For years, Paxton has weathered a storm of troubles like few other elected officials in the United States. It is unclear whether this trend can continue.
GATESVILLE, Texas — Staffers at Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quietly dropped a string of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases this month after losing sight of one of the victims, a court stumble that led to a broader dysfunction in one of the best-known law firms in America.
The Republican has raised his national profile and strengthened the right in recent years, throwing himself into contentious court battles that have affected people far beyond Texas. He has opposed access to abortion, democratic immigration policies and the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
But as Paxton tries to stave off legal troubles and win a third term as Texas’ top law enforcement official, his agency has been thrown off course by behind-the-scenes clutter to drum out dissent.
An Associated Press investigation found that Paxton and his deputies have attempted to use cases politically or to advance a broader political agenda, including showing a debunked film questioning the 2020 election. Adding to the unrest was the secret firing of a Paxton supporter who, less than two months into his job as an adviser to the agency, took over after attempting to make a mark by displaying child pornography at a meeting.
The AP account is based on hundreds of pages of recordings and interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation or because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the small town of Gatesville, the fallout was felt this month as cases dubbed “Operation Fallen Angel” collapsed. Six of the people indicted last year on allegations that they were involved in a scheme to force teenage girls to “barter sexual contact for crystal methamphetamine” are now free. One is being held in the central Texas community on other charges. An eighth died in prison.
“It’s absolutely broken. It’s just broken. That’s not how you do it,” Republican District Attorney Dusty Boyd said of the attorney general’s office, which took over cases from his team of five attorneys. “I made the mistake of trusting them to come in and do a good job.”
Paxton and his staff did not respond to voicemails, text messages and email questions sent Tuesday.
For years, Paxton has weathered a storm of troubles like few other elected officials in the US, including felony securities fraud fees and a federal investigation in allegations of corruption . He has largely denied wrongdoing and remained popular with GOP voters even as he lost staff.
A prosecutor said he resigned in January after bosses pressured him to withhold evidence in a murder case. Another lawyer signed a resignation letter in March warning of growing hostility towards LGBTQ employees. Through August, records show the split in human trafficking cases — a focus in Texas, where more than 50 migrants died in the back of a trailer in June – had a 40% job vacancy rate.
“Of course, when you experience the kind of climatic upheaval in an office that impacts agency-client relationships and trust, there’s going to be a lot of movement among employees,” said Ron Del Vento, who was a department head at Paxton and four former Texas attorneys general before retiring in 2019.
“Collateral damage is inevitable,” he said.
The latest departures are aftershocks of an extraordinary revolt in the fall of 2020, when eight of Paxton’s top lawmakers accused the attorney general of using the office to help one political donor who employed a woman with whom Paxton admitted to having had a relationship extramarital affair. The deputies all resigned or were fired after going to the FBI, which then opened an investigation stays ongoing.
In America’s biggest red state, the allegations have given GOP voters no pause over Paxton, who again wore Donald Trump’s endorsement win his party’s nomination. Paxton faces Democratic challenger Rochelle Garza, a first-time candidate and former ACLU attorney, in the November election.
“He was one of the greatest attorneys general in the state of Texas and one of the most conservative in the whole country,” said Abraham George, leader of the Collin County Republican Party, adding that Paxton deserves the same presumption of innocence as any other American.
Following the dramatic departure of Paxton’s top employees in 2020, among those promoted to senior positions was a California attorney who donated $10,000 to help Paxton fight his 2015 securities fraud charges and Tom Kelly Gleason, a former ice cream company owner, whose Dad gave $50,000 to the Attorney General’s Legal Defense Fund.
Gleason was fired to his new job as a law enforcement consultant after less than two months. Paxton’s office has not disclosed the reason, but three people with knowledge of the matter said Gleason included child pornography in a work presentation at the agency’s Austin headquarters.
People said Gleason showed the video – which one of them described as showing a man raping a young child – in a misguided attempt to underscore the hard work of the agency’s investigators. This was met with outrage and quickly broke up the gathering.
Afterward, Paxton’s top deputy, Brent Webster, urged employees not to speak out about what happened, according to one of the people.
Gleason, who began his career as a police officer in the late 1970s, did not respond to voicemails, text messages, emails, and letters left at this home and business. A lawyer who represented him also did not respond to an email seeking comment.
As of August, payroll data shows that the number of assistant attorney generals — the line attorneys who handle day-to-day case and litigation work — in the law enforcement department is down more than 25% from two years ago. According to public-law data, the financial and economic affairs group has been reduced by more than half and merged with another business unit.
“This, to me, is scary for the people of Texas,” said Linda Eads, who served as an assistant attorney general in the early 2000s, when she said it’s rare for a department to have more than two or three vacancies.
Boyd said staff turnover at Paxton’s human trafficking unit contributed to the failure of the Gatesville cases. In the past two years, Republican lawmakers have doubled the department’s budget to $3 million, but Boyd questioned whether it was well spent.
On September 13, the attorney general’s staff wrote in court filings that they would dismiss three human trafficking cases because a witness recanted and dropped the other four because they “could not locate the victim.”
“For heaven’s sake, you’re the AG office. You can’t find the victim?” Boyd said. “The culture is broken”
Bill Turner, who spent five years in the office under Paxton, said he resigned in January after senior executives tried to prevent him from turning evidence in a murder indictment to the defense. He did not want to go into details, saying it could interfere with ongoing work related to the case.
“We had disagreements about the ethical duties of a prosecutor and I didn’t feel like I could continue to work in that environment,” said Turner, who was previously an elected Democratic district attorney in Texas.
Two months later, Assistant Attorney General Jason Scully-Clemmons left the same department and in his resignation letter accused a new wave of executives of “directing prosecutors to prioritize political considerations.” He also said the environment had become hostile towards LGBTQ employees when Paxton issued a legal opinion that was set in motion Child Abuse Investigations into the parents of transgender youth in Texas.
Several other staffers told AP that Amber Platt, a criminal justice cases deputy, called a meeting ahead of the March Texas primary to ask about upcoming cases that would help Paxton’s re-election prospects. Scully-Clemmons, who declined to comment, referred to the meeting in his letter.
In May, the head of Paxton’s election integrity department invited his team to a screening at a movie theater “2000 mules”, Debunked film falsely claiming to prove 2020 election has been stolen.
“General Paxton will be there among others and I think they would like to have a good idea of our office,” Assistant Attorney General Jonathan White wrote in an email.
While senior attorneys have left the Attorney General’s office, newcomers who have remained loyal to Paxton have seen their careers and compensation skyrocket.
Aaron Reitz, who graduated from law school in 2017, was hired as an assistant to Paxton’s top deputy in October 2020 for a salary of $135,000. The next month, after deputy Paxton reported to the FBI and quit, Reitz was promoted to oversee the agency’s legal strategy, a $205,000 executive job.
In June, Reitz’s assistant sent out invitations to a “2000 Mules Viewing Party” with a barbecue. More than 90 employees and interns were later asked to bring their own lunch.
Rhonda Shafner, Associated Press Researcher in New York, and authors Paul J. Weber in Austin and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
https://www.kvue.com/article/news/nation-world/texas-ag-office-dysfunction/507-8d0efb2b-1c0a-47ce-991d-a4eb2aa4c8b6 Texas AG faces scandal when running for third term