Ken Paxton Fought Trump’s Legal Wars From Texas. Now He’s in Trouble
by David Montgomery and Manny Fernandez
After his home and offices were raided by federal agents last year, a wealthy real estate investor in Austin got some help from a friend — who happened to be one of the most powerful officials in Texas.
The investor, Nate Paul, was convinced that the FBI and other agencies had acted unlawfully. Normally, such accusations by the targets of federal investigations would be met with skepticism, but Paul contacted Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, a longtime friend whose reelection in 2018 he had supported with a $25,000 donation.
Paxton not only arranged a meeting with the local district attorney’s office, he also appointed a special prosecutor to look into Paul’s allegations about law enforcement.
The attorney general’s intervention on behalf of his friend caused an uproar in the state’s top law enforcement office, which escalated last week with a new revelation: Paxton had recommended a potential employee to Paul — a woman who later was described as a friend of Paxton — and she was subsequently hired at Paul’s company as a project manager, according to a newly released deposition in a court case.
The latest allegations, coming on top of his indictment in 2015 for securities fraud, have created a political crisis for Paxton, who during nearly six years as the state’s top lawyer had weathered multiple investigations with few political repercussions.
Paxton, who turns 58 next month, has been the attack dog of Texas Republicans’ aggressive conservative agenda, taking on high-profile legal battles that made him popular with the Trump administration: leading the effort waged by Republican-led states to overturn the Affordable Care Act, defending the state’s ban on sanctuary cities, challenging an Obama-era program that shielded young immigrants from deportation and making it harder to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
His support of conservative legal causes earned him the respect of many Texas Republicans, voters and President Donald Trump, all of whom helped him pull off an extraordinary feat: carrying out his duties as the state’s top law enforcement officer and even winning reelection while under criminal indictment. His wife, Angela Paxton, became a political force of her own and won a seat in the state Senate in 2018.
“Ken, you have my full endorsement, and Angela, your wife, has my full endorsement,” Trump told a crowd in May 2018 at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Dallas.
But the latest revelations about Paxton’s relationship with Paul have put him in new political peril and under new legal scrutiny.
In what amounted to a mass rebellion last month, seven of Paxton’s top aides accused him in a whistleblower-style letter of committing bribery, abuse of office and other “potential criminal offenses.” Those high-ranking lawyers, whose complaints stemmed from Paxton’s dealings with Paul, have since resigned, been fired or put on leave.
Paxton has defended his handling of the situation and accused his aides of impeding the investigation. After he was indicted in the securities fraud case in 2015, Paxton called it a political witch hunt, and he has continued to fight the charges. He has also denounced the latest allegations, saying they came from “rogue employees.”
But Republican allies have distanced themselves, and some have publicly questioned whether he should resign. At least one fellow Texas Republican, Rep. Chip Roy, who is a former aide to Paxton, called on him to step down, joining numerous Democrats and others who have done so, including the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News. Among those who have taken an interest in the case are Kent A. Schaffer and Brian Wice, special prosecutors who were appointed by a judge in 2015 to prosecute Paxton in the ongoing securities fraud case.
“Our oath as special prosecutors requires us to fully and fairly investigate the recent allegations of criminal wrongdoing leveled against the Attorney General by members of his command staff,” Schaffer and Wice said in a statement.
Current and former prosecutors said Paxton’s involvement in Paul’s case and his appointment of a special prosecutor raised legal and ethical concerns.
Paul, 33, and the real estate investment firm that he founded, World Class Holdings, were among the largest owners of real estate in Austin, with an empire that included 3M Co.’s former corporate campus. Law enforcement officials have declined to discuss why they raided Paul’s home and offices last year. Paul’s lawyer has alleged that investigators broke the law by tampering with government records, among other things, when they obtained a search warrant and conducted the raid.
After the search, Paxton personally approached the Travis County district attorney’s office to arrange a meeting between Paul and local prosecutors to discuss his complaints about the raids, according to Margaret Moore, the district attorney, who said Paxton also attended the meeting. Because one of the agencies Paul was complaining about was the state’s Department of Public Safety, the prosecutors said the only appropriate agency to review it was the attorney general’s office.
