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Mark Penley

No Paxton settlement money in the budget

The Lege takes a stand.

A crook any way you look

Texas budget negotiators want to ban Attorney General Ken Paxton from using state funds to pay a $3.3 million whistleblower settlement.

This week, they adopted a provision that would bar the Office of the Attorney General from using state money to pay for any whistleblower lawsuits or claims, according to budget documents and a spokesperson with the Legislative Budget Board. The language could still change and ultimately needs sign-off from the Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott to become law.

The settlement is a hot topic this session as some GOP leaders balked at using taxpayer dollars to foot the bill. A rejection of the funds could send Paxton’s agency back to court with four former staffers who sued, alleging they were fired after accusing the Republican of bribery and abuse of office.

Paxton’s agency did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chair the legislative budget committees. The legislative session ends on Memorial Day.

Late Tuesday, attorneys for the whistleblowers wrote to the budget negotiators calling the proposal “disastrous public policy” that would “unfairly punish our clients.”

The state whistleblower act gives public employees who report corruption a safety net, and barring funding of the settlement would “give office holders a license to break the law,” the lawyers wrote on behalf of former top agency employees James “Blake” Brickman, Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar.

The attorneys added that other government workers would not “risk their financial livelihood to report corruption if the Legislature hangs our clients out to dry.”

[…]

The budget provision’s consequences could be far more sweeping than this one case if they are adopted, an expert said.

Blocking the ability of a state agency to pay whistleblower lawsuits could discourage its employees from reporting alleged wrongdoing, said Michael P. Maslanka, an associate professor at the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law.

And by limiting the restriction to just one agency, the whistleblowers’ attorneys might even be able to sue the Legislature for infringing on their constitutional right to equal protection under the law, he added.

See here, here, here, and here for the backgound. Gotta say, I thought the Lege would fold on this, because when have any Republicans ever held Ken Paxton accountable for anything? Yet here we are, and I’m glad to see it. I will say again, for the umpteenth time, the fact that the budget doesn’t have money specifically earmarked for this settlement doesn’t mean Ken Paxton and the AG’s office can’t pay it. He can just take it out of the amount that has been appropriated for that office, and deal with whatever shortfalls it creates. I get the whistleblowers’ frustration, I really do. I just see this as the way to inflict some actual pain on Paxton. He deserves it. Reform Austin has more.

The Lege still doesn’t want to pay for Paxton’s whistleblower sins

Who can blame them?

A crook any way you look

Now midway through the legislative session, Paxton and state lawmakers are at a standstill, and taxpayers are caught in the middle.

Lawmakers have so far declined to include the settlement money in any budget bills, while Paxton argues that the agreement would ultimately save taxpayers from funding a lengthy court case that may end with a higher price tag.

The whistleblowers’ accusations have prompted an ongoing Department of Justice investigation of Paxton, who has denied any wrongdoing. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Political experts say the Legislature’s reluctance to embrace the agreement could be a tactic to pressure Paxton to either pay for the settlement himself or answer for the corruption allegations in court.

“It’s like the Legislature is telling Paxton that this is his problem to take care of,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “This is as close as Paxton will come to a political sanction from his party for his actions. … The party is not going to directly say that they think that he’s done wrong, but they certainly don’t want to be on the hook to foot the bill.”

Lawmakers suggested at a budget hearing last month that Paxton should use his own campaign funds to settle the case, as the state’s election laws allow. But a Paxton staffer interjected, noting that whistleblower laws hold the office accountable, not the officeholder.

[…]

As of January, Paxton had $2.3 million in his campaign war chest and $1.3 million in outstanding loans. He would have to fundraise to pay off the rest of the settlement — a “horrific” option for the attorney general, Rottinghaus said.

The whistleblowers on Wednesday requested that the Texas Supreme Court lift its temporary pause on the case. If Paxton and the whistleblowers remain at an impasse through the end of legislative session in May, they’ll all head back to court.

Chris Hilton, the general litigation division chief and a lawyer for Paxton, accused the whistleblowers on Thursday of trying to “undo the agreement by filing a misleading brief with the Texas Supreme Court, all the while coordinating with the media to create drama.”

“We’ll continue to seek a cost-efficient resolution, even while the plaintiffs needlessly drag this process out,” Hilton said.

