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Lacey Mase

Oh, yeah, more Paxton news

The damn election has made it so hard to keep up with L’Affaire Paxton, and I use that term with a bit of a wink, as you’ll soon see. I’ve got four stories to catch you up on, and the last one is a doozy. Let’s take them chronologically. First up, from last week (too much news!), we have this AP story about the complaint Nate Paul filed that led to the Paxton investigation that led to all his top deputies accusing Paxton of taking a bribe.

An Austin real estate developer at the center of recent allegations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked for an investigation into his uncorroborated claims that other businessmen have an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million worth of his properties with the help of a federal judge.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of a Nate Paul’s undated complaint, which reveals that the developer’s claims focused on his business to an extent not previously known and raises new questions about the Republican attorney general’s handling of allegations made by a wealthy donor.

After Paxton hired an outside lawyer to investigate Paul’s claims, his seven top deputies reported the attorney general to the FBI for alleged abuse of office, bribery and other crimes linked to his relationship with Paul.

In his complaint to prosecutors in Austin, Paul said the owner of a chain of Texas car dealerships schemed with lawyers, investors and others to seize his assets. The developer accuses 11 people of an intricate fraud that was allegedly set to include the judge and another court-appointed official facilitating a “rigged auction.”

The signed, 10-page “request to investigate” is one of two from Paul that were referred to Paxton’s office, setting off the remarkable revolt by the Republican’s staff.

Paul’s complaint is largely based on things he says he heard second-hand. Many of those accused are in business and legal fights with Paul, and some derided his claims as ridiculous. None have been charged with crimes.

A retired FBI agent who reviewed the complaint called the plot as likely as “winning the lottery.”

“I’m confident these allegations are all a bunch of complete nonsense,” said Keith Byers, an attorney in the Houston area who previously oversaw FBI public corruption cases. “The unfortunate part of this is that the good name of a seemingly reputable judge is being smeared by these wild and farcical allegations.”

[…]

Paul’s lawyer, Michael Wynne, said his client has “significant evidence” to support his allegations but declined to elaborate. “I will reserve further comment since this is an ongoing investigation,” he said.

I’ll bet you do, sunshine. I’m skipping the details because my eyes kind of glazed over, but you get the picture. Remember, Paxton’s staff looked into this and concluded it was without merit. It was then that Paxton hired the wet-behind-the-ears “special prosecutor” Brandon Cammack to continue “investigating” under his direction, and that’s when his staff rebelled. It got ugly from there.

Best mugshot ever

At a senior staff meeting one Thursday morning in May, with much of the Texas attorney general’s office working from home and morale seeming low, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton arrived at the Price Daniel Sr. State Office Building in downtown Austin with a surprise honor for a top deputy: a copy of “Scalia Speaks,” the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice’s book.

Paxton had inscribed it with a congratulatory note for Blake Brickman, and presented it personally at the meeting of about 20 people.

“Blake, I am so grateful you joined our team at the Texas AG’s office,” Paxton wrote in blue ink, honoring the top deputy in a new, if short-lived, tradition, according to two people who attended the meetings. “I am confident that you will continue to make a difference for our office and all of Texas.”

Lacey Mase and Ryan Bangert, two other senior aides, would soon win similar accolades. But by October, Paxton had publicly disparaged Brickman, Mase, Bangert and several of his other most senior aides as “rogue employees” — and by the first week of November, Paxton had fired Brickman, Mase and two other top aides.

The week before his termination, Brickman had told the agency’s human resources department, in a formal complaint obtained by The Texas Tribune, that he was being blocked from meetings and prevented from seeing critical documents; that he believed his computer was being monitored; and that a superior had brought an armed “sergeant” to a staff meeting. His allegations echo formal complaints filed by five other whistleblowers.

The abrupt change, interviews and internal agency documents show, came after seven senior aides and whistleblowers in the attorney general’s office— Brickman, Bangert and Mase among them — reported Paxton to law enforcement on Sept. 30, alleging criminal violations. An eighth senior aide made a similar report to authorities on Oct. 1.

[…]

In their complaints, several of the whistleblowers allege that Paxton and First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, who Paxton hired to replace Mateer Oct. 5, created a “hostile environment” after they reported Paxton to law enforcement.

On Oct. 5, Webster’s first day at the agency, an armed guard was posted on the eighth floor of the Price Daniel Sr. building, where the agency’s executive team works, according to the complaints.

Bangert wrote that he asked Webster why the guard had been brought there — since he had never observed someone stationed there before — and that Webster said the guard was there for Webster’s own protection, as “he trusted no one and was not about [to] ‘leave his flank exposed.’”

