Thursday, April 22, 2021

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton faces allegations of bribery and corruption

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Seven high-ranking staff members have accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) of inappropriately using his office, alleging in a letter last week that the state’s top prosecutor engaged in possible crimes ranging from bribery to improper influence.

While the Thursday letter to the human resources director for the attorney general’s office does not detail specific misdeeds, the seven officials say they have asked federal law enforcement agencies to investigate Paxton. The Houston Chronicle on Sunday reported that the lawyers are alleging the attorney general used his office to benefit an embattled investor who donated to his campaign.

The letter, which claims that Paxton has been “violating federal and/or state law, including prohibitions relating to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery, and other potential criminal offenses,” was obtained and first reported Saturday by the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE.

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Paxton’s office responded to the letter by accusing its authors of trying to upend a criminal inquiry into unnamed employees in the agency, but did not offer specific details about what the accusations are or whom they involve.

“The complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office,” Paxton’s office said in a statement to the American-Statesman. “Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

Despite the lack of clear details, the letter has reignited scrutiny of Paxton’s record and his penchant for controversy.

Paxton, 57, is a prominent supporter of President Trump, national co-chairman of the Lawyers for Trump coalition and a conservative heavyweight in the Texas legal community. He has led a legal challenge to overturn the Affordable Care Act that’s expected to be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. His decision in the spring to force health-care providers to suspend abortions during the coronavirus pandemic riled many women’s health advocates. And his opposition to vote-by-mail efforts in Texas amid the pandemic has pitted him against other state leaders who have been fighting to allow absentee ballots to be used more widely in November’s general election.

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But his controversial past goes back to his first months as the state’s top prosecutor. The attorney general was indicted in 2015 on charges of felony securities fraud just months after he was elected. That criminal case has not yet gone to trial amid numerous legal challenges.

The letter accusing Paxton of wrongdoing was penned by staffers who lead several divisions in the Attorney General’s Office, including Paxton’s first assistant Jeffrey C. Mateer, who resigned on Friday. Six other prominent officials in Paxton’s office — including five deputy attorneys general — wrote the letter, which notes that each “has knowledge of facts relevant to these potential offenses and has provided statements concerning those facts to the appropriate law enforcement.”

The aides say they presented their allegations to a law enforcement agency on Wednesday, and then told Paxton about their reports in a text, the Texas Tribune reported. The Chronicle reported Sunday that the allegations involve favors for campaign donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate agent who has been the target of FBI raids and had donated $25,000 to Paxton’s 2018 campaign. Paul didn’t respond to questions from the paper.

Mateer, the state’s first assistant attorney general, raised eyebrows with his signature because of his high rank and commitment to conservative politics, as well as his previously friendly relationship with Paxton. When Trump nominated Mateer for the federal bench in 2017, Paxton enthusiastically supported his top aide, describing him as “a principled leader — a man of character — who has done an outstanding job for the State of Texas.” (His nomination was later rescinded amid a controversy over offensive comments he made about LGBT people and transgender children.)

The top lawyer working under Paxton, Mateer resigned Friday to work for the First Liberty Institute, a group that defends cases related to religious rights. Mateer had worked at the nonprofit before Paxton hired him to be his top aide in 2016.

After the new allegations were made public, Paxton’s counterparts in the Democratic Attorneys General Association called for his resignation.

“Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is an embarrassment and a danger,” the association’s co-chairs said in a statement on Sunday. The statement added: “All state attorneys general must be above reproach. For too long Paxton has teetered on the edge. He needs to go, and an independent investigation should be launched immediately.”

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The allegations also raised concerns for many Republican politicians in Texas.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Tex.) said he first learned about the “obviously concerning” claims through media reports. The state’s governor also acknowledged the letter on Sunday.

“These allegations raise serious concerns,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) said in a statement on Sunday. “I will withhold further comment until the results of any investigation are complete.”

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