IssuesStatewide NewsAttorney General’s Office Defends Paxton Against Criminal Allegations in Detailed Report

New details on the whistleblower controversy in the Office of the Attorney General show the situation was fraught with poor communication and rising tensions.
August 26, 2021
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Not quite a year ago, controversy erupted at the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) when seven senior officials raised criminal allegations of abuse of office and bribery against Attorney General Ken Paxton.

All of those aides were soon either fired or resigned and a few subsequently filed a lawsuit under the Whistleblower Act that is still pending in court.

But now the OAG under Paxton has released a report from an internal investigation on the matter concluding that the “former political appointees of General Paxton had no basis for their criminal complaint.”

The report leaves many important questions unanswered and has unsurprisingly drawn criticism from the whistleblowers’ attorneys, but it also furnishes a wealth of new details about the situation that had not been made public before.

In particular, the report sheds light on the events immediately preceding the accusation, which was fraught with poor communication and rising tensions within the office.

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Two of the new documents included in the 300-plus page report are what the OAG believes are the final drafts of the criminal complaint the former employees submitted to officials.

The criminal complaint fleshes out the key accusations against Paxton that slowly came to light after the news broke last fall — namely, that the attorney general was improperly using his official capacity to personally benefit Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

According to the whistleblower lawsuit, Paxton took a special interest in a handful of matters usually left delegated to others in his office to specifically benefit Paul, such as an open records request, involvement in civil litigation, and issuing an informal legal opinion.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back for the former employees was related to the hiring of Houston attorney Brandon Cammack to work as outside counsel on an investigation that had been referred to the OAG by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office (TCDAO).

The First Referral

The OAG report claims that last year, Paul contacted Paxton wanting the office to investigate complaints he had about FBI raids on his home and offices in 2019 that he claimed were unlawful.

Paxton told him that the TCDAO was the proper entity to initiate such an investigation and together they set up a lunch meeting with the office, which the report claims Paxton attended “briefly, arriving late and leaving early.”

Paul then filed the formal complaint about the FBI agents and other government officials involved in the raid, which is another new document included in the report.

The complaint stated that Paul believed those involved in the raid “tampered with the government records relating to these search warrants, they obtained these search warrants based on false information and inaccurate affidavits, and intentionally mistreated, detained, and violated my constitutional rights.”

After receiving the complaint, TCDAO subsequently referred the investigation to the OAG for assistance asserting that they needed help with the scope of the project and that other agencies would not be appropriate to refer the investigation to since some of their employees were being investigated.

According to the report, two of the soon-to-be whistleblower plaintiffs took the initial lead on the referred complaint: David Maxwell and Mark Penley.

But Paxton was apparently skeptical about their actions on the investigation.

Though the referral was received by the OAG on June 17, 2020, the report claims no official action began on the investigation until a month later.

In the interim, Paxton met with Penley at least twice, per notes purportedly from Penley taken on July 6 and July 16 which emphasized, “Ken just wants the truth.”

The report also lays blame on Maxwell for doing what the whistleblower lawsuit claims Paxton did: step outside the normal process of the OAG to take a special interest in something typically delegated to subordinates.

“These deviations are extremely unusual [. . .] raising questions as to whether Maxwell’s personal connections and contacts with any of the subjects being investigated played a role in his actions,” states the report.

On August 12, 2020, tensions reached a boiling point at a meeting between the involved parties where the report says that “Penley began the meeting notifying Paul that the investigation had been closed,” but after some pushback, he ended the meeting requesting more documents from Paul and his attorney Michael Wynne to continue the investigation.

Following the meeting, the report claims — though without providing any citation or evidence — that then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, the senior-most of the officials to raise allegations against Paxton, personally helped Paxton coordinate the hiring of outside counsel to take over the essentially take over the investigation from Penley and Maxwell.

Hiring Cammack

At least two candidates were interviewed for the position, but ultimately Brandon Cammack was selected and a draft contract was sent to him by another of the soon-to-be whistleblowers, Ryan Vassar, on September 3, 2020.

