump a second term” that were filed by “an army of Big Lie lawyers. You can see the complaint filed against Cruz here, and the tracker they have of other complaints here. There were several filed on March 7 of this year; the one filed against Cruz was the first since then. None have been resolved yet so it’s too soon to say how effective this group will be. The one thing I can say is that this group was not involved in any of the State Bar complaints against Ken Paxton. Here’s a Vanity Fair story dated March 8 with some background on the group and its members.

Will this work? The State Bar complaints against Paxton over his dangerous and frivolous lawsuit against four Biden-won states is proceeding, though the formal lawsuit that represents the next step has not yet been filed as far as I can tell. I’d say there’s a reasonable argument that Paxton was more directly involved in the seditious and unethical behavior than Cruz was, which may make the State Bar less receptive to the filers’ case, but he wasn’t just a bystander either. Given how long it’s taken the Paxton case to get to a resolution point I’d say don’t hold your breath waiting on something to happen with this one. If it does move forward, great. Hope for the best. But do please put your energy into beating Ted Cruz in his next election, and if he steps away from the Senate to run for President do what you can to elect a Democrat to replace him. That will ultimately have a much bigger effect.

One more thing: This NYT story is headlined “Group Seeks Disbarment of Ted Cruz Over Efforts to Overturn 2020 Election”. While the complaint lays out multiple alleged violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (TDPRC), it does not suggest a remedy. Instead, it merely asks that the State Bar investigate and “apply the standards set for lawyers within the TDRPC, and impose sanctions against Mr. Cruz for violating those requirements”. Certainly, based on the complaints against Paxton for similar behavior, having Cruz’s law license suspended would be on the table if the State Bar were to rule against him, but I presume there would be other options as well. We’ll see if and when it ever gets that far. TPM has more.

UPDATE: Texas Lawyer provides a bit more detail.

In Cruz’s case, the 65 Project alleges he agreed to act as a lawyer in litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court in two bogus cases, Kelly v. Pennsylvania and Texas v. Pennsylvania. Acting in tandem with Trump’s legal team, Cruz had a significant role in an “anti-democratic plot, intentionally amplifying false claims about the 2020 election on multiple occasions,” the complaint states.

The Texas v. Pennsylvania lawsuit, filed by Paxton and Assistant Attorney General Brent E. Webster, has to date resulted in a State Bar lawsuit against Webster in Williamson County’s 368th District Court. Also, Paxton acknowledged on May 6 that the bar would be filing suit against him.

The Commission for Lawyer Discipline’s petition in the Webster case is instructive in that it lays a roadmap for how the bar might proceed against Paxton and Cruz.

The Texas v. Pennsylvania suit, which also challenged the vote count in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin, alleged without evidence several forms of vote rigging.

“Respondent’s representations were dishonest. His allegations were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law,” the commission’s petition states.

The filing against Webster refers to the bar rule against lawyers engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

See here for more on the Webster case. We’ll see if indeed the State Bar follows this roadmap.

More State Bar disciplinary stuff

A new twist, as a new player enters the picture.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas State Bar has filed a suit in Williamson County district court against First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster for his involvement in the state’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, alleging Webster committed professional misconduct by making false and misleading statements in the petition.

A similar disciplinary suit is expected against Paxton, who reiterated Friday his contention that the group is targeting him because it disagrees with his politics. As of Friday afternoon, no suit had been filed.

Texas’ 2020 suit before the U.S. Supreme Court was almost immediately tossed, and Trump’s own Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome. The bar is treating the case as a frivolous lawsuit as it seeks sanctions including possible disbarment for the two public officials.

“I stand by this lawsuit completely,” Paxton said on Twitter. “I am certain that the bar will not only lose, but be fully exposed for what they are: a liberal activist group masquerading as a neutral professional association.”

Then-Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, the state’s chief litigator who resigned about a month after the election challenge was tossed, was notably absent from the filing, though Hawkins never explained why, raising questions about whether he supported the legal challenge. Solicitor generals are typically involved in all major appellate litigation.

[…]

The bar complaints against Paxton and Webster alleged that their petition to overturn the 2020 election was frivolous and unethical, and that it includes statements that they knew to be false. In Webster’s case, it is clear that the bar agrees.

“Respondent’s representations were dishonest,” the suit states. “His allegations were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding, and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law.”

The suit also alleges that Webster “misrepresented” that Texas had “uncovered substantial evidence,” raising doubts about the integrity of the election and had standing to sue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The four battleground states that Texas sued — Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — were then forced to have to spend time, money and other resources responding to these claims, it said.

The suit does not specify what type of punishment the bar recommends for Webster.

The suit against Webster was sparked by a March 2021 complaint by Brynne VanHettinga, an former member of the bar who described herself as a “citizen concerned about fascism and illegal overthrow of democracy.” VanHettinga could not be immediately reached Friday.

