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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.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

Suing the “Trump Train”

Good.

A group of people traveling on a President Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last fall when it was surrounded and followed by former President Donald Trump’s supporters have filed a lawsuit against at least seven people who allegedly were following the bus, claiming the group violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”

The Klan Act prevents groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the defendants violated that law when they followed the bus, yelling death threats and streaming their activities on social media.

The plaintiffs include former state Sen. Wendy Davis, David Gins, a then-campaign staffer who now serves as deputy director for operations for Vice President Kamala Harris, Eric Cervini, another campaign volunteer, and the bus driver, Timothy Holloway. The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. The bus driver, Holloway, has been unable to drive a bus following the experience. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees to be covered.

“What Defendants cannot do under the law is use force, intimidation, or threats against those with whom they disagree politically. Yet that is precisely what Defendants did by conspiring to use their vehicles as weapons to interfere with the constitutional rights of those who supported the Biden-Harris Campaign,” the lawsuit reads. “The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, association, and assembly is empty if those rights cannot be freely exercised. And where groups are permitted to terrorize those with whom they disagree into forgoing their constitutional rights, the functioning of our democracy demands accountability.”

[…]

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune in January, Davis said she didn’t think law enforcement had taken the situation seriously enough. She said in San Antonio, police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks with Trump flags back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan once again surrounded the bus. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

“They just kept saying, ‘Where are you now? Where are you now,’” Davis said in January. “We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker. … Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable.”

I didn’t blog about that incident at the time because there was a lot going on and there wasn’t much to add to it except inchoate anger. The Texas Civil Rights Project has a landing page for this – it appears there are two complaints, both of which have some unnamed defendants – with a one page explanation of the lawsuit and the law it has been filed under. The one pager says that the Klan Act has been “mostly unused” over the past hundred years, so who knows how a judge will view it. There is apparently still an FBI investigation of the incident, so perhaps we’ll be able to hear about what they have learned.

The Chron provides some details about the two suits.

The first of two lawsuits filed Thursday targets at least seven individuals who were driving the vehicles that surrounded the bus. The second addresses local law enforcement officers, whom the plaintiffs contend did not properly respond to the incident.

[…]

The first lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the individuals involved in surrounding the bus violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits people from conspiring to inhibit individuals’ political speech via force, intimidation or threats.

“Plaintiffs feared the Trump Train might run the bus off the road, or that they might crash into a vehicle, wall barrier, sign, pillar, or other obstacle on or by the highway,” the lawsuit states. “They feared what the Trump Train might do if they succeeded in stopping the bus or forcing the bus off the road. Plaintiffs were terrified that someone on the bus, or someone else driving on the interstate, would be injured or killed.”

The second lawsuit claims that, as Biden staffers solicited aid from the San Marcos Police Department, they “were failed by the very officials charged with upholding both their safety and their foundational democratic rights.” The plaintiffs allege that they contacted San Marcos police with safety concerns a day in advance of their travels, and that officers declined to provide help when the bus was surrounded on the highway.

A spokesperson said last fall that the San Marcos Police Department had received a request for a police escort, but they couldn’t catch up with the vehicle before it left the city.

The lawsuit contradicts that claim, asserting that officers said they wouldn’t respond unless the campaign was “reporting a crime.”

OK then. Assuming they survive a motion to dismiss, I will be very interested to see what comes out of the discovery process, because the potential is there for this to connect to some public figures. I mean, it sure seems likely to me that what happened didn’t come as a complete surprise to various Republican campaigns and the state and county parties. I will also be interested to see if some fancy high-priced attorneys materialize for the defense. It’s surely best to keep one’s expectations low on this, but the potential is there for some accountability to be had. Here’s hoping.

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.

What is Ken Paxton hiding?

I was almost tempted to start this post with the rhetorical “Just when you think Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower” gambit, but then I realized I have never thought Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower. Even with that, this is amazing.

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The Texas attorney general’s office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general’s work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton’s office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton’s open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton’s office, which is supposed to enforce the state’s open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton’s personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton’s email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

[…]

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor’s office, must seek the agency’s approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton’s messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn’t need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency’s open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general’s executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general’s office regarding “legal services to the state.”

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it’s odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

“It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege,” Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn’t seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general’s office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton’s personal devices or accounts.

It’s a long story involving multiple news outlets, as well as Paxton’s Utah trip during the freeze, which he appears to have been lying about. Part of the problem here is Ken Paxton’s utter contempt for the rule of law, and part of it is that there’s no obvious mechanism for holding him accountable. Filing a lawsuit may eventually result in some of this information turning up – assuming Paxton doesn’t just delete it all, while citing a data retention policy to back his actions up – but who knows how long that could take. For sure, the Republican legislature isn’t going to do anything. The voters get the ultimate say, but that’s a long way off as well, and as long as this communication is being withheld, they don’t have the full story. I know that you already know this, but Ken Paxton is the worst. See Lauren McGaughy’s Twitter thread for more.

Paxton whistleblower lawsuit can proceed

First step in a long road.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The financial benefit of filing seditious lawsuits

Ladies and gentlemen, your Attorney General:

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Campaign contributions to embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton all but dried up last fall after senior staff accused the Republican of abusing his office to help a friend and political donor.