However, at that point, the contract had yet to be officially approved. When — if at all — that was would become a heated point of contention between Paxton and his accusers.

The latter argue that it was not valid because it was never signed off by all the necessary officials at the OAG, while the new report defending Paxton says that he signed it and that is the only signature needed.

“AG Paxton is legally empowered to authorize and sign outside counsel contracts – as the attorney general. His subordinates do not have the authority to cancel contracts signed by him without his approval,” it states.

But the report is not clear on when precisely the contract was signed, nor why Paxton would not have notified his subordinates of his signature.

Again without providing any evidence, the report claims that “AG Paxton met with Brandon Cammack in early September and appointed him to be outside counsel.”

The first time that signed contract appears to have been received by the whistleblowers based on the documentation provided in the report would have been after they had raised their criminal allegations against Paxton on September 30, 2020.

Cammack emailed an invoice to the OAG for the work he had begun in the role on that day, but staff responded saying that they needed a copy of the executed contract in order to pay him. Later that night, Cammack told Vassar that he would send the signed document to him the next day.

Even after he had received it, Vassar didn’t believe it was valid, according to an email exchange with Mateer’s replacement, Brent Webster.

“I determined that the contract emailed to me lacked a contract number, which further indicated that it had not been approved through the agency’s contract-approval process,” Vassar told Webster on October 12, 2020. “I also determined that there was not an approved Signature Authorization Request for the Attorney General’s signature on this contract, which is a routine procedure.”

Vassar himself had signed his approval of the contract on September 16, 2020, according to documentation in the report, but others had left it unsigned. Only Penley formally declined to sign the contract in the system, and that was on October 1, possibly after the Paxton-signed contract had been circulated.

The complaint against Paxton also alleges that on September 28, 2020, he “requested information involving OAG policies and procedures regarding the approval and execution of outside legal contracts” and that he “asked OAG staff to prepare a memorandum documenting his authority to execute” such contracts.

But even aside from the question of when Cammack’s OAG contract might have become effective, the new report argues that the TCDAO also retained him in some capacity.

“Based on emails provided by Cammack, TCDAO emails, emails located on OAG servers, and interviews with TCDAO employees, the evidence establishes that TCDAO made Cammack a ‘Special Prosecutor,’” the report states.

While the report provides ample evidence that Cammack did begin corresponding and working directly with the TCDAO, it should be noted that the TCDAO also identified Cammack as working with the OAG.

The Second Referral

One of the key motivations that appears to have triggered the senior officials’ criminal complaint against Paxton was when they learned that Cammack had begun using grand jury subpoenas that targeted Nate Paul’s “adversaries,” according to the whistleblower lawsuit. 

Since the scope of the referred complaint that the former employees knew about was confined to concerns about government employees, the whistleblowers found Cammack’s subpoenas to financial institutions alarming.

But the OAG report says that Cammack was acting on something that the officials apparently did not know about: a second complaint filed by Paul with the TCDAO that the TCDAO sent directly to Cammack instead of referring to the OAG.

In that complaint, Paul claims that a group of people were buying up loans on several of his properties and conspired to essentially take ownership of his properties in order to sell them for a substantial profit.

The TCDAO sent the second referral directly to Cammack on September 23, 2020, which the report says could not be found on “any internal database” at the OAG.

After the referral was sent, the TCDAO quickly began working with Cammack on getting the subpoenas related to it.

Ongoing Lawsuit

Lack of communication aside, the squabble over the whistleblower debacle likely isn’t going away any time soon.

Though the internal report attempts to assuage the core concern of the former employees’ allegations, that Paxton “has been, and continues to be, under improper influence from Nate Paul,” questions remain about the extent of Paxton’s relationship with Paul.

The report itself notes that it focuses on events before October 5, 2020 and does not touch on additional accusations in the whistleblower lawsuit or in media reports after that date.

An appellate court hearing about the standing of the plaintiffs in the whistleblower suit is currently scheduled for later in September.

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.