Texas Corruption: Ken Paxton is Above the Law
The Texas state attorney general is under indictment and under investigation. What's taking so long?
In Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, the fascism scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat explains that “corruption is a process as well as a set of practices.” She continues:
As implied by popular sayings like “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” corruption has always been associated with contamination and degradation, whether of physical objects (like fruit and computer files) or the soul. This notion of corruption captures the operation of strongman regimes. They turn the economy into an instrument of leader wealth creation, but also encourage changes in ethical and behavioral norms to make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable. . . .
We think of “strongman regimes” running entire nations, like Italy under Mussolini, Chile under Pinochet, or, more recently, Putin’s Russia. But the same principles applied by strongmen in the notorious dictatorships Ben-Ghiat writes about in her book are now being employed by politicians in individual U.S. states.
A good example can be found in Texas. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, is ultimately responsible for the execution of all laws within the Lone Star State. The buck stops with him. And yet, if the allegations against him are true, he is egregiously, breathtakingly corrupt.
That word—corrupt—is casually tossed around, so let’s define what we mean here. “Often defined as the abuse of public power for private gain,” Ben-Ghiat explains, “corruption involves practices that encompass bribery, conflict of interest, plunder of state resources, the use of tax and licensing regulations to extort or force bankruptcy, illegal raids on businesses, and profiting from privatization or nationalization.”
In October of 2020, seven of Paxton’s top aides—not one; not two; not four; seven!—accused him of bribery and abuse of office, in a letter to the state director of human resources. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman:
The letter to human resources was signed by Paxton’s first assistant, Jeff Mateer, who resigned Friday, and Mateer’s deputy Ryan Bangert. It is also signed by James Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty, Mark Penley and Ryan Vassar, who are deputy attorneys general overseeing the divisions of policy, administration, civil litigation, criminal investigations and legal counsel.
“We 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,” the letter states.
One disgruntled guy files a complaint with HR, hey, maybe that’s just a personal thing between two stubborn Texans; haters gonna hate. But this was enough accusers to man an NBA playoff rotation. I mean, there are seven members of Sly and the Family Stone. And these are not custodians or interns; they are deputy attorneys general. One of the accusers was the head of the Texas AG’s Law Enforcement division. The chances that seven people—including Mateer, reportedly a Paxton loyalist and his #2—are all full of shit are vanishingly small.
To make matters worse, Paxton pettily fired whichever aides did not resign. Four of them filed a lawsuit against Paxton a month later, claiming that the AG had retaliated against them for ratting him out. (Which, I mean, duh.)
After more than two years of litigation, the two sides came to an agreement last week. Paxton reportedly agreed to apologize to his whistleblowing former deputies, and also pay out $3.3 million in a settlement. That $3.3 million will be underwritten not by Paxton personally, but by the Texas taxpayers.
Filings in the whistleblower suit revealed more details about the crimes the former employees alleged Paxton committed, including doing political favors for real estate developer Nate Paul, a friend and political donor who gave Paxton $25,000 for his 2018 campaign. The allegations said Paul helped Paxton with a home remodel and by hiring Paxton’s alleged girlfriend. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.
The whistleblowers claimed Paxton pushed to have the attorney general’s office get involved in Paul’s legal disputes, even when lawyers in the office advised against it. Paxton pushed to get involved in a real estate deal involving one of Paul’s companies and an Austin charity, and appointed a special counsel to look into claims Paul made that state and federal law enforcement had improperly raided his home in 2019. Lawyers in the attorney general’s office had found “no credible evidence” that Paul’s rights were violated, but the special counsel was appointed over their objections.
The whistleblowers said the special counsel, Brandon Cammack, then obtained more than three dozen subpoenas targeting people they believed to be Paul’s enemies.
The Texas political consultant Joel Montfort put it more colorfully. “Paxton,” he tweeted, “who’s married, has his real estate buddy hire his girlfriend and then app[oin]ts a special counsel who goes after his buddy’s enemies. Underlings blow the whistle and are then fired by Paxton. Now taxpayers are footing the $3.3M settlement.”