See here and here for some background. Looking at that Trib story that I based yesterday’s post on, I see it also includes a couple of paragraphs about the action against Brent Webster, who replaced Jeff Mateer after he was purged as a whistleblower against Paxton, and who co-authored the self-exoneration report from that saga. I was not aware of any State Bar complaints against Webster in this matter – the two against Paxton were filed after the VanHettinga complaint against Webster. A Google News search on VanHettinga’s name only yielded the Chron and Trib stories. You can see what a challenge it is to keep up with all this.

As for the Paxton piece of it, this is more of the story I blogged about yesterday. The main thing to learn, which the Trib story also noted, is that there hasn’t yet been a lawsuit filed against Paxton. It sounded like that would be filed in Travis County when it happens, but maybe this means it will happen in Williamson instead. Since it seems that the judge will be selected from the broader judicial administrative region, it’s not clear that where the trial itself is matters.

Abbott and Patrick ask SCOTx to take up Paxton’s whistleblower appeal

They sort of have a point, but they should still butt out.

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Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday urged the Supreme Court of Texas to take up Attorney General Ken Paxton’s appeal to throw out a whistleblower lawsuit against him.

The appeal is Paxton’s latest attempt to avoid a trial after eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office in late 2020. Within seven weeks of their complaint to authorities, all eight had either been fired or driven to leave the agency. Four of the fired employees later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton saying they were fired in retaliation for their complaint and have asked to be reinstated to their jobs. Paxton denies wrongdoing.

Paxton, a Republican, has fought that lawsuit, claiming that the state’s whistleblower law — which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities — does not apply to him because he is an elected official. A district court and an appeals court have ruled against Paxton’s lawyers and said the lawsuit could move forward. But in January, Paxton’s lawyers asked the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider the matter and throw out the case.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that allowing whistleblowers to sue the attorney general for firing them could hamper the executive power that the state constitution gives him. It is the same argument two lower courts have already rejected after hearing from the whistleblowers’ lawyers, who argue that siding with Paxton would take away whistleblower protections for employees trying to report the misconduct of an elected official.

Lawyers for the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices did not indicate whether they agree with Paxton’s argument. The two Republican state officials filed friend of the court briefs asking that the high court take up the case because it is relevant to statewide governance and to the powers of an executive office under the Texas Constitution. Because of that, lawyers for the offices argued the case should be considered by a statewide court and not by the local courts that have already rejected Paxton’s argument.

The two lower courts were filled by Democrats. The Texas Supreme Court is made up of nine Republicans.

See here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that the state’s high court should weigh in on this question. They could, I suppose, simply issue an order denying the appeal request on the grounds that they’re fine with the lower courts’ rulings. Most cases never get close to the Supreme Court. Indeed, one of the themes I saw in the judicial Q&A responses I got from 1st and 14th Court of Appeals candidates in 2018 and 2020 was precisely that those courts are often the last word on a lot of consequential cases. SCOTx has no obligation to take this up. It’s easy to see why they might want to, but in the end it would be unremarkable if they didn’t.

It’s also easy to see that what Abbott and Patrick want is for a court full of Republicans to have the final word, since I’m sure they don’t consider the lower courts to be valid in the same way. One could perversely assert that only a rejection from the all-Republican Supreme Court will settle this matter in a way that might shut up Paxton and his sycophants, though perhaps the Court of Criminal Appeals would beg to differ.

One more thing:

An attorney whose firm represented Paul, the friend and campaign donor to Paxton, also urged the Supreme Court Monday to weigh in on the case, saying it “presents far reaching consequences for our state government.”

Statewide officials like Paxton need to be able to fire or retain employees based on whether they help advance their goals, wrote Kent Hance, founding partner of the Austin-based law firm Hance Scarborough.

“Inferior officers are carefully chosen by an elected official to provide competent policymaking advice in line with the policymaking goals as defined by the elected official,” Hance wrote. “This works well when the goals are in line with the advice, but what happens when they are at odds?”

A political action committee for Hance’s firm — the HS Law PAC — donated $25,000 to Paxton in June 2020, after he intervened in litigation involving Paul, as Hearst Newspapers reported.

Lawyers for one of the whistleblowers pointed to the donation this week.

“Only somebody as shameless as Ken Paxton would get a lobbyist whose firm donated $25,000 to Paxton while it was representing Nate Paul companies to ask the Texas Supreme Court to re-write the Texas Whistleblower Act,” lawyers TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt said in a statement. They declined to comment on the briefs by Abbott and Patrick.

Hance did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but managing partner Jay Stewart, who is trustee of the PAC, has told Hearst it operates independent of the firm’s litigation section and that the donation had nothing to do with any cases.

Yeah, that’s a pretty good summary of Texas politics. Political donations never have anything to do with getting the political outcome we prefer. Who would ever think such a thing?

I regret to inform you that Ken Paxton may not be an honest broker

You should maybe be sitting down for this.

