81ºF

Embattled Texas AG Ken Paxton and outside attorney respond to complaint that led to staff uprising

photo

Attorney General Ken Paxton during a press conference in 2017. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Houston defense attorney Brandon Cammack got an unexpected phone call in mid-August. It was Attorney General Ken Paxton, who Cammack had never spoken to, personally asking him to interview for a high-profile assignment.

It was an unusual start to what aides called a troubling process of hiring the outside attorney to vet a complaint filed by a Paxton political donor, and it has led to a mutiny from many of Paxton’s most senior staff members and new criminal allegations against the second-term Republican. Now, both Paxton and Cammack are defending their roles in a scandal that has brought calls for Paxton to resign and set the agency at war with itself.

Several of the most senior employees at the agency have accused Paxton of using his office, and the hiring of 34-year-old Cammack, to serve the interests of Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and Paxton donor whose home and office were raided by the FBI in 2019. Paxton said he hired Cammack to investigate whether warrants were illegally altered when agents raided Paul’s home and office.

Cammack declined to answer questions about his work for the agency or speculate as to why Paxton called him about the job. But said he “rose to the occasion” in accepting a major assignment from the state’s top lawyer and that the fallout has been “unexpected.”

“When one of the highest elected officials in the state reached out to me to go conduct this investigation, knowing what my background and knowing what my experience was, with regards to state law claims... I took it seriously,” Cammack told The Texas Tribune Tuesday.

“I don’t know anything about office politics… I don’t know anything about [the relationship] between people. I was called to duty. I showed up for duty,” he said.

Cammack’s work for the attorney general’s office has ended, though he said it was “beyond” him to know if the review would go forward in someone else’s hands.

His comments came after Paxton’s office said Friday it was closing the investigation into Paul’s claims because it could only act in “response to a request for assistance from” the district attorney’s office — a rationale Paul’s attorney questioned in an Oct. 11 letter. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Paxton sought a meeting with her office about the complaint — that was attended by Paul and his attorney, Michael Wynne — and has questioned the “integrity” of the investigation and the “propriety” of Paxton’s role in it.

Wynne this weekend accused staff in the attorney general’s office of mishandling his client’s complaint and meeting him with open hostility before Paxton brought on Cammack as an outside investigator. Top aides to Paxton have said internal investigations showed that Paul’s complaint lacks “any good-faith factual basis” and have accused their boss of serving a donor’s interest by hiring an outside attorney to pursue it.

Paxton responded for the first time this week in an interview with the Southeast Texas Record, an outlet that says it focuses on legal issues. He blamed the senior aides who have accused him of wrongdoing of impeding the investigation.

“All I ever asked them to do was find the truth,” Paxton said of the aides he has dismissed as “rogue employees.”

And he left the door open to further investigation of the matter, telling the outlet, “there are some red flags here worth investigating” and “We’re looking at all options.”

Paxton said he was about to place Jeff Mateer, his former top deputy, on leave when Mateer resigned Oct. 2 after leveling the accusations.

“I think he found out about it and decided he wanted to leave and set the narrative,” Paxton told the outlet.

Paxton has also put two of the other top aides, David Maxwell and Mark Penley, on leave, claiming that they mishandled the complaint. Neither returned requests for comment this week. Mateer also did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

“It seems like my office did everything possible to stop an investigation of some law enforcement agencies,” Paxton said. “I can only come to the conclusion that there was an effort to cover up the reality of what really happened. This wasn’t supposed to be a complicated investigation.”

That’s why he decided to hire Cammack, he said — to “find the truth no matter which way it falls.”

Paxton’s office has not responded to repeated questions from The Texas Tribune.

Legal experts have questioned the precise nature of Cammack’s job — Paxton described him as both an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel” — and asked how he was able to issue subpoenas that aides said “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul.”

They also raised concerns that Cammack — who is connected to Wynne through their involvement in the Downtown Rotary Club of Houston and the Houston Bar Association — lacked the experience for such a high-profile assignment.

Cammack said the subpoenas were issued by a Travis County judge and that he never went before a grand jury. He submitted an application for subpoenas to the Travis County District Attorney’s office and they assisted in getting them issued, he said. He declined to answer other questions about the subpoenas, including which judge issued them, and his role.

Cammack also disputed the notion that he lacked experience, saying he’d had a “successful practice” in Houston for about two and a half years, handling primarily criminal defense work. His investigation for the attorney general’s office centered on violations of the Texas penal code — “something I'm very well versed in having handled hundreds of cases for hundreds of families here in Harris County and contiguous counties.”

He said he was “not friends” with Wynne, but declined to say why Wynne was present when at least one subpoena was delivered. He also would not specify Paxton’s involvement in his work or provide specifics about his investigation.

Cammack said he was interviewed for the outside counsel position on August 26 by Paxton and Mateer. He declined to provide specifics about the conversation, but said he understood there were a few other candidates for the job, and that Paxton asked about his educational and professional history.

A few days later, Cammack received a call from Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about his contract, he said. Signed in early September, the agreement says Cammack would be paid $300 an hour to investigate a complaint and compile a report about any potential criminal charges. It did not give him the authority to indict or prosecute, and said he could work only as directed by the office of the Attorney General.

Cammack’s work on the case largely ended in late September when he received a cease and desist letter from Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and then Mateer.

He sent in an invoice for his services — totaling about $14,000 worth of work — and responded to say he wouldn’t take any action until he received clarification from Paxton, he said.