But Paxton’s fortunes reversed in December when, cheered on by President Donald Trump, he filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in four key battleground states.

In the days after mounting the unsuccessful legal bid, Paxton raked in nearly $150,000 — roughly half of his entire campaign haul in the last six months of 2020.

Still, Paxton raised just $305,500 in total, a tiny amount compared to other statewide elected officials who raised millions of dollars to support their campaigns.

Paxton’s own fundraising reports have typically been in seven figures. Campaign spokesman Ian Prior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The low fundraising numbers show Paxton’s political career “is on life support,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“He went all in to back Trump and the far right and it was a losing play,” Rottinghaus said.

Paxton, in his second term, is up for reelection in 2022. His campaign account has about $5.5 million cash on hand.

[…]

After the seven employees’ accusations went public in early October, Paxton raised roughly $10,000, his campaign finance report shows. In November, his campaign brought in $75.

Paxton raised nothing more until Dec. 8, the day after he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn election results in four states that helped deliver the presidency to Democrat Joe Biden. A few days later, the high court rejected the challenge, which was cast by legal experts as a long shot and an unfounded attempt to nullify millions of lawful ballots.

During that time, Paxton’s campaign brought in hundreds of mostly small donations from across the country. The l argest, a $25,000 contribution, came on Dec. 10 from James Dondero, co-founder of Dallas-based Highland Capital Management, the campaign finance report shows.

Whoever said crime doesn’t pay? He can only sue to overturn the election once, but he can sue over pretty much everything the Biden administration does, if he wants to keep tapping that source of campaign cash. That lawsuit over the deportation pause is the opening salvo. Maybe this strategy to boost his campaign coffers, and score a few policy wins, won’t work, but I feel pretty confident that it won’t stop him from trying.

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.

On prosecuting the insurrectionists

This is a good start.

While federal prosecutors in the nation’s capital will likely tackle the bulk of criminal charges for the perpetrators of Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Ryan K. Patrick is among a growing number of U.S. attorneys around the country vowing to prosecute anyone from their regions who traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate.

More than a dozen U.S. attorneys from Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland have made statements that they’d go after people in their districts who made the trip to Washington.

Patrick, who represents the Southern District of Texas, commonly abbreviated SDTX, tweeted Wednesday, “What happened today in Washington was despicable and illegal. Storming a government building is not a protest, it’s anarchy. Arrest them, charge them, and incarcerate them.”

And he added, “And if these clowns today don’t think the capitol police, FBI, FPS and others won’t be poring over open source and other video to make cases, they’re wrong. If any of these leads points to SDTX, we’re on it.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray promised in a statement Thursday to investigate the crowds of participants: “Make no mistake: With our partners, we will hold accountable those who participated in yesterday’s siege of the Capitol.”

[…]

Reports of Capitol mob participants are already cropping up in Texas.

A Texas attorney who videos appear to show participated in the violent mob that took over the Capitol was identified by a journalist.

Paul MacNeal Davis, an attorney eligible to practice law in Texas and based in Frisco, was terminated from his position at Goosehead Insurance, a company with offices in Houston and across Texas.

The video was originally posted to Instagram by an account that appears to belong to Davis. The same account posted a message to followers Thursday morning stating, “I already lost my job because of the Twitter mob. I’m not upset. I’m thankful to be suffering for righteousness and freedom.”

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is investigating whether a jail lieutenant broke policy or any laws by attending the pro-Trump rally that later turned into the mob.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said 46-year-old Roxanne Mathai, an eight-year veteran with the department, posted selfies and photos of the crowd in Washington to her Facebook page, identifying herself as a BCSO employee.

Justice Department officials in Washington will likely pursue cases that involve violence, theft, property damage, criminal mischief, trespassing or knowingly entering or remaining in restricted building or grounds without permission, Patrick said. The department handles theses cases because there is no district attorney in Washington. But there are charges local districts can file as well, on their own or in coordination with “main justice” in Washington.

If someone involved in the melee lived in the sprawling 43-county Southern District, Patrick said, he would investigate whether the person planned in advance to travel to Washington to incite a riot.

Here’s another seditious chucklehead to investigate, though I’d guess she’s in a different district. These guys weren’t hiding their motives or intentions, so by all means look into all possibilities, but do keep in mind that just what was done in the Capitol will keep prosecutors and law enforcement very busy. And by all means, think big.

Supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol, breaking windows and stealing things, could face charges including sedition, insurrection and rioting, Washington, D.C.’s top federal prosecutor said on Thursday.

“All of those charges are on the table,” Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin told reporters in a call, when asked about possible charges of sedition, rioting or insurrection.

“We’re not going to keep anything out of our arsenal.”

The Justice Department has filed 55 criminal cases about events this week, Sherwin said, some pre-dating Wednesday’s assault on the seat of government, including the arrest of far-right Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio on Monday.

Sherwin repeatedly said no suspects in Wednesday’s riots would be ruled out – even when asked whether this could include Capitol Police who may have been complicit or Trump himself for urging protesters to march on the Capitol at a rally on Wednesday.

“We’re looking at all actors here and anyone that had a role, and the evidence fits the elements of a crime, they’re going to be charged.”