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The whistleblowers who sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton after he fired them for accusing him of bribery and abuse of office are speaking out against him publicly for the first time since filing their lawsuit, in response to what they say are Paxton’s “numerous false and misleading public statements” on the campaign trail.

The four whistleblowers – former deputy attorneys general James Blake Brickman, Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar, as well as the office’s former director of law enforcement David Maxwell – said they previously intended to stay silent about their case while it played out in the judicial system.

“Our preference was to remain silent while the wheels of justice turned, and our civil case progressed in the courts,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “However, in recent weeks, Paxton has made numerous false and misleading public statements that we feel obligated to correct.”

The whistleblowers also said they had remained quiet to respect the “ongoing FBI investigation,” indicating that a federal criminal probe into Paxton continues. The FBI has declined to comment on the matter in the past.

“The most basic qualifications of an attorney general are respect for truth and respect for the law. Ken Paxton has neither,” the whistleblowers said in their statement. “The day will come when Ken Paxton must testify under oath about his and his agency’s actions. Until then, we call on Ken Paxton to start telling the truth to the people of Texas.”

[…]

Many of what the whistleblowers call Paxton’s “misleading public statements” came during a Jan. 31 interview with conservative radio host Mark Davis about the attorney general’s race. In the interview, Paxton claimed the whistleblowers “didn’t come to him” and “didn’t explain” the issues they had with the behavior that led to their complaints. In a separate interview with conservative outlet Texas Scorecard this month, Paxton claimed the FBI had “infiltrated” his office to investigate him before the whistleblowers made their complaint.

But the whistleblowers said in their statement they approached Paxton multiple times about their concerns with his push to get involved in Paul’s affairs before reporting him to the FBI. Their whistleblower lawsuit details specific dates when the whistleblowers individually and as a group warned Paxton that his actions in legal matters related to Paul were unlawful.

They said they first reported their concerns to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020 after they could not convince Paxton to follow the law.

“We had no previous contact with the FBI before that date and believe this was the first time the FBI became involved with the investigation of Paxton and his office,” they wrote in their statement released Monday.

The whistleblowers also took issue with Paxton’s comment on Davis’ show that “no one has ever disputed” an unsigned 374-page report generated by his office in August that exonerated him of the whistleblower’s allegations.

“This is false. Paxton’s self-exonerating report is directly disputed by the detailed allegations in the whistleblower lawsuit,” the statement read. “Unsurprisingly, Paxton’s report selectively ignored some of the most troubling allegations we reported to the FBI, like Paxton providing blatant political favors to a campaign donor – the same campaign donor who has admitted in sworn testimony to hiring a woman at Paxton’s behest, a woman with whom media reports reveal Paxton had an extramarital affair.”

The whistleblowers also blasted Paxton for accusing them of committing crimes in the Davis interview, calling his accusations “ridiculous.”

“We confronted Ken Paxton about his and his agency’s corrupt and criminal conduct, and, when he would not abide by the law, we reported him to the FBI,” they said in their statement. “Paxton is under criminal investigation, not the whistleblowers.”

Paxton also told Texas Scorecard that he still does not know the specific allegations against him. The whistleblowers said the allegations against him are clearly spelled out in their lawsuit and include: bribery, tampering with government records, obstruction of justice, harassment and abuse of office.

See here for the latest installation of the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit saga, in which he tries to get the Supreme Court to wipe the slate clean, and here and here for the incredible self-exoneration report. If only the world worked this way for all of us! (“I conducted a thorough investigation into the allegations against me, honey, and I can confirm that I did in fact take the garbage out last night.”) I realize that I am a bitter, shriveled husk of a man, but nothing on this earth will give me more joy right now than seeing the FBI perp-walk Paxton out of his office. We all do what we need to do to get through the day. The Chron has more.

Paxton asks Supreme Court to toss that pesky whistleblower lawsuit

Same argument, different court. Either Ken Paxton can be held accountable, or he gets a free pass to do whatever he wants.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss out a whistleblower lawsuit by four former officials who say they were improperly fired after accusing Paxton of accepting bribes and taking other improper acts.

Paxton told the court that his agency “enjoys … the right to fire its employees — especially employees whose political appointments require they act on behalf of the duly elected Attorney General — at will.”

Paxton also argued that he can’t be sued because the Texas Whistleblower Act was intended to protect government employees from on-the-job retaliation by another public employee.

“The Attorney General is not a ‘public employee,'” said the appeal, filed Wednesday and made public Thursday. “Like the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and members of this Court, he is an elected officer, chosen by the people of Texas to exercise sovereign authority on their behalf.”

Paxton made similar arguments before the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, but that court allowed the lawsuit to continue, ruling in October that the whistleblower act protects government workers from being fired for making “a good-faith report of illegal conduct … by the employer.”

Interpreting the act to exclude elected officials as employers would create a substantial loophole that runs counter to the law’s purpose of improving transparency and accountability, the 3rd Court ruled.

