“It is hard to imagine a more egregious act of retaliation against a whistleblower than what Paxton began on Saturday morning, October 3,” reads a new lawsuit of four whistleblowers who have accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of abuse of office.
The lawsuit, filed in a Travis County district court on November 12, accuses Paxton and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) of violating the Texas Whistleblower Act by engaging in “all manner of retaliation ranging from serious to petty to pathetic.”
On September 30, three of the plaintiffs who were all senior OAG officials — Blake Brickman, Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar — notified authorities that they had a “good faith belief” that Paxton was violating the law through “improper influence, abuse of office, bribery, and other potential criminal offenses.”
The fourth plaintiff, David Maxwell, did not join the same letter as the other whistleblowers because he was out of state at the time but “was in complete agreement” with them, according to the suit.
Four other former OAG employees — Jeff Mateer, Darren McCarty, Ryan Bangert, and Lacey Mase — signed onto the letter accusing Paxton of violating the law but did not join the new lawsuit.
Since making allegations against Paxton, all employees except Vassar have resigned or been fired. According to the suit, Vassar has been placed on investigative leave “without justification or explanation.”
The suit, which demands a trial by jury, sheds more light on the allegations against Paxton and details the retaliation the plaintiffs claim they faced, including “demotion, suspension, removal of work assignments, hostile work environment, constructive termination and termination of employment.”
Paxton continues to deny the allegations made against him, including the allegation that the recent firings of the whistleblowers were related to the complaints they made.
Allegations of Abuse of Office
In a text message to Paxton that was made public last month, the whistleblowers stated that their criminal allegations centered around Paxton’s “relationship and activities” with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer.
Last year, Paul’s home and the offices of his business, World Class Holdings LLC, were raided by the FBI.
Paul has since gone on the offensive against the FBI and other authorities, instigating an investigation through the Travis County District Attorney’s (DA) office that was referred to the OAG in the summer.
According to multiple reports throughout the past month, Paxton was personally involved in the initiation of Paul’s investigation and also took an unusual interest in other official OAG actions to benefit Paul.
The new lawsuit corroborates those allegations, asserting that, “Paxton’s abuse of the OAG to benefit Paul began in or around November 2019. But as 2020 progressed, Paxton’s efforts on Paul’s behalf became increasingly reckless, bold, and apparent to Plaintiffs.”
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the “outside counsel” contract for Brandon Cammack, a Houston attorney who began investigating Paul’s claims, was never formally approved by the OAG — something that runs counter to what Paxton has purported in official statements.
Although the OAG announced the investigation had been closed in early October, the lawsuit claims that internal communication in mid-October indicated that the OAG’s involvement with Paul’s investigation was still ongoing.
Aside from the investigation into Paul’s opponents, the suit claims that Paxton aided Paul with respect to open records requests, civil litigation, and a legal opinion.
The plaintiffs allege that while the OAG issues as many as 40,000 open records decisions each year, they “are only aware of Paxton taking a personal interest in decisions that related to Paul.”
Similarly, they claim that, “The OAG has approximately 35,000 open civil litigation cases each year, but Paxton has only taken a personal interest in one case. That case involves Paul.”
Lastly, the suit corroborates media reports that an informal opinion prohibiting property foreclosure sales due to COVID-19 was issued by the OAG after Paxton’s prompting and benefited Paul.
Beyond the allegations of Paxton using his official capacity to benefit Paul, the lawsuit does not clarify much more about Paxton’s “relationship and activities” with the businessman.
It does, however, note that this year, “Paxton and Paul met regularly in Austin, Texas, in meetings usually without Paxton’s staff or security detail present, and in meetings that were not included on Paxton’s official schedule.”
The lawsuit also makes mention of the $25,000 donation Paul made to Paxton in 2018 and the recent media reports that Paul had hired a woman with whom Paxton has “carried on a lengthy extramarital affair.”
According to the lawsuit, Paxton also “routinely [cycles] through ‘burner’ cell phones,” though the plaintiffs did not allege any specific purpose for the burner phones.
Allegations of Whistleblower Retaliation
The new lawsuit alleges that aside from the resignations, investigations, and firings of the eight whistleblowers, retaliation also came in the form of false statements by Paxton and the OAG Communications Department to “smear” the whistleblowers, and a hostile work environment under the new first assistant attorney general, Brent Webster.
A statement released by the OAG after news of the whistleblower letter broke claimed, “The complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”
The plaintiffs contend that the complaint against Paxton was made in good faith, not to impede an “ongoing investigation,” and noted that “there was no OAG investigation into ‘employees of this office.’”
“Paxton’s statement was a pack of lies intended to hit the Whistleblowers where he thought it would hurt them most,” reads the suit.
The plaintiffs dispute further statements released by Paxton the following week regarding the investigation into Paul and the contract with Cammack, arguing that the statements from Paxton were “calculated to counter the emerging truth that Paxton was personally orchestrating the use of the OAG to attack Paul’s enemies.”
They also argue that Paxton lied and continued his “smear campaign” against the whistleblowers in a letter to Texas legislators and a statement to the New York Times.
According to the suit, Brickman was repeatedly targeted with intimidation, especially from Brent Webster, who Paxton appointed to fill Mateer’s position.
Webster allegedly kicked Brickman out of a meeting in “an obvious effort to embarrass” him, confronted Brickman “in needless and unprecedented, banana republic-like, fashion with an armed guard,” instructed Brickman to not bring his personal cell phone into the office, and replaced an employee who reported to Brickman.
Brickman was fired on October 20 along with Mase.
The lawsuit also purports that in a November 2 meeting, Webster acted against state law by prohibiting Maxwell from attending the meeting armed, even though Maxwell is a licensed peace officer with a valid License to Carry.
The plaintiffs argue that Webster “proceeded to interrogate Penley and Maxwell in a hostile and aggressive manner” throughout the meeting, pressured them to resign, and that the OAG terminated their employment when they refused.
During an interview last week with KXAN, Paxton said that while he had not yet read the lawsuit, everything that he had seen so far “is untrue.”
Paxton denied that any of the firings were related to their accusations against him, but that some “decided on their own to leave” and that “some of them had legitimate issues unrelated to me that ended up resulting in their termination.”
The full whistleblower lawsuit can be read below.
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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.