A judge on Monday declined to immediately move a motion to dismiss a lawsuit by four former aides who were fired from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office after last year along with other agency staff they accused the attorney general of to have abused the use of office and bribery.
The first hearing in a whistleblower lawsuit against the Texas Attorney General consisted mostly of objections on Monday. The agency’s lawyer, William Helfand, declined the vast majority of questions lawyers asked two former agency employees who testified in a hearing whether two of the sacked aides should get their jobs back.
Helfand repeatedly charged these protests after unsuccessfully trying to get the judge to dismiss the case alleging Attorney General Ken Paxton of abusing his position. He argued that Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum must rule on the dismissal petition before allowing a testimony about the possible reinstatement of the aides. At some point, Helfand appealed to stop the testimony.
Late Monday night, the Texas Third Appeal Court ruled in Helfand’s favor and granted a stay in the hearing while the court rules on the petition and postponed the hearing on Tuesday.
“Unsurprisingly, Ken Paxton would do anything to prevent witnesses from giving evidence,” said TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt, attorneys for one of the plaintiffs, in a statement. “He’s dying to keep the truth from coming out, and he should be. Unfortunately, the price for the delays and hiding and obstruction of Ken Paxton is borne by the taxpayers and brave officials who stood up to Paxton’s corruption and earned their day in court. “
Meachum had said Monday that she was not ready to decide whether the lawsuit should be dismissed, but she did allow testimony about a motion for an injunction that would allow two of the whistleblowers to resume work in Paxton’s office.
“It feels like you are just prolonging things to prolong them instead of responding to arguments in good faith,” Meachum told Helfand before allowing the hearing to continue.
The lawsuit is being brought by four former aides who were fired from Paxton’s office after they along with other agency staff accused the attorney general of office abuse and bribery last year. Paxton did not attend the hearing.
Meachum’s decision to provide testimony and evidence to witnesses sparked a backlash from Helfend, who argued the judge was violating his client’s procedural rights. Paxton’s office has repeatedly fought the efforts of the four former aides to testify in the lawsuit and issue subpoenas alleging they were illegally dismissed after telling authorities they believed the chief prosecutor was against the Break the law.
Attorneys-General of the Attorney General argued on Monday that the lawsuit should be dismissed on procedural grounds. They have argued that Paxton is “not a public employee” and so the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act. They also argued that the aides are not covered by this law, as members of the executive branch, including the attorney general, have the power to hire and fire their own officers without the legislature intervening.
Lawyers representing the whistleblowers slowly tried to go through arguments in order to avert a dismissal and to give testimony. This included the testimony of Jeff Mateer, the former first assistant attorney general. Mateer resigned in October after reporting Paxton’s suspected criminal behavior to law enforcement along with seven other employees. Ryan Vassar, one of the whistleblowers who asked for his job to be reinstated, has also started testifying and is expected to continue his testimony Tuesday.
Mateer testified that the group of employees who alleged criminal behavior “had a good faith” belief that the attorney general had violated state law.
Helfand complained repeatedly throughout the testimony that some questions could not be answered because her conversations with Paxton were protected by attorney privilege. And Mateer testified that Paxton’s office had previously sent him a letter warning him not to share conversations that were still protected by attorney privilege.
In response to some of these objections, the judge said the agency waived its legal and client rights when the office publicly commented on the situation and the aides. She said she would allow witnesses who worked in the office to answer related questions, depending on the type of questioning.
James Brickman, David Maxwell, J. Mark Penley and Vassar have alleged their firings were retaliatory measures for reporting Paxton’s behavior to federal and state law enforcement agencies. They told these authorities that they believed Paxton was abusing his power to help Nate Paul, his friend and political donor, who donated $ 25,000 to Paxton’s 2018 re-election campaign.
The allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.
In an updated version of the lawsuit filed last month, the four whistleblowers allege Paul, an Austin real estate developer, helped Paxton remodel his home and given a job to a woman Paxton was allegedly having an affair with.
In turn, the aides claim, Paxton used his office to support Paul’s business interests, investigate Paul’s opponents, and settle a lawsuit. The allegations in the file provide even more detail on what the former aides believe that Paxton’s motivation was what they describe as the “bizarre, obsessive use of power”.
Paxton previously dismissed the plaintiffs as “rogue employees” with “false accusations”.
The whistleblowers previously alleged that the attorney general’s most egregious abuse of power occurred while hiring a Houston attorney Brandon Cammack to investigate complaints Paul made that he was mistreated by federal and state law enforcement officers as his home and his business was searched by the FBI in 2019.
While those tasked with investigating the issue found “no credible evidence” that Paul’s rights were violated, Paxton joined Paul and his lawyer and pushed back, court records say. Top aides said it was unusual and inappropriate to hire Cammack to investigate Paul’s claims.
The whistleblowers said things came to a head when Cammack received more than three dozen subpoenas that they believed were aimed at Paul’s enemies.
But the whistleblowers said they felt pressure even before Cammack was hired. In the fall of 2019, they were encouraged to help Paul’s lawyers obtain information through open file requests made to other authorities in connection with the raid on his home and office.
According to the filing, Paxton also directed top consultants to provide a legal opinion that would help Paul’s business interests. Days after the statement was issued, Paul’s lawyers used it to postpone foreclosure sales on several of his properties.
Weeks after the whistleblowers reported Paxton for his conduct, two of the plaintiffs were given leave of absence before they were fired. The other two plaintiffs were eventually also dismissed.
The four plaintiffs are seeking reinstatement and compensation for lost wages and future loss of earnings. They also seek compensation for emotional pain and suffering. If they win, the taxpayers will bear most of the litigation costs.
The injunction hearing was set to continue Tuesday with testimony from Vassar and Ray Chester, a trial attorney who represented a charity in a dispute against Paul. The plaintiff’s lawyers have until March 8 to respond to the petition.
This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, impartial media organization that educates and addresses Texans about public policy, politics, government, and the state.