Turner pushed back on that claim, pointing to a court filing by the attorney general’s office in which Paxton’s attorneys agreed that “should the parties prove unable to obtain funding,” they would jointly ask the Texas Supreme Court to resume the case.

“As we negotiated the formal agreement, the attorney general backtracked and would not agree to a deadline for legislative approval,” Turner said. “Anyone reading this can easily decide for themselves who is being misleading and who is dragging this process out.”

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Paxton is essentially giving the Legislature an ultimatum: “‘Pay to clean up my mess, or as I stall on this set of corruption charges brought against me by my former employees, that could sum up to a great deal more than $3.3 million.’”

The only reason the attorney general’s staff knows the cost could be higher, Jillson said, “is because they intend to stretch this thing out as far as possible.”

With two months left in the legislative session, there’s still plenty of time for lawmakers to change their minds, but it’s a touchy subject.

See here for the background. I remain fine with the stance that the Lege has taken so far, however doubtful I am about their resolve. Put simply, don’t bail out Ken Paxton. I recognize that this puts a burden on the whistleblowers, who did us all a favor by coming forward like this, and I regret that they are caught in the middle. I also maintain that approving the settlement and cutting the AG’s budget by an equivalent (or greater!) amount would be fine, but I have yet to see any suggestion of that in any of these stories. Changing the law to allow Paxton to pay this with his campaign funds might be OK, and there are other ideas that could work. All I care is that no one takes Paxton off the hook. If that means the taxpayers face a bigger payout down the line, so be it. The point is that he should own it all. The Trib has more.

The whistleblowers’ un-settlement

Plot twist!

A crook any way you look

The whistleblowers who sued Attorney General Ken Paxton say they’re headed back to court unless he agrees that the Legislature must approve their proposed $3.3 million settlement before the current legislative session ends in May.

They are the four former aides to Paxton who allege he fired them in retaliation for reporting him to federal authorities for bribery and abuse of office. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing. Their lawyers said Wednesday they were “forced” to file a motion in an Austin appellate court Wednesday asking for the case to resume.

In a joint statement, the lawyers said a deadline of the end of session for payment was the “fundamental premise upon which they asked us to negotiate in the first place.”

“So we’ll go back to court, where the taxpayers will end up paying more to defend (the Office of the Attorney General) than they would to settle this case,” the lawyers said. “We would still settle the case if the Legislature approved the payment this session, but we cannot and did not agree to give OAG the benefit of a settlement while the whistleblowers wait in perpetuity for legislative approval.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some members of the Legislature, including Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, have expressed opposition to approving the settlement. Earlier this month, Phelan said in an interview with CBS DFW that he did not think it was a “proper use of taxpayer dollars.” Taxpayers are already on the hook for $600,000 in legal fees for Paxton’s defense.

[…]

The case now returns to the Texas Supreme Court, where it landed after Paxton appealed in December 2021 a decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals that upheld a lower court’s finding that the state’s whistleblower protection law should have prevented the employees from being fired.

The all-Republican court had not yet decided whether it would grant the case when the whistleblowers and Paxton asked them to hold off on any decisions while the parties finalized their settlement agreement. The court could decide to grant or deny at any time; it is not subject to a deadline.

In addition to the $3.3 million payment, the settlement, which the parties announced last month, would have required Paxton to remove a news release from his website that is critical of the employees. He also would have had to state in the agreement that he “accepts that plaintiffs acted in a manner that they thought was right and apologizes for referring to them as ‘rogue employees.'”

See here, here, and here for some background. The Trib adds some details.

The multimillion-dollar settlement, announced last month, would give back pay to the four former employees and would include an apology from Paxton as well as other concessions. But the agreement needs to be approved by state lawmakers, who have expressed an unwillingness to use taxpayer dollars to settle Paxton’s case. At the request of the parties in January, the Texas Supreme Court put the whistleblower case on pause while the two sides looked to finalize the deal. But without a deadline, the case could be on pause indefinitely, attorneys for the former employees said on Wednesday.

“Sadly, we have not been able to reach a final settlement because [the Office of the Attorney General] will not agree to include in the formal agreement a deadline for the legislature to approve funding this session, even though that was the fundamental premise upon which they asked us to negotiate in the first place,” the attorneys said in a statement. “So we’ll go back to court, where the taxpayers will end up paying more to defend OAG than they would to settle this case.”

