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It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.
The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.
Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”
But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.
“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.
Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.
A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”
And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.
“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.
Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.
For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.
Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.
Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”
Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.
“Go do your business,” is Paxton’s attitude toward the whistleblower aides still working for the agency, Miller said.
The role of first assistant attorney general is a critical one. Former and current agency staff members say Paxton has long taken a hands-off approach to leading the attorney general’s office, with Mateer responsible for day-to-day operations, from signing off on some decisions in lawsuits to duties as mundane as informing staff about work-from-home policies during the pandemic and making announcements about high-profile staff departures. On Friday, it fell to Mateer to inform staff, in a brief note, that he himself was leaving.
News of Webster’s appointment reached agency employees two hours after it was released to press Monday.
Webster lost a 2016 bid for a spot on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and was responsible for Williamson County’s inability to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars after he failed to serve the proper citations, the Statesman reported at the time.
Meanwhile, executives who remain with the agency are working to project confidence, telling staff members to keep their heads down and focus on their work.
“In light of recent events reported in the media, I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office, and the people of Texas,” Deputy First Assistant Attorney General Ryan Bangert, who was among the seven whistleblowers, wrote to staff Sunday. “The work we do together makes a difference every day in the lives of our fellow citizens. Together, we owe a duty to this office and the people of the State, who we serve, to ensure the agency continues its important work without interruption.”
The seven aides who signed on to the letter are among the agency’s most senior employees. They have immense and wide-ranging legal expertise, long histories at the agency and, most notably in the case of Mateer, conservative bona fides to rival Paxton’s own. It will be difficult, people close to the agency say, for Paxton to cast aspersions on them or to characterize their accusations as a political hit job.
U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican who served as Paxton’s top deputy years ago and has called for him to resign, praised the senior aides, “some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”
Both Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed concern about the accusations, adding that they would await the results of an investigation before commenting further. And Jordan Berry, a political adviser to Paxton who is not employed by the agency, told The Texas Tribune on Sunday that he had resigned in the wake of the allegations.
Even before the latest accusations against Paxton, the attorney general’s office has seen turnover and bad press in recent weeks. In addition to the departures of Rylander and Moutos, Katherine Cary, the agency’s chief of staff, was expected to depart this fall.
Those are yet more challenges for a busy agency now enmeshed in a public relations disaster and potentially a criminal morass.
Current and former employees describe an agency run through a strict hierarchy, where staffers check with their division chiefs, who check with the deputy attorney general they serve under, who would often check with Mateer or someone else in the top brass, before initiating an investigation or filing a legal document.
Any shakeup in that hierarchy “puts the agency in a very hard predicament,” said one longtime employee who declined to speak on the record about the fallout from the Paxton allegations in fear of professional retaliation.
“I don’t know how they’re going to handle questions like that — who’s going to give permission for what and to whom?” the employee said. “If executive administration is losing so many people, how is the agency going to run?”
It’s not clear whether or when charges could come against Paxton. Citing their policy not to comment on the existence of pending or potential investigations, federal authorities have declined to comment on the accusations against Paxton.
This is not the first sign of legal trouble for Paxton, who has been in public office for nearly two decades and was indicted more than five years ago on felony securities fraud charges. He is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it. Paxton has yet to go to trial in that case, which has been bogged down with procedural issues, but he has maintained his innocence.
“The Texas attorney general’s office is supposed to prioritize the interests of Texans to make sure that the law is applied fairly and equally to everyone,” said Justin Nelson, a Democrat who ran against Paxton for the job in 2018. Nelson centered his campaign on Paxton’s indictments, promised an ethics reform plan at the agency and lost narrowly. “When you have corrupt law enforcement officials, it corrupts the entire system.”
Disclosure: Bill Miller has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.