“Other OAG staff complained to me that the presence of an armed officer in meetings was an unprecedented attempt by Mr. Webster to intimidate senior members of OAG staff on his first day as First Assistant,” Brickman wrote in his complaint.

On the same day, Bangert wrote in his complaint, a large stack of empty cardboard boxes was delivered to the eighth floor — which he considered an unspoken signal “that we were to pack our personal belongings in those cardboard boxes and leave.”

During a senior staff meeting on Oct. 8, a week after the group reported Paxton to law enforcement, McCarty asked Paxton and Webster whether the office would continue to publicly disparage whistleblowers. The agency had called them “rogue” and told reporters, without providing evidence, that it was investigating their behavior. There was no answer to McCarty’s question, according to several of the complaints.

The whistleblowers reported being excluded from meetings, sidelined from their routine job responsibilities and denied access to documents they needed to perform their duties.

Several also wrote that they believed superiors at the agency were monitoring them through their electronic devices.

You really need to read that whole story. The armed guard is just off the charts bizarre. These were apparently exemplary employees, with stellar personnel records, who suddenly became rogue and insubordinate rule-breakers in record time. All are now gone from the office, having been fired or resigned. (That’s story number 3, I’m skipping it because there’s not much to add from it.) As I’ve said before, even if Paxton is telling the truth about this, it sure doesn’t say much about him as a manager, if all these people he once trusted turned out to be such scurrilous characters.

And then there was this, which totally dropped my jaw.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had an extramarital affair with a woman whom he later recommended for a job with the wealthy donor now at the center of criminal allegations against him, according to two people who said Paxton told them about the relationship.

The two people, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity due to fears about retaliation, said the high-profile Republican official acknowledged the affair in 2018 to senior members of his office and political staff. They said he told them that he had ended the affair with the woman, who then worked for a GOP state senator.

Austin developer Nate Paul said in a deposition this week that Paxton recommended the woman for her job with Paul’s real estate company, according to a transcript of his deposition obtained by the AP. The woman had stopped working as a Senate aide at the end of 2019, though her reason for departing wasn’t immediately clear.

Paul’s hiring of the woman at Paxton’s recommendation sheds new light on the relationship between the two men.

[…]

During his Monday deposition, Paul explicitly denied employing the former Senate aide at his company, World Class, as a favor to Paxton.

“World Class has hundreds of employees, including (the woman), and in accordance with federal and state laws does not invade their privacy including to inquire about their personal lives,” the developer’s lawyer, Michael Wynne, said in an email.

The woman is named in a transcript of Paul’s deposition and both people who said Paxton told them of the affair independently identified her by name. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment. AP is not naming her because she is not a public figure.

Under questioning during the deposition, Paul said he did not know how the woman he hired and the attorney general knew each other. He said he couldn’t recall how long the woman had worked for him, what she was paid and whether he met her before or after Paxton recommended her.

The senator’s office has not responded to requests for comment. The woman’s personnel records are blank where the reason for her departure would be indicated.

[…]

Paxton acknowledged his affair with the woman during his hard-fought 2018 reelection campaign at least partially out of concern that it would become public, the people who he told about it said.

That September, Paxton gathered a small group of top staff in his Austin campaign office. A person who attended the meeting said Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, walked into the conference room holding hands. The attorney general told the group he had an affair but had since ended it and recommitted to his marriage, the person said.

Damn. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t remember hearing about this two years ago. And look, it’s not like having an affair makes you unfit for holding public office, but let’s just say I have less patience with people who are such strong defenders of “traditional marriage” who it turns out don’t seem to have all that much respect for their own marriage vows. I didn’t think it was possible for me to think less of Ken Paxton than I already do, but here we are. Who knows what we’ll find out about him next.

UPDATE: Meant to point to this Twitter thread by DMN reporter Lauren McGaughy as well.

Time to check in on Ken Paxton again

It’s good to know, in times of crisis, that there are friendly fake media outfits one can run to to deny all the allegations against you.

Best mugshot ever

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton decided to break his silence about accusations by his top aides that he had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office, he turned to a little-known legal outlet called the Southeast Texas Record.

In the exclusive interview, he trashed the aides and claimed that before his top deputy resigned, Paxton had planned to put him on leave anyway.

The website where that interview was posted has been identified as part of a national network of some 1,300 pay-for-play news websites that publish on-demand coverage for Republican political campaigns and public relations firms. According to The New York Times, those websites, whose names sound like ordinary local news outlets, have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups.

Ian Prior, who promoted the story for the Paxton campaign, denied to The Texas Tribune that the campaign had paid the outlet to run the story — “definitive no,” he said — saying he had merely reached out to set up an interview with an outlet that had already covered the story.