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He has denied wrongdoing.

Attorneys for the former employees said they would still settle the case if lawmakers approved the $3.3 million settlement this session.

“But we cannot and did not agree to give [the Office of the Attorney General] the benefit of a settlement while the whistleblowers wait in perpetuity for legislative approval,” they wrote.

The fired employees’ attorneys have urged lawmakers to approve the settlement, but its funding looks bleak after top legislators, including House Speaker Dade Phelan, came out against the use of state funds to settle the case. The Legislature’s top budget writers did not include the settlement in their first draft of bills to resolve miscellaneous legal claims.

In a filing to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, attorneys for the former employees said the attorney general’s office has told them verbally that they have put the whistleblowers in a “gotcha position.” If lawmakers do not approve funding for the settlement by the end of this legislative session on May 29, the attorney general’s office has said the whistleblower case should remain on pause until the next legislative session in 2025. If it is not approved again, the filing reads, the attorney general’s office has said the case should remain on pause until the following session in 2027.

“And so on in perpetuity. [The Office of Attorney General] tells Respondents the case will never resume; they have given up their claims forever, even if legislative approval is not forthcoming,” the filing reads. “[The Office of Attorney General] thus reaps all benefits of a settlement, and [the former employees] achieve none.”

In written communications, the fired employees’ attorneys say Paxton’s office has been “craftier,” arguing that it is still researching what would happen if the Legislature refuses to approve the settlement and will not address that potential outcome until it happens.

The fired employees’ attorneys blasted both positions as “preposterous,” arguing that they would have never agreed to put the case on pause indefinitely or for a lengthy time period.

The motion to pause the case — which was requested, drafted and filed by the attorney general’s office with agreement by the fired employees — was “intended to briefly postpone” any potential ruling while the two sides sought legislative approval for the $3.3 million settlement. But attorneys for the fired employees say Paxton’s refusal to set a deadline is preventing the two sides from completing the settlement agreement while at the same time not letting their case against him move forward.

Couple things. First, let’s remember that SCOTx was going to rule on the question of whether Paxton could be sued at all under the Texas Whistleblower Act. Paxton had argued that he could not be sued under that law because he’s not public employee, because elected officials don’t count under that law. By asking SCOTx to resume their deliberation on that question, the four plaintiffs are risking that their answer will be to rule in Paxton’s favor and toss the lawsuit altogether. And even if they win on that question, it just means that the lawsuit can go back to a district court and be heard on its merits. Which, again, they could lose, or they could get a lesser amount awarded to them. And the whole thing will then have to go through the appeals process, because of course Paxton will fight it for as long as he’s in office, and the verdict could get overturned or the award could be reduced, and the whole thing could take years. Whatever else you may think about their case and the initial settlement, these guys are taking a substantial risk by doing this.

But you can see why they’re willing to take that risk. Paxton, who has always been able to turn a bad situation of his own making into an advantage, is using the Lege’s understandable unwillingness to pay for his sins as an indefinite stalling tactic. As things stand now, he has zero incentive to take any action. The case is frozen in amber. And even if SCOTx ultimately rules that the lawsuit can proceed, if there’s one other thing (besides criming) that Paxton is good at, it’s delaying legal reckonings. Who knows how long he could draw this out, assuming he remains in office?

All of which suggests a fairly easy way out for SCOTx, if they want to take it. They can rule that the Lege doesn’t have to apportion any money to pay the settlement, and let Paxton pay for it out of whatever budget the Lege sees fit to give him. This is of course what I have been arguing they should do, as it is the most fair and just solution at this point, so I’m a little biased. But, you know, it really is a good solution – it allows the whistleblowers to get their back pay and their apology, it guards against a much larger potential verdict while also not putting the public on the hook, and it makes Paxton bear the brunt of the financial penalty. It might damage the AG office’s ability to do its job, but that’s just too bad. This is what happens when you put a crook in charge of law enforcement. I hope SCOTx comes to the proper conclusion and saves us all a multi-year saga.

Paxton makes his plea to the Lege

It’s more accurate to say that one of his assistants pleaded for him while he mostly sat silent, but whatever.