Oh, and did we mention that a Capitol police officer died as a result of injuries sustained during this riot? I want to see a lot of people charged with being accessories to his death. The point here is to make the price of this exercise in fascism as steep as possible for as many people as possible. It’s by far the best way to make future such events less likely.

And if all that is not enough:

As horrible as this was, this could have been so much worse. Get every last one of them arrested and convicted. Daily Kos has more.

Paxton denies whistleblower allegations

Pretty standard response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI serves subpoenas in Paxton case

Quite the timing, no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive groups have eagerly made similar accusations.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

So the FBI is indeed investigating Ken Paxton

Sources say so.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

The life and times of Ken Paxton

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI raids HISD official’s home and office

Well, this is never good.

Agents with the FBI and IRS spent hours Thursday searching the administrative offices of the Houston Independent School District and the Cypress-area house of its chief operating officer, but they remained tight-lipped about what they were seeking.

At least a dozen federal agents made their way in and out of HISD’s Hattie Mae White building on 4400 West 18th Street Thursday morning, at one point carrying several boxes and containers to vehicles parked nearby.

The bureau called the search a “court authorized law enforcement activity,” but did not elaborate.

The district issued a statement saying it was fully cooperating with the FBI, adding there was no danger to students or staff.

Federal agents also were at a Cypress-area home listed in county property tax records as the residence of HISD Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby and his wife, HISD Officer of Special Populations Courtney Busby. Security refused to allow news media inside the gated neighborhood.

A voicemail and text message left on Busby’s phone, as well as a message sent via Twitter, were not returned Thursday. It was unclear whether Busby still had access to the phone, which may have been issued by HISD.

An Internal Revenue Service spokesman, in response to questions, said the agency could neither confirm nor deny any involvement, citing federal privacy laws. Agents with “IRS” on the backs their jackets were visible at the administration building and Busby’s home.

“We were notified first thing this morning of the FBI’s presence by the administration,” HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said. “I don’t have any additional information at this time, but I certainly share the community’s concerns.”

Not much to do but wait and see what happens. If there’s something there, we’ll know about it soon enough.

Stockman denied on appeal

At least one thing in this world is still righteous and wholesome.

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A federal appeals court summarily rejected what it called a “self-serving” appeal by disgraced former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, finding the lower court properly convicted him of 23 felony counts in a massive fraud scheme involving illegal spending of more than $1 million in charitable donations.

The 5th U.S. Circuit on Friday slammed the “somewhat tortuous” argument by the ex-lawmaker that the trial judge erred by failing to acquit him and by improperly instructing jurors. The 18-page opinion was riddled with stinging barbs.

Stockman’s lawyer picked apart the lengthy jury instructions on appeal, but the court said those arguments were “confected on a foundation of sand” and found “ample support” for conviction. Each of six claims that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury lacked merit, the appellate panel found, in an opinion dripping with sarcasm.

“Stephen E. Stockman served four years in Congress and now faces ten years in prison,” begins the opinion written by Sen. U.S. Judge E. Grady Jolly. “He seeks to avoid this career detour.”

The opinion goes onto say that the Republican ex-congressman argued “that prison should not be the next item on his résumé because the convictions were tainted by improper jury instructions and unsupported by the evidence.” The appellate court strongly disagreed, in the ruling joined by Judges James E. Graves, Jr. and Stephen A. Higginson.

[…]

Stockman’s appellate lawyer David A. Warrington previously served as counsel to the 2016 Trump campaign at the Republican National Convention and describes himself on his firm’s website as “one of the leading Republican lawyers in the nation.” He argued in court documents that prosecutors failed to prove Stockman intentionally defrauded two major GOP donors when he solicited donations to pet projects.

“Stockman was convicted for nonprofit fundraising and political activities subject to protection under the First Amendment,” Warrington wrote, asking the court to dismiss the case because “The Government’s case against him turned his failure to achieve completion of certain nonprofit political activism and projects into fraud.”

However, the appeals court responded last week by referencing the painstakingly detailed evidence of money transfers showing the ex-congressman perpetrated “a scheme to separate wealthy donors from their money and to spend that money at Stockman’s pleasure and direction.”

The ruling ends with a final decisive punch:

“In sum, the judgment of the district court is, in all respects, AFFIRMED.”

See here and here for the background. This is a work of art and you should enjoy it as such.

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.

Violent crime is down more than 10 percent from 2017, during its peak under Turner’s administration, according to preliminary FBI data. Non-violent crime has dropped about 6 percent since 2015.

From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018.

[…]

“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” said Scott Henson, of Just Liberty, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.

In Turner’s first year in office, for example, criminals murdered 301 Houstonians. The city saw 279 murders in 2018, a slight uptick from 269 in 2017.

The city’s murder rate is four times that of New York, the safest large city in the United States, and a sixth of St. Louis, the nation’s most deadly. A survey of the nation’s 297 largest cities (meaning they had populations of 100,000 or more) shows Houston’s ranked 75th in murders, and 31st in violent crime.

“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates.

A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country.

Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”

And while criminologists acknowledge the city’s overall crime rate is indeed higher than 95 percent of other American cities, towns, and villages, they say such comparisons overinflate the importance of more common but less serious crimes like thefts.

“As a major American city, Houston has some crime,” said Asher. “That’s the same as me saying Houston has more trash cans than 95 percent of cities … Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. Of course it does.”

