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David Maxwell

Paxton sued by four whistleblowers

Start popping the corn.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Best mugshot ever

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.