The only criminal involved

Days after the Texas house speaker openly opposed using taxpayer dollars to settle a whistleblower suit against Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, a top agency lawyer said avoiding the payout would only end up costing the state more.

“It’s ultimately in the interest of the state from a financial perspective” to pay the settlement now, Assistant Attorney General Chris Hilton told a panel of House budget writers. “Financially speaking, there is no upside for the state to this case; even total vindication at trial results in a significant expenditure.”

Hilton said the agency has already racked up $600,000 in legal fees fighting the lawsuit. The agency is required to use outside lawyers in the case because of the conflict of interest, which has driven up the cost, Hilton said.

[…]

Paxton, a Republican, was present Tuesday but deferred to his team for most answers.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, asked Paxton directly whether he would use his own campaign dollars. Hilton interjected, noting that the lawsuit is against the agency, not Paxton personally.

“There is no whistleblower case where any individual has paid anything because the individual is not liable under the terms of the statute,” Hilton said. He added, “Under the terms of the settlement, there is no admission of fault or liability or wrongdoing by any party.”

Under the state’s election code, Paxton is allowed to use campaign funds to cover his legal defense. Since he was sued in his official capacity, those costs are not considered a “personal use.”

It’s a different scenario than in 2016 when Paxton wanted to use out-of-state gifts to cover his legal defense in the ongoing securities fraud case against him. The Texas Ethics Commission at the time warned Paxton he would violate the law if he used those funds because the accusations in that case did not stem from his officeholder duties.

On Thursday, state prosecutors said the Department of Justice had transferred the most recent corruption case out of the hands of federal attorneys in Texas and into the Washington-based Public Integrity Section. The reason for the shift was unclear, though Paxton’s attorneys had requested it.

Tuesday’s budget hearing was the first time Paxton has faced lawmakers since the settlement was announced. Some House members seemed resigned about their options.

Texas Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, and Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, said the state seems to lose no matter if they pay now or after a hypothetical trial concludes.

“Even if you win, there is no ‘win,’” Spiller said, referring to how the state would still owe outside lawyers.

“We’re kind of in the proverbial rock and a hard place,” Allison said.”Either we pay $3.3 million now or pay far more than that either in additional legal expenses or (because of) an unfortunate result.”

State Rep. Mary González, an El Paso Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, questioned whether Paxton is acting in the public’s interest.

She noted Paxton has declined to represent some state agencies, a key duty of his office, leaving them to pay for outside legal counsel out of their own budgets and at an additional cost for taxpayers. An ongoing case by a conservative activist against the Texas Ethics Commission, for instance, has cost the state more than $1 million.

Hilton said that occurs only in a “tiny percentage” of cases, about 60 in the last year, most of which he said were because the agencies had asked for their own counsel. Others were because the statute did not allow the office to represent an agency, Hilton said, and a smaller amount were because a case conflicted with the state’s obligation to “uphold the Constitution.”

A lot of similarity to what the whistleblowrs’s attorneys were saying, though without any reference to their quest for justice against a crook, as that would have been super awkward. I’m beginning to wonder if any member of the Legislature is going to arrive at my proposal to pay off the settlement and then cut Paxton’s budget by a commensurate amount or if I’m going to need to hire a lobbyist to explain it to them. It’s not that hard, y’all! You can do it.

The Statesman adds a few extra bits.

Hilton argued the cost to taxpayers could exceed $3.3 million if the lawsuit were to continue, in part because the case is procedurally in the early stages, although “it has been pending for a while.” He said the discovery process has yet to begin and that undertaking is lengthy, intensive and costly.

“It strikes me that we’re kind of between the proverbial rock and a hard place in that we either pay the $3.3 million now, or pay far more than that, either in additional legal expenses or an unfortunate result,” said subcommittee member Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro.

[…]

When asked by lawmakers Tuesday what would happen if the Legislature does not approve the settlement payment, Hilton said it’s “difficult to predict” exactly what the next steps would be.

“Because it’s pending litigation, I don’t want to get into too many details,” Hilton said. “Under the terms of the settlement, it is contingent upon all necessary approvals.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Paxton also asked House lawmakers for additional money in the next biennium to hire more staff and to offer competitive pay.

Paxton said in recent years the agency has faced increasing turnover due to staff leaving for other state jobs that in some cases can nearly double their salaries at the attorney general’s office.