[…]

In his appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Paxton characterized the complaints as matters involving policy disagreements — not a good-faith report of potential crimes as required by the whistleblower act.

“Plaintiffs were political appointees of the Attorney General who were dismissed from their posts following several policy disagreements. These disagreements each regarded duties well within the Attorney General’s authority, such as whether to retain outside counsel, issue a legal opinion, investigate potentially criminal acts and intervene in pending litigation,” the appeal said.

Paxton urged the all-Republican Supreme Court to reject the whistleblowers’ “vague, conclusory and speculative allegations,” saying they do not constitute a good-faith report of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the whistleblowers will have the opportunity to respond to Paxton’s appeal in the coming weeks.

See here for the previous update. Paxton made the same argument to the Third Court, while also arguing that none of the whistleblowers had actually accused him of a crime, which meant they weren’t really blowing the whistle. I’m sure the plaintiffs will mostly repeat their earlier arguments as well. As for what the Supreme Court will do, or when they might do it – I for one will not be shocked if they wait until after the election – your guess is as good as mine. Reform Austin and KVUE have more.

Third Court rejects Paxton attempt to kill whistleblower lawsuit

Good.

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A state appeals court found Thursday that former deputies of Attorney General Ken Paxton who were fired after accusing the Republican official of abusing his office are protected under the state’s whistleblower law, allowing their lawsuit against Paxton to proceed.

Paxton’s lawyers had argued in court that he’s exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he’s an elected official, not a public employee. But the court upheld a previous lower court decision that denied Paxton’s attempt to dismiss the case.

In its opinion, Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the attorney general’s interpretation of the Texas Whistleblower Act, “which would have the effect of stripping whistleblower protections from employees who might report misconduct by the thousands of elected officials throughout the State — particularly by those who direct and lead the agencies of this State.”

[…]

In its opinion, the court wrote that the former employees “sufficiently alleged illegal conduct by their employing governmental entity as contemplated by the Act” and disagreed with Paxton’s characterization of the whistleblower law, writing that while “Texas is an employment-at-will state,” the act “provides an exception to that general rule.”

“Although loyalty and confident are important considerations in employment matters,” it wrote, “the Act provides that a State employer cannot fire an employee because he reports illegal conduct by the employer, even when it is that act of reporting that causes the employer to lose confidence or feel the employee lacks loyalty.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. The justices seemed pretty skeptical of Paxton’s argument at the hearing, so this is no surprise. Paxton could ask for an en banc hearing or he could appeal to the Supreme Court. The former means another couple of months that the lawsuit is on ice, but the odds of success are low. The latter is more likely to get a favorable ruling for Paxton, but if he loses he’s out of options and we move on to the next phase. I’m guessing he would rather avoid discovery, because it seems very likely that a weasel like Paxton has stuff to hide, so we’ll see if he decides to draw it out or not. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, we’re a step closer to Ken Paxton facing a bit of accountability for once in his life. The Chron has more.

Appeals court appears skeptical about Paxton’s whistleblower defense

As well they should be.

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A panel of Texas 3rd Court of Appeals justices expressed skepticism of an argument from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawyers on Wednesday that he is exempt from the state’s whistleblower act because he’s not a public employee and a case against him should be thrown out.

Former Paxton deputies in the Office of the Attorney General claim in a whistleblower lawsuit that they were fired for reporting alleged crimes by Paxton to law enforcement. Paxton’s lawyers are trying to get the case dismissed and asked the appeals court to throw out the case on the grounds that Paxton is not subject to the whistleblower law. A lower court denied Paxton’s motion to dismiss the case in March.

Barely a minute into oral arguments, Justice Chari L. Kelly began questioning Solicitor General Judd E. Stone II, who is representing Paxton in the suit.

“Isn’t the action of every employer at the OAG’s office an action by the employee governmental agency?” Kelly said.

Justice Gisela D. Triana questioned Stone’s argument that all elected officials are exempt from the whistleblower law and Chief Justice Darlene Byrne asked whether his interpretation would give Texas Supreme Court justices immunity from sexual harassment claims from their employees.

Stone said employees filing sexual harassment claims would have other avenues for relief outside the whistleblower law, but argued that the attorney general as an elected official cannot be sued under the law, which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities.

[…]

Stone argued that barring the attorney general from firing employees when they disagree with legal positions or have lost his trust would be an infringement on the elected official’s power.

But Kelly questioned that argument and nodded to claims by the whistleblowers’ lawyers that Paxton is a public employee because he receives checks from the state and participates in its retirement system, and that he acts as the entity because he is its titular head.

“If he can go in and change any decision internally … If he truly has the power to have the last say on anything that comes out of the agency. How is he not the agency?” she asked.

Stone said the justices should interpret the law as it was written, which did not include elected officials in the text of those who can be sued on whistleblower claims.