Experts say it is not useful to measure crime on a year-to-year basis because one-year outliers do not accurately reflect trends or significant changes in crime patterns.

Since 1985, the annual number of murders has risen as high as 608 in 1991 and as low as 198 in 2011. Overall, the city’s murder rate has trended downward from about 26.5 per 100,000 to 11.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

“Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it,” said Henson.

This article was written because the non-Mayors in the Mayoral race were all claiming that crime is up and mayhem is rampant. I mean, what else do they have to talk about? I don’t know about some of these candidates, but I was living here in 1991, and I remember what it was like. I remember looking for rental properties with my roommates in Houston and noticing that the most prominent feature on many places in Montrose was burglar bars. I remember that the conventional wisdom was that single women should not live in the Heights because it wasn’t safe for them. Hell, when I bought my first house in the Heights in 1997, Tiffany’s parents (who live in Bellaire) were worried about its location. The Houston we live in now is so much safer.

One more thing: Insistence that the city is swamped by crime leads naturally to a demand for more aggressive policing – more traffic stops, more “broken windows”-type arrests, more zero-tolerance mindset, etc. We all know what that means for minority communities. At a time when people are recognizing the great harm that over-incarceration and the “war on drugs” have caused, this is dangerous and deeply out of step with the popular will. And pretty much what I’d expect from King and Buzbee, the two loudest voices in that story. Grits, who was quoted in the story, has more.

“Coordinated cyberattack” on several Texas cities

That doesn’t sound good.

Twenty-three Texas towns have been struck by a “coordinated” ransomware attack, according to the state’s Department of Information Resources.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software, often delivered via email, that locks up an organization’s systems until a ransom is paid or files are recovered by other means. In many cases, ransomware significantly damages computer hardware and linked machinery and leads to days or weeks with systems offline, which is why it can be so costly to cities.

According to a weekend update by the Texas DIR, the attacks started Friday morning and though the locations aren’t named, “the majority of these entities were smaller local governments.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered a “Level 2 Escalated Response” on Friday following the incident, according to a statement from Governor’s Office deputy press secretary Nan Tolson. This response level, determined by the state’s Department of Emergency Management, is part of a four-step response protocol, and is one step below the highest level of alert, level 1 or “emergency.”

According to state emergency management planning guide, this means “the scope of the emergency has expanded beyond that which can be handled by local responders. Normal state and local government operations may be impaired.”

In addition to the state and local agencies assisting with the response, “Governor Abbott is also deploying cybersecurity experts to affected areas in order to assess damage and help bring local government entities back online,” Tolson said.

This NPR story has more details.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and state cybersecurity experts are examining the ongoing breach, which began Friday morning and has affected mostly smaller local governments. Officials have not disclosed which specific places are affected.

Investigators have also not yet identified who or what is behind the attack that took the systems offline, but the Texas Department of Information Resources says the evidence so far points to “one single threat actor.”

Elliott Sprehe, a spokesman for the department, said he was “not aware” of any of the cities having paid the undisclosed ransom sought by hackers. He said the areas impacted are predominantly rural. The department initially put the number of cities attacked at 23.

Two cities so far have come forward to say their computer systems were affected. Officials in Borger in the Texas Panhandle, said the attack has affected city business and financial operations. Birth and death certificates are not available online, and the city can’t accept utility payments from any of its 13,25o residents. “Responders have not yet established a time-frame for when full, normal operations will be restored,” city officials said.

[…]

Experts say that while government agencies have increasingly been hit by cyberattacks, simultaneously targeting nearly two dozen cities represents a new kind of cyberassault.

“What’s unique about this attack and something we hadn’t seen before is how coordinated attack this attack is,” said threat intelligence analyst Allan Liska. “It does present a new front in the ransomware attack,” he said. “It absolutely is the largest coordinated attack we’ve seen.”

Liska’s research firm, Recorded Future, has found that ransomware attacks aimed at state and local government have been on the rise, finding at least 169 examples of hackers breaking into government computer systems since 2013. There have been more than 60 already this year, he said.

The city of Keene, near Fort Worth, was also hit, and their Mayor said the attack came via their IT provider, as these small towns outsource that task since they don’t have sufficient resources to do it themselves. This is a real problem that’s going to keep happening, and we really should put more money and effort into fighting against it at a state and national level. Good luck to all involved in cleaning up the mess. A more recent statement from the Texas DIR is here, and the Star-Telegram, the Chron, and the Trib have more.

Stockman gets ten years

Fitting.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former Congressman Steve Stockman, a Tea Party stalwart who represented East Texas during two non-consecutive terms, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on Wednesday for his role in a wide-ranging scheme that included a spy operation aimed a fellow Republican challenger and $1.25 million in campaign funds pilfered from conservative megadonors.

Stockman, 61, of Clear Lake, said nothing in court after Chief U.S. Judge Lee H. Rosenthal sentenced the former beltway firebrand who in April was convicted by a jury on 23 felony counts stemming from unlawful use of charitable donations.

Stockman, who was wearing an orange jail uniform and beige rubber clogs and was chained at the ankles, faced the potential of more than 20 years on each of seven mail and wire fraud charges, as well as 10 years on each of 11 money laundering counts, five years apiece on two counts of making false statements, plus five years for making coordinated campaign contributions and up to three years for filing a false tax return.