Maybe part of the problem is that Paxton is a terrible manager in addition to being the kind of corrupt boss that eight of his trusted lieutenants felt the need to sue, I dunno. My advice to the Lege for how to handle this stands. At the very least please don’t give him any more money. Surely by now we have all the evidence we need that he can’t be trusted with it.

Why should Ken Paxton’s whistleblowers suffer for his sins?

That’s the question their lawyers ask in a DMN op-ed.

The only criminal involved

The whistleblower suit is currently pending at the Texas Supreme Court on appeal of an esoteric argument made by the attorney general. Recently, the Office of the Attorney General and the whistleblowers reached a settlement where the whistleblowers would receive $3.3 million to compensate them for lost wages, compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees incurred in the 2-year-old court battle.

The Texas Legislature must now decide whether to approve payment of the settlement. If the Legislature does not approve payment, the case will return to court, taxpayers will pay millions more in attorneys’ fees and even more for damages and plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees if, as expected, the whistleblowers win a jury verdict. The attorney general’s office has already paid its private lawyers approximately $500,000 in attorneys’ fees and the parties have yet to even conduct discovery because of the appeal.

Some have criticized the settlement as “hush money” or argued that it would prevent the public from learning the details related to the accusations. This is incorrect. The whistleblowers have already provided tremendous detail in their 129-page lawsuit, which is a public document. Also, the settlement does not prohibit the whistleblowers from discussing the case or cooperating with law enforcement.

The suggestion that the whistleblowers should be forced to continue their lawsuit so discovery in the suit can be used to investigate the attorney general’s conduct is also unfair. The whistleblowers did their part. They reported illegal conduct to law enforcement and, in return, lost their careers. It is law enforcement’s job to investigate these allegations, which it appears they continue to do. Likewise, the Legislature has tremendous authority to demand documents and testimony from Paxton and those in his office, but it has not.

Why should the whistleblowers, who have already sacrificed their employment and already spent more than two years in court, be asked to spend even more resources and time to investigate the alleged conduct, when the FBI and the Texas Legislature have a mandate and countless resources available to do so?

See here and here for some background. The assertion about the Lege holding Paxton accountable aside – you probably heard my guffaw from the comfort of your home – they do made a decent point. That said, it is well within the Lege’s purview to approve the settlement and then cut the AG’s budget by an equal amount, which is what I would argue. We’ve heard some tough talk from some legislators and from Speaker Phelan. It’s all talk for now, and their track record isn’t too encouraging. But there is a clear path that does honor what the whistleblowers did – and by the way, y’all should keep on talking about it, in lots of detail and in front of crowds, as often as you can – while still exerting a modicum official disapproval on the waste of space known as Ken Paxton. It’s on the Republicans in the Lege to take it.

So will the Lege pay off Paxton’s whistleblowers or not?

It’s maybe a bit more complicated than I thought at first.

Always a crook

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan says he is against using taxpayer money to pay Attorney General Ken Paxton’s $3.3 million settlement agreement in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former employees.

In an interview with CBS DFW on Wednesday, Phelan said it would not be “a proper use of taxpayer dollars” and that he does not anticipate that the $3.3 million cost will be included in the House budget.

“Mr. Paxton is going to have to come to the Texas House,” Phelan said. “He’s going to have to appear before the appropriations committee and make a case to that committee as to why that is a proper use of taxpayer dollars, and then he’s going to have to sell it to 76 members of the Texas House. That is his job, not mine.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, has so far remained silent on the issue. Patrick’s office did not respond to an American-Statesman request for comment Thursday.

[…]

In a statement released Friday, Paxton said he agreed to the settlement to limit the cost of continuing the litigation.

“After over two years of litigating with four ex-staffers who accused me in October 2020 of ‘potential’ wrongdoing, I have reached a settlement agreement to put this issue to rest,” Paxton wrote. “I have chosen this path to save taxpayer dollars and ensure my third term as Attorney General is unburdened by unnecessary distractions. This settlement achieves these goals. I look forward to serving the people of Texas for the next four years free from this unfortunate sideshow.”

The whistleblowers filed the lawsuit against the Office of the Attorney General, not Paxton personally, so the Legislature will have to decide whether or not to appropriate public money to pay the bill.