But Joe Knight, who argued for the whistleblowers’ lawyers, blasted the idea that the Legislature wrote a statute meant to ensure public employees complied with the law and then exempted elected officials without explicitly saying so. He said the drafting of the law in such a way would be “strange and unlikely,” and said the “Legislature does not hide elephants in mouseholes.”

In briefings to the court, the whistleblowers’ lawyers said when lawmakers intend to exempt elected officials from being labeled as public employees, they do so in the text of the law. The Texas Whistleblower Act does not.

The whistleblowers’ lawyers said exempting the attorney general would rob the law of its purpose to protect public employees reporting wrongdoing by government entities.

Stone also argued in briefs that the former officials did not make the reports to law enforcement authorities required to invoke whistleblower protection, and that even if they had, they reported only potential crimes, not crimes that had actually happened.

The whistleblowers’ lawyers attacked that argument, saying their clients reported their concerns to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Texas Rangers and the attorney general’s human resources office.

The lawyers also said their clients believed Paxton had already abused his office, tampered with government records, taken bribes and obstructed justice through his interactions with Paul when they brought their concerns to law enforcement.

See here, here, and here for some background. It must be noted that all three appellate court justices are Democrats, so their opinions will carry limited weight before the Court of Criminal Appeals, no matter how ridiculous Paxton’s arguments are. That’s just how it is, I don’t make the rules. No indication when the court may rule, but the initial suit was filed last November, the motion to dismiss was denied in March, and the appeal to the Third Court was made in June, so as far as that goes, we’re moving at a decent pace.

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.

Stop investigating yourself, you’ll go blind

There’s not enough snark on the Internet for this.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on Tuesday released an internal report that found that Paxton did not accept bribes and did not misuse his office to benefit his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, despite a continuing FBI investigation of the matter.

The office did not immediately respond to questions about who completed the unsigned report, or why the office handled the matter internally, rather than hiring outside investigators to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

The bribery and abuse of office accusations were made by eight of Paxton’s top aides last fall. Four of the whistleblowers have sued Paxton for retaliating against them for reporting him to law enforcement.

“The takeaway from this internal report is that, although Ken Paxton remains under active federal investigation, the people who still work for Paxton say he did nothing wrong,” the whistleblowers’ attorneys said in a joint statement. “Of course, the one-sided internal report is full of half-truths, outright lies, and glaring omissions.”

The attorneys added that it was notable that “whoever in Paxton’s office wrote this report was not willing to put their name on it.”

The “report”, if you can even call it that, is here. The only appropriate response to this is guffaws and mockery, so I’ll start with my own.

OK, fine, a little sober skepticism is all right, too.

You can read the rest yourself. Honestly, this is one of those situations where the headline to the story tells you all you need to know. Save the self-serving BS for the appellate court and quit insulting our intelligence, please. The Trib, which has quite a few details, has more.

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.

Whistleblowers respond to Paxton’s appeal brief

That title is a dry way of saying that they basically accused him of lying in his filing to the 3rd Court of Appeals.

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A group of former top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reiterated in a court filing this week that they believe Paxton committed crimes while in office, and suggested that Paxton is intentionally mischaracterizing witness testimony in their whistleblower case against him for political reasons.

The aides are taking issue with a brief and a press release issued on June 2 where Paxton’s lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to throw out the case four aides filed against the state’s top lawyer in which they allege he fired them for reporting his alleged illegal behavior to federal and state authorities. Paxton, who has denied the charges, said he fired aides last year because they had gone “rogue” and made “unsubstantiated claims” against him.

Paxton’s lawyer said in June that in a trial court hearing on March 1, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer would not say he specifically saw Paxton commit a crime, but only that he had “potential concerns” about Paxton’s dealings with real estate developer Nate Paul. Paul is a political donor and friend of Paxton who the whistleblowers allege Paxton helped with his legal issues in exchange for personal favors.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that the appeals court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

But in a new brief filed on Monday by the whistleblowers’ lawyers, they argue Paxton’s lawyers took the exchange they cited out of context to argue Mateer never saw Paxton commit a crime. They said Mateer’s comment was in response to a specific question about whether any employees raised concerns about Paxton’s behavior in June 2020, three months before former employees reported Paxton’s behavior to law enforcement.

“This claim distorts Mateer’s testimony,” the brief states. “In fact, Mateer testified unequivocally that he believed at the time of Appellees’ FBI report—and still believes today—that Paxton committed crimes, including abuse of office and bribery.” They also point out that Mateer signed a letter on Oct. 1, 2020 that alerted the attorney general’s office that the whistleblowers had reported Paxton’s behavior to the FBI, further proving Mateer believed Paxton had violated the law.

[…]

The whistleblowers’ attorneys say the AG’s office did not accurately explain to the appeals court that Mateer’s potential concerns were specifically in response to a question about Paxton and Paul’s relationship in June 2020.