His new defense lawyer, Marlo Cadeddu, asked for a 13-month sentence, which she said was average for a corruption case.

But Rosenthal said the short sentence “doesn’t come close to capturing this unique violation of public trust.”

“You stole money and used it for personal gain and you used it to violate the public trust,” Rosenthal told Stockman before he was sentenced. “You cheated the American taxpayer.”

She said her sentencing took into account that he sneaked around and had people go through trash of his perceived opponent, that he cheated taxpayers and tried to cover up his acts and continued to seek the political spotlight.

[…]

In addition to the 10-year federal jail term, Stockman faces three years of supervised release. He was also ordered t pay $1.014 million in restitution.

See here for some background, or just search the archives for “Stockman”. Sorry, but I’m fresh out of sympathy for grifters. He got what was coming to him. Jason Posey and Thomas Dodd, who pled out and testified against their former boss, will be sentenced on December 12. The Trib has more.

Culberson’s continued stock problems

Oopsie.

Rep. John Culberson

Two members of Congress from Texas — Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Conaway of Midland and John Culberson of Houston — purchased stock in a company last year that is now at the center of insider trading charges against one of their colleagues, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York.

Collins, best known as the first congressman to back Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, was indicted Wednesday by federal prosecutors and charged with securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI. The indictment stems from his involvement in an Australian biotech firm called Innate Immunotherapeutics, and it alleges he passed non-public information about the company to his son, Cameron, who then used it to purchase stock and tip off others.

Conaway and Culberson are not named in the indictment and face no allegations of wrongdoing. But they were among several of Collins’ colleagues who purchased shares of Innate last year and faced some scrutiny for it, especially after reports surfaced that Collins was seeking to convince them and other associates to invest. Collins, who has denied any wrongdoing, was already being investigated by the House Ethics Committee before the indictment was unveiled Wednesday.

Both Conaway and Culberson bought stock in Innate on Jan. 26, 2017, worth between $1,001 and $15,000, according to personal financial statements filed with the House clerk. Their purchases came two days after a contentious confirmation hearing for U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, then Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, during which he was questioned over his own investment in Innate. Conaway purchased more of the stock on Feb. 3, 2017, again valued at between $1,001 and $15,000.

Culberson sold his stock on June 12, 2017 — 10 days before Chris Collins is accused of sharing the non-public information with his son. Conaway, meanwhile, dumped all his shares in November 2017, according to a spokesperson for his office.

[…]

The fallout from the indictment could be more of a political problem for Culberson, who is among national Democrats’ top three targets in Texas this fall. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee singled out Culberson in a statement after the charges against Collins were revealed, and his opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, said in her own statement that the indictment “raises serious questions.”

“Congressman Culberson must explain why he, along with a small group of Republican lawmakers, bought stock in an obscure Australian biopharmaceutical company that is at the center of an insider trading scandal,” Fletcher said. “If Congressman Culberson used his position of power, along with access to material nonpublic information, in an effort to benefit himself personally then Congressman Culberson will have confirmed he is exactly what is wrong with Washington.”

See here for some background. In a different year, with a less-hostile political environment and a non-threatening opponent, Culberson could easily shrug this off. This year, not so much. Even if you yourself are not being accused of wrongdoing, the close association with a colleague who just got busted on federal charges and a Trump administration official who resigned amid a cascade of ethical scandals is not a good look. Good luck coming up with a satisfactory explanation for it all. The Chron has more on the Culberson angle, and for more on the Chris Collins arrest see Daily Kos, Mother Jones, ThinkProgress, and Political Animal.

Uresti gets 12 years

Harsh, but hardly unfair.

Carlos Uresti

Standing before a federal judge in a San Antonio courtroom on Tuesday afternoon, former state Sen. Carlos Uresti was contrite.

“I truly feel remorseful, ashamed, disappointed, disgraced, angry at myself and sad,” Uresti told the court, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

But shortly after, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse about his plans to appeal a 12-year federal prison sentence he said he does not “believe is fair and just,” the two-decade veteran of the Texas Legislature seemed anything but remorseful.

The sentence he received Tuesday — and the $6.3 million in restitution he’s been ordered to pay to victims of a Ponzi scheme he was convicted of helping carry out — is “just another obstacle,” Uresti said.

“When you’re right, you never give up,” he said. “And we’re right, so we’re not going to give up.”

See here for the background. He still has a second federal trial to undergo in October, so this is not as bad as it may get. I wonder if there was a dawning realization that a multi-year sentence was likely, and that this was what finally got him to resign, four months after his conviction. Whatever the case, and acknowledging that he did do some good things as a Senator, I’m glad he finally stepped down. As to what happens from here, I can’t say I have any feelings about it. The whole affair was sad, but Carlos Uresti is a grown man who made his own choices. He can live with the consequences of those choices.

Carlos Uresti resigns

About fscking time.

Carlos Uresti

Finally heeding calls from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, state Sen. Carlos Uresti announced his resignation Monday, four months after he was found guilty of 11 felonies.

The news comes just over a week before the San Antonio Democrat is set to be sentenced by a federal judge in San Antonio; experts predict his penalty will be 8 to 12 years of prison time. He’s also scheduled for a trial in October on separate fraud and bribery charges.