See here for the background and my well-earned skepticism that the Republican legislature would ever hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything, and here for the original story. Before we get into the details, there’s this to consider.

Attorneys for four former employees who accused Attorney General Ken Paxton of corruption urged lawmakers on Friday not to oppose their $3.3 million settlement — which must be approved by the Legislature because it’s being paid out with taxpayer money.

The attorneys for Blake Brickman, David Maxwell, Mark Penley and Ryan Vassar — all former top deputies to Paxton in the attorney general’s office — said their clients “courageously reported what they believed to be corruption and put the investigation in the hands of law enforcement where it belongs” and were now asking lawmakers to back their efforts to report wrongdoing.

Rejecting the settlement could discourage others from coming forth to report wrongdoing in state agencies in the future, they said.

“No Texas legislator should oppose these whistleblowers’ hard-fought claim for compensation to which they are entitled under the Texas Whistleblower Act,” the attorneys wrote. “State employees cannot be expected to report government corruption in the future if they know the Legislature won’t back their rights under the statute it passed for the very purpose of protecting them.”

[…]

The settlement agreement was announced last Friday and would include the $3.3 million payments to the four employees who were fired and lost wages after reporting what they believed to be Paxton’s crimes. It would also include an apology from Paxton, the retraction of a news release that called the former deputies “rogue employees” and a statement that neither side admits fault in the case.

But the proposed settlement has garnered some opposition from the public and lawmakers because it would be paid out of state funds. Budget writers in the Senate, like Dallas Democrat Royce West, have also expressed skepticism about the agreement.

Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, plaintiffs are allowed to sue the employing agency where the retaliation happened, but not a specific employee in their personal capacity. That is why the payment would be paid out of state funds and not Paxton’s personal funds.

In their statement, the attorneys told lawmakers that the former employees had unfairly lost their jobs and been smeared by Paxton in news stories for reporting what they believed to be serious crimes.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Texas, which had been considering a Paxton appeal to the whistleblower suit, put the case on hold to give the parties time to finalize the agreement. The parties have until April 3 to figure out whether lawmakers will agree to the settlement and must notify the court about any changes in the proceedings.

While I could be persuaded that some number of Republican legislators might be a bit low on patience with Paxton, the four whistleblowers will be much more compelling to them. They were all conservative Republicans in good standing themselves, and agreeing to a settlement does sweep this contentious and embarrassing matter under the rug. If they have to take it to court and eventually win, the price tag will be much higher, and as before the state would be on the hook for it. As far as that goes, from a risk management perspective, approving the settlement makes sense.

That said, I don’t see why the Lege has to appropriate an extra $3.3 million to the AG’s office to pay it off. I do think they are well within bounds to appropriate whatever they would have without this, and tell Paxton to figure out his budget on his own. If that means he has to make some uncomfortable choices, that’s his problem and the consequences of his own actions. I think Speaker Phelan has the right idea here, but it wouldn’t hurt to spell it out to the members who might think that they have to explicitly cover this cost. The budget for the AG’s office will have more than enough funds to cover this check. Ken Paxton can do the work to make it happen. That’s the best way forwawrd.

Paxton settles with whistleblowers

Meh.

The only criminal involved

Attorney General Ken Paxton and four of his former top deputies who said he improperly fired them after they accused him of crimes have reached a tentative agreement to end a whistleblower lawsuit that would pay those employees $3.3 million dollars.

In a filing on Friday, attorneys for Paxton and the whistleblowers asked the Texas Supreme Court to further defer consideration of the whistleblower case until the two sides can finalize the tentative agreement. Once the deal is finalized and payment by the attorney general’s office is approved, the two sides will move to end the case, the filing said.

“The whistleblowers sacrificed their jobs and have spent more than two years fighting for what is right,” said TJ Turner, an attorney for David Maxwell, a whistleblower and former director of law enforcement for the attorney general’s office. “We believe the terms of the settlement speak for themselves.”

Paxton, a Republican who won a third four-year term in November, said in a statement that he agreed to the settlement to save taxpayer money and start his new term unencumbered by the accusations.

