Of course, he did. But the lack of accountability is why he continues to escalate his crimes.
A Texas House committee on Wednesday heard explosive new testimony from lawyers investigating Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, including that he appeared to provide a friend with confidential FBI documents and committed other potentially impeachable crimes in an effort to help him retaliate against adversaries and federal officials.
Many of the details have been outlined in a whistleblower suit that accuses Paxton of firing four top aides as retaliation after they reported the alleged misconduct to federal authorities.
BACKGROUND: Donor in Ken Paxton bribery case loses appeal as he seeks to avoid jail time for contempt of court
But Wednesday’s testimony painted the fullest picture yet of the ways in which Paxton allegedly leveraged the resources of his office to help the friend and campaign donor, Nate Paul. It also created a new and immediate threat for Paxton, who has denied all wrongdoing, since the House General Investigating Committee could recommend that the chamber censure him or begin impeachment proceedings.
“Would it be fair to say the OAG’s office was effectively hijacked for an investigation by Nate Paul through the attorney general?” asked Houston state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston.
“That would be my opinion,” said investigator Erin Epley, a former Harris County prosecutor.
The investigators listed a number of laws that Paxton may have violated, including abuse of official capacity and misuse of official information, both of which are felony offenses. The FBI is reportedly investigating the allegations, though no charges have been filed.
The revelations come as tensions are boiling over between Paxton and House Republican leaders in the final days of the legislative session. On Tuesday, the attorney general called for House Speaker Dade Phelan to resign after claiming he presided over the House while drunk, alluding to a video that appeared to show him slurring his speech. He also slammed Phelan for not passing enough conservative priorities.
A spokeswoman for Phelan said Tuesday that Paxton’s statement was “a last-ditch effort to save face” in anticipation of Wednesday’s hearing. Phelan has publicly opposed a request from Paxton that the Legislature use taxpayer dollars to settle the whistleblower suit.
Paxton has survived repeated scandals, including a federal securities fraud case that has stalled for nearly eight years. On Wednesday, he accused Phelan, a fellow Republican, of trying to “disenfranchise Texas voters and sabotage my work.”
“The false testimony of highly partisan Democrat lawyers with the goal of manipulating and misleading the public is reprehensible,” he said in a statement. “Every allegation is easily disproved, and I look forward to continuing my fight for conservative values.”
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The House investigators, a group of attorneys with experience in public integrity law and white collar crime, said they reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including emails, contracts and criminal complaints, and interviewed 15 people since March. All but one of those interviewed said they had “grave concerns” about Paxton retaliating against them for their participation.
The investigators said Paxton’s involvement with Paul set off a chain of departures at the agency that has since gutted it of experienced senior staff. Because of that, they said, Paxton has had to increasingly rely on outside counsel for casework – at a big expense to taxpayers.
“At this stage, the office of the attorney general spends approximately $40 million on outside counsel in an office that previously was well-funded and had a deep roster,” Epley said.
Paxton signed a tentative settlement with the whistleblowers in February for $3.3 million, but the deal is effectively dead because the Legislature has declined to fund it, which whistleblowers have said was a condition of the agreement. The session ends on Monday.
“The state must honor its solemn promise to compensate them for their lost wages and other demands,” attorneys for the four whistleblowers said in a statement, adding: “No public employees, especially those left at the AG’s office, are going to report this kind of public corruption in the future if the Legislature leaves our clients hung out to dry.”
The investigators also touched on the criminal securities fraud allegations against Paxton and suggested that he may illegally hold more than one homestead exemption — a type of tax break that applies to a person’s primary home. They did not provide additional details.
State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, the committee chair, said it was “alarming” and “very serious” that taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill for Paxton and others’ wrongdoings.
“That’s something we have to grapple with,” he said. “That’s challenging.”
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Paxton allegedly ignored staff to step in for Paul
Over three hours of testimony, investigators described a pattern in which Paxton would bypass staff and ignore their recommendations, aggressively pushing for actions that benefited Paul.
Terese Buess, longtime former Harris County prosecutor who headed the public integrity division, said Paxton violated the state’s open records law to help Paul obtain information about the FBI’s activities involving his case, including a raid it had executed against his home and business office.
Paul, who is in the middle of multiple bankruptcies proceedings and financial litigation, had wanted the attorney general’s office to uncover details about the federal investigation into him and his businesses, the investigators said. Paul donated $25,000 to Paxton’s re-election campaign in 2018.
The attorney general’s office, which is charged with determining whether information needs to be released, had issued a “no-opinion” ruling on the matter – the first time it had done so in decades. The office receives about 30,000 requests per year.
Buess said Paul should have been denied the documents, since the open records law has a clear exception for law enforcement matters, yet Paxton pushed for its release.
Paxton told staff he did not want to use his office “to help the feds” or the state Department of Public Safety, Buess said.
According to Buess, Paxton obtained his own copy of the documents and then directed an aide to hand-deliver a manila envelope to Paul at his business. After that, she said, Paul’s attorneys stopped asking for the FBI records. Investigators don’t know whether the documents were in the envelope.
Another former Harris County prosecutor, Mark Donnelly, told the committee that an attorney of Paul’s had recommended that Paxton’s office hire a young and inexperienced lawyer named Brandon Cammack as outside counsel to help Paxton investigate the federal officials looking into Paul. It was a conflict, since Paul had requested the investigation in the first place.
Donnelly did not name the attorney who referred Cammack, but Hearst Newspapers has reported on the relationship between Cammack and an attorney who represented Paul, Michael Wynne, both from Houston.
Paxton hired Cammack as a “special prosecutor” against the advice of his staff, according to the investigators. They suggested that Cammack was able to use the unredacted FBI report from Paxton to pinpoint the targets of 39 subpoenas, which went to Paul’s business interests and law enforcement officials.
Backing up another claim from the whistleblower suit, the investigators said Paxton pressured his office to issue a legal finding during the pandemic that foreclosure sales had to stop because of public health restrictions – a ruling that went against the advice of his staff.
Such opinions can take up to six months to publish, but Paxton pushed for it to be finalized in two days. Donnelly said the only logical explanation for that was he wanted it “complete before the foreclosure sale of certain properties related to Nate Paul entities” coming up the next week.
Paul’s attorneys went on to cite the attorney general opinion in about a dozen foreclosure sales involving his properties, Donnelly said.
Investigators also found that Paxton pressured his office to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Roy F. & Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit, against Paul alleging fraud. Again, Paxton’s staff had disagreed with his efforts.
The attorney general’s office withdrew from the suit in October 2020, immediately before the whistleblower letter went out reporting Paxton to federal law enforcement.