“As you know, I am in the process of ensuring that justice is served,” Uresti wrote in a statement Monday. “I need to attend to my personal matters and properly care for my family. So, keeping in mind the best interests of my constituents and my family, I believe it to be most prudent that I step down from my elected office to focus on these important issues.”

[…]

His resignation will become effective Thursday.

In his announcement Monday, Uresti asked Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election for the seat on the next uniform election date, which is the general election date in November. Doing so, he said, would save the district’s 17 counties thousands of dollars. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on timing for the election.

Several Democrats have already lined up to replace Uresti. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez announced his bid for the seat less than a month after the conviction; in early April, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego joined the fray as well.

See here and here for the background. Assuming we do get a November special election, which would join the other November special election(s) that we should get, we can have a replacement for Uresti sworn in and ready to go no worse than January, which is so much better than waiting till after November for a special election to be set. I’m sure there will be others besides Gutierrez and Gallego in the race, and as before I don’t have a preference at this time. Uresti set a low bar to clear, so an upgrade is likely. I for one am very ready for that.

No set-aside for Stockman

Sorry, Stevie.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A Texas federal judge has declined to set aside a jury’s conviction of former U.S. Rep. Stephen Stockman, R-Texas, who was found guilty in April of funneling what were solicited as charitable contributions into accounts that funded political campaigns and personal expenses, holding there was plenty of evidence to support the outcome.

Stockman’s defense team asked Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal for an acquittal in May, after a jury convicted Stockman, 60, who was indicted in March 2017, on 23 of 24 counts and acquitted him on one count of wire fraud. Jurors deliberated for a little more than 15 hours over three days before returning their unanimous verdict in the trial that began with jury selection on March 19.

The former congressman’s attorneys argued in their motion that he’s entitled to an acquittal because a “reasonable-minded jury” couldn’t have seen the evidence presented at trial and concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty. What the evidence did show, they argued, is that the wealthy conservative mega-donors Stockman was accused of defrauding — the now-deceased Stanford Z. Rothschild Jr. and Richard Uihlein — knew what Stockman was intending to use the funds for.

Stockman argued that while the evidence may have shown he was complicit in an illegal scheme involving campaign donations, it doesn’t show that he defrauded the rich donors who he alleges were “knowing participants.”

In her order issued Wednesday, Judge Rosenthal rejected that argument, noting that the government put Uihlein on the stand during the trial, and he testified he was misled about how the funds would be used.

“The evidence was sufficient for a jury to reasonably conclude that Stockman intended to defraud Uihlein,” the judge wrote. “The clear weight of the evidence supported the convictions. The jury credited Uihlein’s explanation and description of what Stockman told him and what he knew, believed, and expected as a result. The jury clearly did not believe the evidence that Stockman’s counsel cites to make the argument about Uihlein’s ‘real’ motive.”

See here for the background. Stockman remains in custody until he receives his sentence on August 17. I’m never going to get tired of these updates.

Stockman remains in custody

So sorry.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A federal judge ruled for the second time that former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman is a flight risk and ordered him to remain in federal custody while he awaits sentencing in an elaborate $1.25 million fraud scheme.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the former GOP lawmaker detained in April after his conviction, following a four-week jury trial, on 23 criminal counts, including mail and wire fraud, violating federal election law, making excessive campaign contributions and lying on a federal tax return.

Stockman’s attorneys asked last week that their 61-year-old client, who is diabetic, be permitted to be free on restricted bond so that that he can seek “necessary medical attention and treatment prior to sentencing.” His lawyers said in court documents he had not been receiving sufficient medical attention at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe and he hoped to get evaluations and treatment in advance of his sentencing scheduled for August 17.

[…]

In denying the request, the judge said she would instruct the U.S. Marshals Service to work with the staff at the detention facility to ensure that Stockman receives the treatment and medication he needs.

Rosenthal explained in her terse four-page order that Stockman, who used Bitcoin and burner phones and helped an aide avoid FBI detection for years in Egypt, did not meet his burden to convince her he is not a flight risk.

See here for some background. I hate to make light of someone’s misfortune, but I daresay this is an example of someone’s reputation preceding them. Given the potential sentence he was facing, I’d consider him a flight risk, too.

Stockman asks for his verdict to be set aside

Never know till you ask, right?

Best newspaper graphic ever

Attorneys representing former U.S. Rep. Stephen Stockman, R-Texas, who was found guilty in April of funneling what were solicited as charitable contributions into accounts that instead funded political campaigns and personal expenses, have asked the court to set aside the jury’s conviction in the case citing a lack of evidence.

Stockman’s defense team filed the motion asking Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal for an acquittal on Monday. A jury convicted Stockman, 60, who was indicted in March 2017, on 23 of 24 counts, acquitting him on one count of wire fraud. Jurors deliberated for a little more than 15 hours over three days before returning their unanimous verdict in the trial that began with jury selection on March 19.

[…]

The former congressman’s attorneys argued in the motion that he’s entitled to an acquittal because the evidence presented at trial “could not be accepted by a reasonable-minded jury as adequate and sufficient to support a guilty verdict beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, the evidence showed that the wealthy conservative mega-donors Stockman was accused of defrauding — the now-deceased Stanford Z. Rothschild Jr. and Richard Uihlein — knew what Stockman was intending to use the funds for, according to the motion.

