Investigation reveals years-long alleged misconduct by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
For years, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton used his office to allegedly inappropriately help a campaign donor, a group of investigators working for a Texas House panel revealed Wednesday.
The panel’s report comes as part of a months-long investigation into Paxton’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by four whistleblowers who were fired in 2020 after making accusations about the Republican’s misdeeds.
“To be negligent is just one thing," Donna Cameron, one of the House-hired investigators, told the House General Investigating Committee. "But malfeasance is when you are actively and intentionally doing things to the detriment of the office and to your oath and to the responsibility that you have to the state of Texas and the public."
Cameron and three other investigators spent over three hours Wednesday morning detailing Paxton’s alleged illegal acts, most of them related to Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, who made a $25,000 contribution to Paxton's campaign.
The investigation primarily centered on what the whistleblowers alleged and the $3.3 million settlement they were ultimately awarded. Payment on that settlement has not yet been funded by the Texas Legislature.
Investigators stated the evidence they uncovered shows multiple violations of the law and Paxton’s oath of office. They include: Gift to a public servant, abuse of official capacity, misuse of official information, and retaliation and official oppression. Some of the violations carry jail time.
Many of the allegations discussed by investigators were already known, but Wednesday’s House panel was the first time investigators spoke on them in a public forum. The level of detail was also unusual.
Paxton is currently under indictment for alleged securities fraud. He was indicted in 2015 and also faces a separate federal investigation over alleged abuse of office.
The committee hearing — which was previously scheduled — comes less than a day after Paxton accused House Speaker Dade Phelan of being intoxicated on the House floor and called for his resignation.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Paxton said Phelan was trying to “sabotage my work as Attorney General.”
“Every allegation is easily disproved, and I look forward to continuing my fight for conservative Texas values,” Paxton wrote.
According to investigators, Paxton asked his top deputies in 2019 for legal counsel on a disputed records request involving Paul, who wanted access to sealed information concerning a search warrant by federal agents against himself.
After Paxton’s staff searched Paul on the internet — finding Paul was under investigation from the FBI and had multiple bankruptcies — they advised Paxton not to release the documents.
Erin Epley, the lead attorney in the group of House investigators, said the decision "was the correct one under the law.”
Investigators said a few months later, in 2020, Paxton told one of his deputies he didn’t want his office to help the FBI nor the Texas Department of Public Safety on the investigation involving Paul.
During the summer of 2020, Paxton's aid was asked to deliver a manila envelope to Paul containing "several sheets of paper."
After the delivery, Paul's attorneys stopped asking for the information regarding the FBI investigation, investigators said.
“This particular delivery was abnormal enough that it was discussed with his supervisor,” Epley said.
The contents of the manila envelope are unknown to investigators. However, they said Paxton had requested the file regarding the investigation of Paul and had an unredacted version in his custody for seven to 10 days.
Also in 2020, Paxton asked his office to draft an opinion on whether foreclosure sales violated the COVID-19 restrictions in place during that time.
When his staff said they didn’t, Paxton asked them to rework the opinion within two days.
Investigators said Paul had 13 properties set for foreclosure during August 2020.
"The whistleblowers believe that the only logical reason was that General Paxton wanted the opinion completed before the foreclosure sales," investigator Mark Donnelly said.
Paxton also hired an outside attorney — blowing agency protocols — to issue grand jury subpoena to help Paul in his fight against the federal government, investigators said.
Eventually the staff that reported Paxton to the FBI were fired.
In an interview with The Texas Newsroom, TJ Turner, the attorney for whistleblower David Maxwell, called Wednesday’s hearing “a wholesale validation and affirmation of the allegations that our clients included in their report and we included in our lawsuit.”
It’s unclear what’s the next step for the committee; however, the Legislature could censure or impeach Paxton.
Meanwhile, the whistleblowers are still awaiting the $3.3 million agreed in the settlement. The Legislature has not allocated the money, and only has until Monday to do so.
Rep. Andrew Murr, the chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, called it “alarming” that “millions of dollars have been asked in taxpayer money to remedy what has been alleged to be some wrong by various people.”
But Tom Nesbitt, the attorney for whistleblower James Blake Brickman, told The Texas Newsroom not appropriating the money could have a chilling effect on other whistleblowers.
“The Whistleblower Act was written for a moment just like this,” Nesbitt said. “And the Legislature’s refusal to fund this case on these facts, they might as well just write the the Whistleblower Act off the books if they are not going to stand by our guys in this circumstance.”
Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.