“OAG took even greater license in its [June] press release, predicting victory because its brief shows that Mateer “swore under oath that Paxton committed no actual crimes,” the lawyers wrote in a footnote in the brief. “Given the … OAG’s mischaracterization of what Mateer ‘swore under oath,’ perhaps this portion of OAG’s brief was written for an audience other than the justices of this Court.”

A lawyer in the case told The Texas Tribune they believed the press release was written for Paxton’s supporters and Texas voters, rather than to make a legal argument.

See here for the previous update. That last paragraph is both shocking and completely on brand. A press release is of course not the same thing as a legal filing, but in general judges tend to take a dim view of lawyers misrepresenting the facts. If what the plaintiffs are saying here is accurate, I would think that the Third Court justices might have some sharp words for Team Paxton. And yes, as noted in the story, that press release came out just before P Bush officially launched his challenge against Paxton. Totally coincidental, I’m sure.

The lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to consider this appeal without hearing oral arguments. If the court decides to hear arguments, the aides requested it happen as quickly as possible.

The four former aides also laid out in detail in the filing the specific instances where they believe Paxton broke the law.

We’re familiar with the outline of the charges the plaintiffs have made against Paxton, but go ahead and read on if you want to remind yourself. The reasons behind Paxton’s bizarre, corrupt actions are still unclear – one assumes that financial reward was part of it, and if the allegations about Paxton’s affair are true that likely was a factor as well – but there’s no good way to spin them if they happened as alleged. It’s hardly bold to say that Ken Paxton has no integrity, but it’s still appalling to see the things he is said to have done. And if the Third Court agrees that oral arguments aren’t needed, that would be pretty amazing as well.

Paxton appeals to 3rd Court to dismiss whistleblower lawsuit

Next stop on the train.

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In an 85-page brief filed Tuesday with the 3rd Court of Appeals, Paxton’s lawyers argue that under state law, a whistleblower must believe someone has broken the law, but the aides only reported that “they expected laws might be violated.” As a result, they argue, the court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case. The lawyers have repeatedly argued Paxton cannot be sued under the Whistleblower Act because he is not a public employee.

This appellate brief was made public hours before Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is expected to announce at an event that he will run against Paxton for attorney general. Bush has made the allegations of Paxton’s former aides and separate felony securities fraud charges against Paxton a line of attack as he prepares to announce his run.

In particular, the brief states that at a March 1 hearing on the case, one of the whistleblowers who is not a plaintiff in the suit, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, would not specifically state that he saw Paxton commit a crime.

“Instead, he explained he ‘had potential concerns,’ and that he and his colleagues concluded that ‘had they gone down this path, would be in a position to assist and/or cover up with what … would be a crime,’” the brief states.

“… Speculative concerns about potential future illegal activity do not fall within the [Whistleblower] Act’s narrow scope,” it states.

Mateer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Carlos Soltero, the attorney representing appellee David Maxwell, said the four aides are “far from ‘rogue.'”

“They did exactly what Texans would hope their public servants would do,” Soltero said. “They reported corruption to the FBI and the Texas Rangers. Now, after Paxton lost his first appeal, lost at the trial court again, he brings yet another appeal to avoid testifying like he has something to hide.”

[…]

The brief argues the plaintiffs have not provided specific proof of a bribe by Paxton or Paul, but only speculated they “might” have had business dealings.

“None of these allegations of perfectly lawful conduct come close to making out a claim for bribery,” the brief states.

See here for the update. What Paxton is claiming is that these attorneys, his former top assistants, that he fired do not have any grounds to sue him under the Whistleblower Act because they didn’t have proof that he was committing a crime at the time. They only had serious concerns that he was committing a crime, and that’s not good enough. I guess the average news consumer doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand the finer points of the legal arguments being made – in the end, if he wins he’s just going to claim he was being railroaded by a bunch of whiny liberal losers anyway – but if one tries to parse the lawyerese, it sure doesn’t paint him in the most flattering light. This isn’t a full-throated assertion of innocence, it’s a “well, actually, you can’t prove any of that, so I win”. You play the hand you’re dealt, I suppose. We’ll see what the Third Court makes of it.

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.

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.

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.

Runoff watch: Judicial races

There are three District Court race runoffs on the Democratic side, and two Court of Criminal Appeals runoffs for the Republicans. There are also a few Justice of the Peace runoffs, but I’ll deal with them in another post.

11th Civil District Court – Democratic

Kristen Hawkins

Kristen Hawkins

Kristem Hawkins led this three-candidate race by a wide margin, coming within 1000 votes of an outright win. Runnerup Rabeea Collier finished just 170 votes ahead of third-place candidate Jim Lewis. Given the narrowness of that margin, I’m actually a bit surprised there hasn’t been a call for a recount, but as far as I know there hasn’t been one.