“With respect to fraudulent intent, the evidence must show Mr. Stockman had a conscious, knowing intent to defraud and that he contemplated or intended some harm to the property rights of the victim,” the motion argued. “The government has not established this.”

Sean Buckley, who represents Stockman, had told reporters immediately after the verdict there would be an appeal in the case. He reiterated arguments presented for the jury that the funds came from donors who knew the congressman would be using the money “to finance Mr. Stockman’s political work and his projects.”

See here for the background. The motion was made to the trial judge, Judge Lee Rosenthal, who I presume will rule on it before sentencing, which is scheduled for August 17. I can’t imagine this sort of motion works very often, but I suppose it’s a prelude to the eventual appeal. I’ll keep my eyes open for further developments.

Stockman convicted

Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman — a political maverick once viewed as a champion of right-wing causes — was taken into federal custody Thursday after a jury convicted him of masterminding a wide-ranging fraud scheme that diverted $1.25 million in charitable donations from wealthy conservative philanthropists to cover personal expenses and campaign debts.

After deliberating more than 15 hours over three days, the jury found Stockman guilty on 23 counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Elections Commission and money laundering. The jury found him not guilty on one count of wire fraud.

Stockman, 61, of Clear Lake, who served two non-consecutive terms as a Republican congressman in separate southeast Texas districts, showed no reaction to the jury’s verdict. His wife, Patti, watched from the courtroom gallery, as did U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled that Stockman was a flight risk and she ordered him taken into custody by U.S. marshals. Stockman faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the fraud charges alone. Sentencing is set for Aug. 17.

I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment. I may have some coherent thoughts about this in a day or so, but until then let me go a little medieval Latin on you:

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
egestatem,
potestatem
dissolvit ut glaciem.

That’s all I’ve got for now. The Trib and RG Ratcliffe, who recalls some of Stockman’s greatest hits, have more.

Stockman trial: Off to the jury

Please return a verdict.

Best newspaper graphic ever

The defense team for former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman told jurors Monday the ex- GOP lawmaker did not plot a massive fraud scheme, but said the government should have targeted two wealthy conservative donors for making illegal campaign contributions disguised as charitable gifts.

“The true motives of his donors … was to fund Stockman, his political activities and his projects without being restricted,” said attorney Charles Flood, referring to $1.25 million in tax deductible donations Stockman is accused of diverting to pay off personal and campaign costs.

Flood said investigators “believed early on this was a fraud case and they retrofitted it. They formed a conclusion and tried to back into it.”

Flood and two other defense lawyers — who are being compensated by an anonymous Stockman friend — argued that while the two-time Republican lawmaker spent some of the seed money he solicited on an array of unrelated expenses, he did not deliberately trick the donors into giving him money nor attempt to cover his tracks after the money was gone.

See here for the last update. So Stockman isn’t guilty of money laundering, just of participating in a scheme to evade campaign finance law. Unwittingly, I guess – we all know how naive he is. I got nothing. Let’s just keep going.

In closing, prosecution stressed there was no evidence to prove the defense claims that these donors meant to break the law when they made donations to what they believed were genuine charities.

In all, prosecutors questioned dozens of witnesses over three weeks of testimony — including an IRS investigator, a forensic accountant for the FBI and Stockman’s own accountant — to back their theory that between 2010 and 2014 Stockman systematically planned to use the donations money however he wanted and then lied to cover it up.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Ellersick walked the jury through a series of transactions, pointing out that Stockman, a trained accountant whom a former assistant described as a “micromanger,” stated in his own words in emails, texts and letters that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Ellersick quoted Stockman’s letter to a doubtful government minister in South Sudan, who was questioning a humanitarian donation that included a percentage fee for the former congressman. Stockman stated in the letter, “My experience is vast … I know what I am doing,” and assured the official that while some people might be untrustworthy, his reputation was impeccable. “Leopards don’t change their spots,” Stockman wrote.

As someone who has followed Steve Stockman’s career for nearly a quarter-century, I do agree with that. I’m on ping and needles till a verdict comes in. The Trib has more.

Stockman trial update: Defense rests

And we’re done.

Best newspaper graphic ever

The defense rested its case Thursday in ex-GOP congressman Steve Stockman’s federal campaign fraud trial, after calling only two witnesses who together testified for less than an hour.

The former Republican lawmaker from Clear Lake told the judge presiding over his trial that he did not intend to testify in his own defense.

[…]

After court adjourned, Stockman’s defense team explained to reporters they would have called many more than two witnesses if the rules of evidence didn’t preclude Stockman to put on broader testimony about his reputation, work ethic and charitable work.

On Thursday, the final witness in the trial was Stevie Bidjoua Sianard-Roc, who had flown in from Africa to testify and took the stand for 38 minutes. She testified about several trips Stockman made to the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo to meet with government ministers, discuss social issues and in one case deliver three boxes of medicine to a local hospital in which she served as his translator. In one instance, she said, Stockman donated an iPad to her husband.

“In Africa, Steve is like family to us,” Sianard-Roc told the jury.

Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Ellersick, the Sianard-Roc said she was not aware that Stockman was also working on a deal in the region with an oil company and hoped to meet with an oil minister there.

See here for the previous update. This whole trial has been amazing, but the thing that really stands out to me is how unimpressive the defense seems to be. Maybe it just hasn’t come through in the reporting, but I haven’t seen much to rebut any of the prosecution’s evidence. The defense seems to boil down to twenty-plus-year-politician Stockman is a naive dupe, and people in Africa like him. It feels more like what you’d put on during the sentencing hearing. Like I said, maybe there was more to it than the stories conveyed. Closing arguments are Monday, and then we’ll see. What do you think?

Stockman trial update: The prosecution abides

From Monday:

Best newspaper graphic ever

The second of two key government witnesses took the stand late Monday in Houston in the federal fraud trial of former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, telling jurors his main duty on the ex-lawmaker’s staff was to “just do what I’m told.”

[…]

On the stand Monday, [Jason] Posey told the jury he had previously pleaded guilty to wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering.

Both [Thomas] Dodd and Posey knew Stockman through his work with the conservative Leadership Institute, an Arlington nonprofit that trains youth in grassroots organizing.

Posey, 47, who now works as a fry cook at Spuds in Tupelo, Miss., said he worked for Stockman on-and-off since his unsuccessful bid for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996. He helped with Stockman’s failed campaign for Texas Railroad Commissioner in 1998 and lived among other volunteers in Stockman’s ramshackle campaign headquarters, a former motorcycle repair shop in Webster, during Stockman’s victorious 2012 campaign for the Congress.

Stockman then tapped him to be a congressional staffer in Washington. But when new employees were going around the room introducing themselves by their new titles at a preliminary staff meeting, Posey did not mention that he would be a liaison working on special projects.

Instead, he testified,“I stood and said, ‘I’m Jason Posey and I just do what I’m told.’”

He told the jury he knew nothing about Stockman’s major donors, although he helped the ex-congressman set up a failed charity, which Stockman later used to solicit donations, according to testimony from other witnesses.

See here for the last update. I don’t have anything to add to this, so let’s move on. From Tuesday:

After two and a half years dodging federal investigators by fleeing to Egypt, former congressional aide Jason Posey came to the painful realization that his boss, two-time Republican congressman Steve Stockman, was going to blame him for the elaborate fraud scheme they had orchestrated, he told a federal jury Tuesday.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to take the blame for everything’ and he was going to run for office,” Posey testified, adding that Stockman promised to look after him after Posey was convicted. “That was when I realized that I had been a complete fool for trusting Mr. Stockman and he never intended to keep his pledge.”

That pledge, according to Posey, was that if their questionable use of charitable donations came to light Stockman “would come clean about everything” and protect him and another devoted congressional staffer.

[…]

During Stockman’s successful 2012 campaign for the House of Representatives and his failed 2014 bid to unseat Texas Republican John Cornyn for Senate, Posey said he helped filter charitable donations to conservative 501c3 nonprofit groups. Posey testified he helped Stockman set up sham charities and associated bank accounts, which Stockman directed him to use to pay off campaign expenses and personal debts.

He wrote checks, set up bank accounts and moved the money, as Stockman told him, into shadowy charities, including one called the Egyptian American Friendship Society and another entitled Life Without Limits, supposedly dedicated to helping people recover from trauma, so the spending would look like it was coming from charitable groups, according to his testimony.

You really have to admire the dedication to these schemes. There’s no length Stockman (allaegedly) wouldn’t go to for the money. Imagine how much he could have gotten done if he’d applied that kind of work ethic to something productive.

And finally, from Wednesday, when the prosecution finished and the defense got started.

The prosecution ended its case by calling back to the stand FBI Special Agent Leanna Saler, to explain to the jury how Stockman used Bitcoin to forward funds to Posey who had fled to Egypt to avoid investigators and the purchases of so-called “burner phones” which were used to discuss an improper campaign donation, according to Posey’s testimony. Both were difficult for law enforcement to trace, Saler testified.

Defense lawyer Sean Buckley asked whether the Bitcoin transactions were charged in Stockman’s indictment. Saler said no. The ATM withdrawals Stockman made in Switzerland and Cairo were also not included in the charges, she testified.

Under further questioning from Buckley, the agent stated that the FBI never investigated the two mega-donors who gave Stockman the charitable contributions that were later diverted to pay personal and campaign editors.

After the government ended its presentation, Stockman’s lawyers called Callie Beck as their first witness to begin their defense of the charges. The court adjourned shortly after Beck’s testimony to await the expected arrival of another witness who Stockman’s lawyers said was flying in from the Republic of Congo to testify about the GOP lawmakers work shipping medicine to developing countries.

Beck was on the stand less than 10 minutes in all, detailing what she did during a summer program Stockman paid for with a charitable donation. She said the Summit, a two-week camp in Colorado run by a Christian organization, involved lectures and team building for youths before entering college.

Under cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Annis, Beck acknowledged she was not familiar with Freedom House, a housing and training program for Capitol Hill interns.

Yes of course I blogged about it when Stockman announced he would accept Bitcoin for his campaign. I mean, come on. The defense is expected to take just a couple of days, with the case wrapping up early next week. I can’t wait to see what this other witness has to say.