“After over two years of litigating with four ex-staffers who accused me in October 2020 of ‘potential’ wrongdoing, I have reached a settlement agreement to put this issue to rest,” Paxton said. “I have chosen this path to save taxpayer dollars and ensure my third term as Attorney General is unburdened by unnecessary distractions. This settlement achieves these goals. I look forward to serving the People of Texas for the next four years free from this unfortunate sideshow.”

The tentative agreement would pay $3.3 million to the four whistleblowers and keep in place an appeals court ruling that allowed the case to move forward. Paxton had asked the Supreme Court to void that ruling. The settlement, once finalized, also will include a statement from Paxton saying he “accepts that plaintiffs acted in a manner that they thought was right and apologizes for referring to them as ‘rogue employees.’”

The attorney general’s office also agreed to delete a news release from its website that called the whistleblowers “rogue employees.” The news release had been deleted as of Friday morning.

[…]

Two weeks ago, three of the four plaintiffs in that lawsuit – Penley, Maxwell and Vassar – asked the Texas Supreme Court to put their case on hold while they negotiated a settlement with Paxton. Brickman initially sought to oppose the motion but signed onto the settlement agreement filed with the court Friday.

See here for the previous entry. Good for the fired guys getting paid – Paxton did them wrong, and they made him pay for it, which is as it should be. And as this stands, the ridiculous argument that Paxton as an elected official is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act remains a crackpot theory and not an official opinion of the Supreme Court. Someone may try that again some day, but maybe this demonstrated the weakness of that claim. We can only hope.

On the other hand, all of the details of what happened here are going to be forever swept under the rug. Did Paxton do any of the things that he was alleged to have done – as a reminder, the list includes “bribery, tampering with government records, obstruction of justice, harassment and abuse of office”, as well as blatantly lying about the charges on the campaign trail? We’ll never know for sure, unless the FBI gets off its rear end and files criminal charges against him. And, um, not to put too fine a point on it, but where is that three million bucks to settle this going to come from? If the answer to that is “your tax dollars and mine”, well, I’m not so sure Paxton will be incentivized to actually learn a lesson from all this, you know? It’s true that a verdict and judgment against Paxton would have run into a lot more dough, also your taxes and mine, but I have this nagging feeling that Paxton was basically playing with house money. The asshole got away with it again.

Okay, maybe not:

The payment for the settlement would come out of state funds and has to be approved by the Legislature. After the tentative agreement was made public, state representative Jeff Leach, the Republican from Plano who oversees the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, said he was “troubled that hardworking taxpayers might be on the hook for this settlement between the Attorney General and former employees of his office.”

“I’ve spoken with the Attorney General directly this morning and communicated in no uncertain terms that, on behalf of our constituents, legislators will have questions and legislators will expect answers,” Leach said in a statement to the Texas Tribune.

Yeah, well, I’ll believe that when I see it. The next time the Republicans hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything will be the first time that happens. The Chron has more.

Paxton seeks settlement with some of the whistleblower plaintiffs

Very interesting.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal team is in settlement negotiation talks with three of the four former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him for firing them after they accused Paxton of criminal acts.

Paxton’s lawyers, in a joint filing last week with attorneys for Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar — Paxton’s former deputies — asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement. The lawyers wrote they were “actively engaged in settlement discussions” with mediation set for Wednesday.

Lawyers for a fourth plaintiff, Blake Brickman, opposed the motion in their own filing and urged the court to move forward with its consideration. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

[…]

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee and that he fired them not in retaliation for their complaint, but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. But last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The joint filing by Paxton’s lawyers and the three plaintiffs says the court should defer its review of the case until Feb. 9 to give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brickman’s lawyers, Thomas Nesbitt and William T. Palmer, said in their filing that Paxton’s team has been delaying the case for two years and “there is no reason for abating this case.” They argued that the other plaintiffs sought the pause only because they intended to settle the case, but since Brickman was not involved in those negotiations, his claims still needed a quick resolution.

“Brickman respectfully requests that this Court deny the request for abatement,” they wrote. “It imposes further needless delay of the adjudication of Brickman’s claim.”