Hawkins’ Q&A is here, and Collier’s is here. This race is fascinating because there’s no clear reason why it went the way it did. All three candidates were busy campaigners, and all three won endorsements from various groups, with Lewis getting the nod from the Chron. Hawkins was first on the ballot, but doesn’t appear to have been a major factor overall. Hawkins would seem to be a clear favorite in the runoff based on her near-win in March and commanding lead in vote total, but as we know this runoff is going to be a low-turnout affair. Anything can happen.

61st Civil District Court – Democratic

This three-way race saw a much more even split of the vote than the 11th did. Frontrunner Fredericka Phillips had 38%, with second-place finisher Julie Countiss scoring 35%. In third was Dion Ramos, who won a partial term for the 55th District Court in 2008, but lost it in the 2010 wipeout.

Countiss’ Q&A is here; Phillips did not send me a response. Countiss’ campaign was by far the most visible, at least to me, and she collected most of the group endorsements. Phillips is the Vice Chair of the Texas Democratic Party as well as a past candidate for the 387th District Court in 2012 in Fort Bend, under her maiden name of Petry. The Chron endorsed Ramos for March, so they’ll have to revisit this one; the same is true for the 11th, where Lewis was their initial choice. I see this race as a tossup.

215th Civil District Court – Democratic

Easily the most interesting of the judicial runoffs, and the one with the most backstory. In 2012, District Court Judge Steve Kirkland was the only incumbent judge to face a primary challenge, from attorney Elaine Palmer. Palmer’s campaign was lavishly funded by attorney George Fleming, who bore a grudge against Kirkland, and that animus made this an ugly, divisive race that Palmer ultimately won. Palmer went on to win in November, and now in 2016 she is the only incumbent judge facing a primary challenge. Three candidates filed against her, with JoAnn Storey leading the pack into overtime.

Judge Palmer’s Q&A is here, and Storey’s is here. Palmer led all the way but was never close to a majority, ending up with 43% to Storey’s 27%. If there’s a judicial race that will draw out voters, it will be this one, as Kirkland supporters, in particular the HGLBT Political Caucus, have a shot at avenging that 2012 race. Storey got most of the group endorsements for March, which in itself is remarkable given that she was challenging an incumbent, though the Caucus went with Josh Verde in Round One. I expect that will be handled for the runoff, and that I’ll be hearing from them as attention turns towards the vote. As for Palmer, if Fleming is still financing her it’s not apparent – the only report I can find for her is the January filing, for which she reported no contributions for the period. Again, this one could go either way, but I feel like Storey has a slight edge.

Court of Criminal Appeals – Republican

There are two Republican runoffs for the CCA. I’m just going to quote Grits for Breakfast about them.

Grits suggested before the primary that I’d “be watching the Sid Harle/Steve Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds.”

Short answer: They have.

Judge Harle, who arguably was the most qualified and well-respected jurist on the ballot, didn’t even make the runoff to replace Cheryl Johnson on the court. Instead, a lawyer named Scott Walker who according to press accounts had “chosen not to campaign,” led the field with 41%. He’ll face Brent Webster, who ran on an anti-abortion platform unrelated to the activities of the Court of Criminal Appeals and garnered 20.45% of the vote.

Steve Smith ran third with 19.6%, with Harle trailing at 4th with 18.5%

Walker was popular because he shares a name with the Wisconsin governor who at one point appeared to be a presidential frontrunner before the Trump phenomenon erupted. Webster, presumably, benefited from his (irrelevant) pro-life bona fides, though so little is spent on these elections I suspect most people who voted for him knew nothing at all about him.

In the race between Mary Lou Keel, Chris Oldner, and Tea Partier Ray Wheless, Keel and Wheless made the runoff. Keel led, barely, but Wheless’ base is more likely to turn out in the runoff. Keel and Oldner have disparaged Wheless, whose background is mostly in civil law, as unqualified, although Rick Perry appointed him to a district court seat.

Voters in the GOP primary clearly didn’t have a clue about these CCA races. They may as well have drawn lots for Johnson’s seat. These races are so underfunded for a state the size of Texas that candidates can’t meaningfully get their messages out and voters have no way to know anything about them.

The Walker/Webster runoff is the strongest argument in my adult lifetime for appointing judges instead of electing them. What an embarrassment.

So there you have it. As a reminder, there are Democratic candidates in each of these races. I admit, that’s unlikely to matter, but I thought I’d put it out there anyway.

2016 primary reactions and initial impressions

First, a couple of minor notes. Rep. Byron Cook ultimately pulled out a win in his nasty and high-profile primary. That’s good news for Speaker Joe Straus and the general forces of “government that isn’t like a three-year-old coming off a sugar high”. Rep. Wayne Smith was forced into a runoff but did not lose outright. Also forced into a runoff was Rep. Doug Miller in HD73 – I missed that one on Tuesday night – and on the Democratic side, Rep. Ron Reynolds in HD27. That one apparently happened after midnight; Reynolds will face Angelique Bartholomew in May.