The Southeast Texas Record describes itself as a legal outlet focused on informing readers about the courts, with a weekly print edition published on Sundays.

After the interview was published, Prior shared it with reporters via email.

He declined to answer questions about why the campaign chose a little-known legal publication as opposed to a news outlet with wider readership, such as The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle or Austin American-Statesman, which had all been following the Paxton story closely.

“Appreciate the question but not going to get into [public relations] strategy/discussions,” Prior said in a text message Tuesday.

[…]

In the Oct. 13 Paxton story, the Record foregrounds Paxton’s point of view in the ongoing scandal and elaborates less on the allegations against him, which remain murky, with federal authorities refusing to confirm whether there is an investigation into Paxton’s behavior at all. The author, David Yates, writes that Jeff Mateer — the top Paxton deputy who resigned after accusing his boss of criminal wrongdoing — did not return requests for comment.

It gives no indication that the author attempted to reach David Maxwell or Mark Penley, two top aides whose work is questioned in the story and whom Paxton placed on leave from the agency.

And the story elides details that raise questions about Paxton’s role in the scandal. In an internal email that was obtained by the Tribune, top aides alleged Paxton was using the power of his office to help a donor, real estate investor Nate Paul, who accused federal authorities of wrongdoing after the FBI raided his home and office in 2019. Paxton has claimed his office was investigating Paul’s allegations merely because local authorities in the Travis County district attorney’s office referred the complaint to the agency. But Travis County DA Margaret Moore has disputed that timeline, telling reporters that Paxton sought a meeting with her office about the complaint before it was referred.

The Record story does not include those details, nor does it extensively detail the accounts of the seven senior aides who have leveled accusations against Paxton.

The strategy is obvious: Talk to friendly people who won’t ask any embarrassing questions, and avoid any outlets that will probe or push back. That way, the core supporters will only hear your side of the story and can thus dismiss anything that comes out elsewhere, since it’s not from a “trusted” source. This doesn’t stop all the bad information from getting out, but it does put a barrier up to it for the base.

Also, the retributions have begun.

Lacey Mase, one of the top aides who accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, has been fired, she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday evening.

“It was not voluntary,” she said, but declined to comment further.

Mase was hired in 2011 and worked most recently as the deputy attorney general for administration. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

[…]

Mase’s personnel file, obtained through a public records request, shows she rose quickly through the agency’s ranks, earning frequent promotions. She was promoted as recently as Sept. 1, 2019, earning a nearly 12% pay bump to $205,000 annually. When Mase was promoted in April 2018, a supervisor wrote that she “consistently exceeded standards” in all her roles at the agency. Her salary has multiplied over the past few years, from $50,000 in 2013 to more than $200,000 most recently.

Texas law “protects public employees who make good faith reports of violations of law by their employer to an appropriate law enforcement authority,” according to the Texas attorney general’s website. “An employer may not suspend or terminate the employment of, or take other adverse personnel action against, a public employee who makes a report under the Act.”

Firing Mase so soon after she and the other top aides made their report is “suspicious,” said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases and who worked in the attorney general’s office in the 1990s.

“This looks and smells like classic whistleblower retaliation,” Smith said. “This situation looks like what the Texas Whistleblower Act was designed to prevent. And the timing looks bad.”

Smith said the aides appear to have taken all the proper steps to invoke whistleblower protections, reporting suspect behavior to “an appropriate law enforcement authority” as specified in the law, and making their employer aware of the allegations through the letter to human resources. The aides used that exact language — “appropriate law enforcement authority” — in their Oct. 1 letter to the agency.

I mean, maybe there was a reason for this, but it sure looks suspicious, and there’s no way Ken Paxton deserves any benefit of the doubt. And hey, now there’s a pattern.

A second whistleblower has been fired from the Texas attorney general’s office after reporting his boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, to law enforcement for crimes including bribery and abuse of office, according to a former senior official with the agency who had knowledge about the firing but did not want to be named for fear of legal repercussions.

Blake Brickman, who had served as deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives for less than a year, was fired Tuesday, the official said.

[…]

Brickman and Mase were among seven top aides in Paxton’s office who alerted law enforcement weeks ago that they believed their boss had run afoul of the law. In internal emails obtained by the Tribune, they accused Paxton of using the power of his office to serve the financial interests of a donor, Nate Paul.

I mean, once you’ve fired one whistleblower, why not go all in and fire another? In for a penny and all that. I hope Ms. Mase and Mr. Brickman find themselves some good employment attorneys. The Chron has more.