Paxton appointed a special prosecutor to investigate his friend’s allegations.
Not long after the whistleblower complaint, Paxton’s office closed the investigation — but by then, many people were asking why it had been opened to begin with.
“Why is it, simply because somebody is complaining about the FBI, that the attorney general is opening an investigation?” said Kenneth Magidson, who served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas from 2011 to 2017. “He has used the office of the attorney general to help his friend.”
Paxton told The New York Times in a statement that the latest controversy was created by members of his staff who had opposed his decisions without having all the facts and who made “their disagreement noisy and public” in an attempt to undermine the integrity of the office. “To be clear: I have never been motivated by a desire to protect a political donor or to abuse this office, nor will I ever,” he said.
Paxton has said that his involvement in the case began after Travis County prosecutors referred Paul’s accusations to him in June.
“When the Travis County district attorney referred the FBI’s search and seizure of a private citizen’s residence and property to my office for further investigation, I was deeply concerned by many of the things that I saw,” he said. “Given the facts and the district attorney’s office’s belief that further investigation was warranted, I believed that an independent investigation, through the hiring of outside counsel, was the proper course of action.”
But Paxton has failed to explain the origin of the Austin prosecutors’ referral: the meeting he initiated with them in May that kick-started the entire process.
The district attorney, Moore, a Democrat, told the attorney general in a recent letter that the referral of the case was not an indication that an investigation was warranted and that she had “serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”
Paul’s lawyer, Michael J. Wynne, has accused Paxton’s aides of making false statements about his client and trying to bully him into dropping his complaint against the law enforcement agencies. Their actions, he said in a letter to Paxton, “severely harmed and disadvantaged a Texas citizen and his family of their constitutional rights and their right to privacy.”
The special prosecutor hired by Paxton to pursue the matter, Brandon R. Cammack, 34, a Houston defense lawyer, served for only five weeks. But he managed to obtain nearly 40 grand jury subpoenas targeting, among others, a credit union to which Paul had been in default.
Cammack defended his actions in interviews before the investigation was shut down. “I was hired to do a job and investigate some things,” he said.
Paul first met Paxton several years ago, he said in a sworn deposition that was part of a lawsuit filed against his companies by an Austin nonprofit, the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which originated in a dispute over financial records during a real estate partnership. Asked whether he considered Paxton a friend, Paul replied, “I consider the relationship, you know, positive.”
Lawyers for the foundation said Paxton’s office had intervened on Paul’s behalf in their lawsuit, delaying the proceedings and pressuring them to settle. The attorney general’s office later backed out of the case. Wynne disputed that the intervention in the lawsuit benefited Paul. And Paxton said in the statement that he had a legal duty “to consider and address all lawsuits affecting charitable corporations.”
If the intrigue has interrupted Paxton’s work, it has been hard to tell from the outside. Since his aides’ accusations became public early last month, he and his office have gone to court frequently to, among other things, defend early-voting restrictions and to stop El Paso County officials from imposing a lockdown amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
On Tuesday, Paxton sat in a conference room in Austin and attended a Supreme Court hearing remotely on one of his marquee cases: a Texas-led attempt to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
Paxton, who was born in Minot, North Dakota, served in both the state House and state Senate before becoming attorney general in 2015. Like his predecessor Gov. Greg Abbott, he relished being the attorney general of Texas in the Obama era, boasting that he filed eight lawsuits against the federal government in his first year in office.
For decades, Republicans and Democrats have used the office as a political steppingstone; Sen. John Cornyn, for example, was a former attorney general. Paxton seemed poised to follow suit and build momentum to run for higher office.
But the new allegations have upended all of that — and left the attorney general’s office in turmoil.
“I don’t think any of the controversies that he has navigated over the past four or five years compares to the seriousness of these accusations,” said Luke Macias, a San Antonio political consultant who represents Republican state lawmakers.
“Ken Paxton at one point definitely thought he had a shot at the governor’s mansion,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in his orbit or in the greater Texas politics community sees that as even a minute possibility.”