With all 7,963 now having reported, Democratic primary turnout statewide was 1,433,827, with over 800,000 votes coming on Election Day. To put that into some perspective, since the only point of reference any news story I’ve seen lately seems to be the off-the-charts year of 2008, here’s was turnout was for every Democratic primary through 1992, which is as far back as the SOS archives go:


Year      Turnout
=================
2016    1,433,827
2014      554,014
2012      590,164
2010      680,548
2008    2,874,986
2006      508,602
2004      839,231
2002    1,003,388
2000      786,890
1998      654,154
1996      921,256
1994    1,036,907
1992    1,483,047

In other words, 2016 will have had the second highest turnout in any Democratic primary since 1992. Yes, I know, there are a lot more voters now than there were in 1992, but still. That’s not too shabby. Republican turnout with all precincts in was 2,832,234, so while it’s obviously a record-breaker for them, it falls short of the Dem number from 2008. So there.

One thing to touch on here is that in both primaries, well more than half the vote came on Election Day, which as a result meant that the final turnout projections were low. Over 1.6 million Republicans voted on E-Day, so in both primaries about 43% of the vote was early, and 57% came on Election Day. You may recall that the early/E-Day split was similar in 2008, whereas in 2012 the early vote was about 52% of the total. The two lessons I would draw from this are 1) Final turnout projections are always a guess that should always be taken with a healthy serving of salt, and 2) The more hotly contested and high-profile a race is, the more likely that people will wait till the last minute to decide. Someone with more resources than I have should take a closer look at the makeup of the early and late voters to see what percentage of each are the hardcore and the casual voters; my guess, based on a completely unscientific survey of my Facebook friends, is that more hardcore voters than you might think waited till Tuesday. There’s an opportunity here for someone with an enterprising spirit and some number-crunching skillz.

Also on the matter of turnout, 226,825 Democrats and 329,014 Republicans cast ballots in Harris County. 61.4% of all Democratic votes and 59.1% of all Republican votes were cast on Tuesday. See my previous paragraph for what that means to me.

On the matter of the Republican primaries for Court of Criminal Appeals, here’s what Grits had to say during early voting:

Statewide, I’ll be watching the Sid Harle/Sid Smith race on the Court of Criminal Appeals to see if Texas GOP voters have flat-out lost their minds, and the Keel-Oldner-Wheless race to see if Judge Wheless’ strategy of ignoring the establishment and seeking Tea Party, pro-life and generally conservative movement support is enough to win a primary in a low spending, low-profile race.

Well, of the four candidates running in the primary for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 5, Steve Smith and Sid Harle came in third and fourth, respectively. A couple of guys named Scott Walker and Brent Webster will be in the runoff. As for Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 2, Raymond Wheless came in second and will face Mary Lou Keel in the runoff, while Chris Oldner of Ken Paxton grand jury fame is on the outside looking in. I’ll leave it to Grits to tell me What It All Means.

There were a few races on the Dem side that had people shaking their heads or their fists, but there weren’t any truly bizarre results. For sure, there was nothing on the Dem side that compares to this:

The newly elected chair of the Republican Party in the county that includes the Texas Capitol spent most of election night tweeting about former Gov. Rick Perry’s sexual orientation and former President Bill Clinton’s penis, and insisting that members of the Bush family should be in jail.

He also found time to call Hillary Clinton an “angry bull dyke” and accuse his county vice chair of betraying the values of the Republican Party.

“The people have spoken,” Robert Morrow, who won the helm of the Travis County GOP with 54 percent of the vote, told The Texas Tribune. “My friends and neighbors and political supporters — they wanted Robert Morrow.”

Morrow’s election as Republican chair of the fifth-largest county in Texas left several members of the Travis County GOP, including vice chair Matt Mackowiak, apoplectic. Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, immediately announced over social media that he would do everything in his power to remove Morrow from office.

“We will explore every single option that exists, whether it be persuading him to resign, trying to force him to resign, constraining his power, removing his ability to spend money or resisting any attempt for him to access data or our social media account,” Mackowiak told the Tribune. “I’m treating this as a coup and as a hostile takeover.”

“Tell them they can go fuck themselves,” Morrow told the Tribune.

All righty then. Morrow, whose comedic stylings are collected here, was a regular inhabitant of the comment section at BurkaBlog, back when Paul Burka was still writing it. He was also Exhibit A for why one should never read the comments. I’d feel sorry for Travis County Republicans, but as the story notes Morrow is now Greg Abbott’s county party chair, and that’s just too hilarious for me to be empathetic about. Have fun with that, y’all, because there’s not much you can do to make him leave before his term expires. Trail Blazers has more.

I’ll start digging into the data tomorrow, when I hope all the precinct results will be in for the SOS website, and when I get a draft canvass from the Harris County Clerk. The Trib has a graphical view for the Presidential race if you can’t wait for me. Any other results or tidbits you want me to look at? Let me know. David Collins lists the races that will go to runoffs, and Harold Cook, Marc Campos, PDiddie, the Obserer, and the Current have more.