See here for my last update, in June. I am unabashedly rooting for Blake Brickman here. I respect that Messrs. Penley, Maxwell, and Vassar wish to settle. If they think that’s in their best interests, then godspeed and good luck. But if Brickman wants to pursue the case, there’s no reason to make him and SCOTx wait until they come to an agreement – if indeed they do. The question of whether Paxton as Attorney General can be sued at all in this context matters, and we deserve to get a ruling on that. (Yes, I may end up regretting this request, but such is life.) From a slightly more selfish perspective, the only way to ensure that the more sordid allegations from this complaint get an airing is if there’s a trial. Sure, if the FBI ever charges Paxton with a crime we may find out more, but given how long that has already taken and the amount of time Paxton has been able to evade trial for his state crimes, we may all be dead by the time that happens. So yeah, let this lawsuit continue. We all deserve some answers.

Where are we with the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton asks Supreme Court to toss that pesky whistleblower lawsuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Third Court rejects Paxton attempt to kill whistleblower lawsuit

Good.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Appeals court appears skeptical about Paxton’s whistleblower defense

As well they should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

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When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.

Quid pro Paxton

How tawdry. And I can’t wait to hear more.

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Late last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fired multiple senior aides who accused him of accepting a bribe. A court filing obtained by The Texas Tribune reveals for the first time what four of those aides believe Paxton received in exchange for helping a donor with his business affairs.

An updated version of a lawsuit filed by the four whistleblowers claims that Austin real estate developer Nate Paul helped Paxton remodel his house and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair.

In return, the aides allege, Paxton used his office to help Paul’s business interests, investigate Paul’s adversaries and help settle a lawsuit. The claims in the filing provide even more details about what the former aides believe Paxton’s motivations were in what they describe as a “bizarre, obsessive use of power.”

“Some of Paxton’s actions directing the [Office of the Attorney General] to benefit Paul were criminal without regard to motive,” the amended petition reads. “Others were so egregious and so contrary to appropriate use of his office, that they could only have been prompted by illicit motives such as a desire to repay debts, pay hush money, or reciprocate favors extended by Paul.”

[…]

The latest filing is vague on many details. It says that Paxton purchased a home worth around $1 million in the Tarrytown neighborhood of Austin in 2018. In 2020, the filing says, the house underwent renovations, “although permitting records in Travis County could not be located.”

“In mid-2020, some of the Plaintiffs received information suggesting that Nate Paul, either personally or through [a] construction company he owns and controls, was involved in the project,” the lawsuit states.

The filing doesn’t describe the nature of Paul’s alleged involvement or how they received the information.

The whistleblowers for the first time also allege that Paxton may have helped Paul because the developer gave a job to a woman with whom he had an extramarital relationship. The lawsuit notes that the woman had no previous experience in the construction industry, “much less managing construction projects.” The woman, who the Tribune is not naming because she is not a public figure, did not return a call for comment.

See here, here, and here for some background. It’s important to remember that what have here are allegations, not evidence. This could all fall apart in court, if it ever makes it that far. Which doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it for what it is, and hope that it all makes Paxton SO MAD. We just need to maintain perspective for the time being.

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.

The last whistleblower

Nothing like a fully cleaned house.

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The Texas attorney general’s office has fired the last remaining whistleblower who alleged Ken Paxton broke the law in doing favors for a political donor — just days after aides had sued the agency alleging they suffered retaliation for making the report.

Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar — who had already been placed on paid leave — was fired Nov. 17, according to internal personnel documents obtained by The Texas Tribune, making him the fifth whistleblower to be fired from the agency in less than a month. The three others who reported Paxton to law enforcement have resigned.

On Nov. 12, Vassar and three of his former colleagues filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Texas attorney general’s office, claiming they had suffered retaliation after they told law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by using the agency to serve the interests of a political donor and friend, Nate Paul.

Joseph Knight, Vassar’s attorney in the lawsuit, said the justification Vassar was given for his termination amounted to “made-up, nonsense reasons” — and that he believes the firing was an act of retaliation. Vassar was hired by the agency in 2015.

Neither the attorney general’s office nor Ian Prior, a political spokesman for Paxton, returned requests for comment on why Vassar was terminated, though Prior has said previous terminations were not acts of retaliation but rather related to policy violations.

See here for more on the whistleblowers’ lawsuit. As we know, the FBI is investigating Paxton for the allegations that have been leveled against him regarding Nate Paul. Nothing else new to report here, so just let the anticipation wash over you.

Paxton sued by four whistleblowers

Start popping the corn.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah, more Paxton news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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