Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s staff this month quietly dropped a series of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases after losing track of one of the victims, a stumble in open court emblematic of broader dysfunction inside one of America’s most prominent law offices.
The Republican has elevated his national profile in recent years, energizing the right by rushing into contentious court battles that have affected people far beyond Texas. He has fought access to abortion, Democratic immigration policy and the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
But as Paxton seeks to fend off legal troubles and win a third term as Texas’ top law enforcement official, his agency has come unmoored by disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned lawyers quitting over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent.
An Associated Press investigation found Paxton and his deputies have sought to turn cases to political advantage or push a broader political agenda, including staff screenings of a debunked film questioning the 2020 election. Adding to the unrest was the secretive firing of a Paxton supporter less than two months into his job as an agency advisor after he tried to make a point by displaying child pornography in a meeting.
The AP’s account is based on hundreds of pages of records and interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation or because they were not authorized to talk publicly.
In the small town of Gatesville, the fallout was felt this month with the collapse of cases dubbed “Operation Fallen Angel.” Six of the people indicted last year on allegations that they were involved in a scheme to force teenage girls to “exchange sexual contact for crystal methamphetamine” are now free. One is being held in the central Texas community on other charges. An eighth died in jail.
“It’s absolutely broken. It’s just broken. You don’t do it this way,” Republican District Attorney Dusty Boyd said of the attorney general’s office, which took over the cases from his five-lawyer team. “I made the mistake of trusting them that they would come in and do a good job.”
After the dramatic exit of Paxton’s top staff in 2020, those brought into senior roles included a California attorney who donated $10,000 to help Paxton fight his 2015 securities fraud indictment and Tom Kelly Gleason, a former ice cream company owner whose father gave $50,000 to the attorney general’s legal defense fund.
Gleason was fired less than two months into his new job as a law enforcement adviser. Paxton’s office has not disclosed why, but three people with knowledge of the matter said Gleason included child pornography in a work presentation at the agency’s Austin headquarters.
The people said Gleason displayed the video — which one of them described as showing a man raping a small child — in a misguided effort to underscore agency investigators difficult work. It was met with outrage and caused the meeting to quickly dissolve.
Afterward, Paxton’s top deputy, Brent Webster, told staff not to talk about what happened, according to one of the people.
Gleason, who began his career as a police officer in the late 1970s, did not respond to voicemails, text messages, emails and letters left at this home and business. A lawyer who has represented him also did not respond to an email seeking comment.
As of August, payroll data show the number of assistant attorneys general — the line lawyers who handle daily case and litigation work — in the criminal prosecutions division was down more than 25% from two years ago. The data, which was obtained under public records law, show the group that handles financial and white-collar cases was cut by more than half and merged with another division.
“This is scary to me for the people of Texas,” said Linda Eads, who served as a deputy attorney general in the early 2000s, when she said it was rare for any division to have more than two or three vacancies.
Boyd said staff turnover in Paxton’s human trafficking unit contributed to the collapse of the cases in Gatesville. In the last two years, Republican lawmakers have doubled the division’s budget to $3 million, but Boyd questioned whether it was well spent.
On Sept. 13, the attorney general’s staff wrote in court papers that they were dismissing three trafficking cases because a witness had recanted and dropping the other four because they were “unable to locate victim.”
“For Pete’s sake, you’re the AG’s office. You can’t find the victim?” Boyd said. “The culture is broken.”
There’s more so read the rest, but honestly, how much more do you need? Screwing up a human trafficking case – which they took away from the locals in Coryell County – because they lost track of a victim, and hiring a failson of a big donor who thought it was a good idea to include actual video of a violent sex crime against a child in a presentation…this is an office for which the word “dysfunctional” is not nearly strong enough. This story needs to get a lot more attention. And for crying out loud, vote for Rochelle Garza in November. This is what you’re supporting if you don’t.