Let’s go back to Ben-Ghiat’s list of examples of shady practices that constitute corruption. They are, in bullet point form:
conflict of interest
plunder of state resources
the use of tax and licensing regulations to extort or force bankruptcy
illegal raids on businesses
profiting from privatization or nationalization
If these allegations are true—which, again, seven high-ranking public servants put their careers on the line to turn the SOB in!—then Paxton is guilty of all of the items on the list. Bribery and conflict of interest, obviously. The $3.3 million settlement may as well be plundering state resources. The special counsel the AG appointed going John Durham on Paxton’s pal’s political enemies is a combination of the fourth and fifth items on the list. And helping your sidepiece enrich herself from your official dealings is pretty much the same thing as profiting from privatization. Again: this is a list of examples of corruption furnished by a scholar of fascism.
Happily, the settlement with the whistleblowers does not mean Paxton is off the hook. The FBI is reportedly investigating the allegations—which, and not to put too fine a point on it, seven high-ranking aides insist are true. That’s all of the Reservoir Dogs plus Nice Guy Eddie! It may well be that Paxton winds up under federal indictment for these alleged crimes. That’s the good news. The bad news is, federal indictments are meaningless if the case never comes to trial.
Ken Paxton, you see, had already been under federal indictment while these alleged crimes were being committed. In August of 2015, he was charged with two counts of first-degree securities fraud, as well as a charge of failing to register with Texas securities regulators. The indictment alleges that he defrauded investors in a company called Servergy, a tech start-up based in the Dallas area, by not mentioning that he was being compensated for selling them on the investment opportunity.
And, sure, in the grand scheme of things, that seems like a ticky-tacky charge to get hit with. Certainly it is obscure. But fraud is fraud; that the DOJ, which likes to pretend it is apolitical, found enough evidence of wrongdoing to go through with the indictment speaks volumes. Moreover, each fraud charge carries a potential prison sentence of five to 99 years, which ain’t small potatoes.
Here’s the twist: It is now 2023, and Paxton has yet to stand trial for alleged crimes committed two presidential terms ago. To be fair, not all of this is Paxton’s fault. A turf war between special prosecutors over venue and a fight over how much they should be compensated, as well as a hurricane and the pandemic, have slowed things down to a crawl. But the impression this creates is that the Texas AG is above the law.
When criminals with political power are not thwarted, they commit bigger crimes. We’ve seen this with Jared Kushner, who went from lying on his SF-86 form to authorizing a Blue State Genocide. We’ve seen it with Donald Trump, who went from laundering money for the Russian mob to trying to overthrow the government. A month after the whistleblowers filed suit against him, Paxton spearheaded the movement by federal lawmakers to overturn the results of the 2020 election. It was his bogus lawsuit that 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives signed on to. His amicus brief was nothing more than an attempt to bathe sedition in the perfume of legalese.
The filing in Collin County by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, a standing committee of the state bar, is an extraordinary move by the body that regulates law licenses in the state against the sitting attorney general. It stems from complaints against Paxton for a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out, saying Texas lacked standing to sue and that Paxton’s political opponents called “frivolous.”
It seeks a sanction against Paxton, which will be determined by a judge, that could range from a private reprimand to disbarment.
You’d think, with all this alleged criminality swirling around him, that Paxton would be dumped by the electorate at the first available opportunity. Nah. Unfortunately, and for reasons beyond my understanding, voters in Texas don’t give a steer’s ass about Paxton’s history of corruption. In November, they re-elected him for a third term, just as they decided to keep the governor who screws up their power and wants their women to die, and the lieutenant governor who said that old people should be willing to die of covid for the economy.
The election wasn’t close. He won by ten points.
There are no term limits on the office of Texas Attorney General. Evidently, Lone Star State voters would rather elect a(n alleged) crook than a Democrat. If he’s not convicted, Ken Paxton may well remain in that job until he retires. And why wouldn’t he? When you’re above the law, why not test the limits of your strongman power?
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Kathleen Winn and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton at the 2021 Goldwater Dinner hosted by the Goldwater Institute at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia in Scottsdale, Arizona.