The sun had not yet risen when Ken Paxton stationed himself in downtown Dallas. This was the July morning after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest had ended with a sniper’s killing five police officers and wounding nine others, and the city center had become one massive crime scene.
Paxton stood inside the yellow police tape, but he wasn’t there to investigate. The attorney general is often referred to as Texas’s top law enforcement official, but that description is incorrect. While divisions within the agency do hunt down sexual predators and human traffickers and, when requested, assist local district attorneys in prosecuting criminal cases, the attorney general is actually the state’s top lawyer.
Paxton himself has no law enforcement background. As an attorney, he’s specialized in estate planning as well as probate and corporate transactions. In fact, his most extensive experience with the criminal justice system has come on the wrong end of it. In July 2015, seven months after taking office, he’d been indicted for securities fraud, including two first-degree felonies.
So that morning in Dallas, Paxton had no official role—the city’s police and prosecutors were handling the case, and if they needed help, they could call upon the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Dallas County sheriff’s office, and even the FBI. But Paxton had driven downtown for a specific purpose. He was there for the exposure.
With the crime scene as a backdrop, Paxton gave one television interview after another. What the reporters and anchors wanted in the confusing whirlwind of that early morning was information, but each interview revealed that Paxton was hopelessly out of the loop.
On CBS This Morning at 7:09, Paxton had to answer questions with phrases like “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure of that,” and “I have not gotten an update.” Even by late morning, Paxton had to tell one reporter, “Actually, I don’t know a lot of details yet.” Perhaps no exchange was more revealing than the one with ABC’s Good Morning America host George Stephanopoulos.
For that interview, Paxton stood in front of a police car, its flashing lights bouncing off the pavement in the dark morning. At age 53, Paxton has a receding hairline, and his appearance is soft, with the complexion of someone who doesn’t spend much time outdoors. A sports injury in college left him with a sleepy right eyelid and a crooked smile that can look like a smirk.
“What more can you tell us about those injured officers now in the hospital?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Let me just say, this is a sad day for Texas,” Paxton replied. “It’s a resilient state. But we’re praying for the families as well. We’re not going to forget these fallen heroes, and we want the families to know that we support them. I don’t have a lot of details yet on the condition of some of the people who were injured, but I think we’ll have that relatively soon.”
Stephanopoulos pressed for details. “Do we know if it was two or if there were more [shooters]?” Paxton had a vague expression on his face. “There are still many, many policemen down here investigating that. I don’t think they’ve made a final determination.” Were all the suspects in custody, Stephanopoulos asked. “I’m not sure we totally know that,” the attorney general said. Paxton, with a bang of hair falling down toward his eyes, resorted to stating the obvious.
“This is still a major crime scene,” Paxton said. “It’s the largest one I’ve ever seen. I used to work a couple of blocks from here. It’s very surreal, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen in downtown Dallas in the twenty-five years or so that I’ve been here.”
Texas’s top two elected officials were also in Dallas that day. Governor Greg Abbott had cancelled a family vacation and returned to Texas and offered up the resources of the Department of Public Safety to the city. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick consoled families of the fallen and wounded officers at Parkland and Baylor hospitals (later in the day, he made a controversial statement blaming protesters, in part, for inciting the shooting).
As Abbott dealt with a serious injury—unbeknownst to the public, he had suffered severe burns to his legs and feet while on vacation—and Patrick comforted victims that morning, Paxton used the Dallas tragedy to appear as often as possible on television.
As the day wore on, there were more interviews: Fox & Friends, CNN New Day, Morning Joe, Glenn Beck TV. Paxton conducted eighteen television interviews before taking a break at 5 p.m. to stand behind Abbott at a news conference with Mayor Mike Rawlings, and then did four more appearances that evening. And he was back at it four days later.
On the Tuesday after the shootings, Paxton sat for four morning interviews, then paused to attend a memorial service for the officers led by President Barack Obama. Forty minutes after the service ended, Paxton was back on CNN with host Jake Tapper.
Paxton’s affinity for the spotlight was a recent development. In fact, two months before the shooting, he’d used state funds to hire a public relations firm to help burnish his image. But prior to that, Paxton had been an elusive figure for the media, especially the state’s major newspapers.
After securing the Republican nomination in 2014, he’d barely bothered to campaign in the general election, shunning media appearances and candidate forums. The Houston Chronicle described him as running a “shadow campaign.”
Even recently, while he frequently appears on television, he has offered few interviews to the mainstream print media. (Paxton refused numerous interview requests for this story over two months, though he answered a few questions submitted by email.)
But by watching hours of video of his speeches and interviews, by speaking with agency insiders, and by culling hundreds of pages of documents obtained through open-records requests, we saw a portrait emerge of Paxton’s first two years in office.
He appears to be a politician more interested in having the title of attorney general than being attorney general. He has used his office as a cudgel in the culture wars for the Christian right.
He’s continued to live in McKinney, about thirty miles north of Dallas, rather than move to Austin for the daily duties of running his office.
As a result of his absence from the office, he’s grown jealous of aides, who have received the positive media attention that has eluded him, a feeling that apparently intensified after he was indicted.
In March, he got rid of his top staffers, replacing them with religious-right activists, and hired two public relations firms that specialize in crisis management.
Suddenly, the once-reclusive Paxton was often popping up on television and at press conferences, discussing lawsuits and events—like the Dallas sniper case—with which he had little direct involvement. With his own criminal trial now approaching, publicity, it seems, has become Paxton’s affirmation.
If the attorney general’s office were a private law firm, it would be among the largest in Texas, with more than seven hundred lawyers, 30,000 cases in progress, and a two-year budget of $1.15 billion.
Its lawsuits range from enforcing mundane actions by state regulatory agencies to protecting the state’s authority to carry out death sentences.
The agency is also charged with collecting delinquent child support payments; it took in $3.8 billion last year that was owed to about 1.7 million children.
And the state’s new open carry law gives the office power to sue local governments that block the carrying of firearms on government property.
The AG’s office also offers legal opinions, represents state entities in court, determines which government documents can be released to the public, prosecutes political corruption and voter fraud, and protects Texas consumers from predatory businesses.
In short, the office has broad authority. It could be argued that the attorney general has a greater influence on the daily lives of Texans than the governor.
In political philosophy, Paxton is similar to his two most recent predecessors, Abbott and current U.S. senator John Cornyn. Paxton has continued to fight the Obama administration on numerous fronts in court, picking up where Abbott left off.
Paxton’s lawyers won court rulings halting an Obama immigration order and lost in the defense of the state’s anti-abortion law and the ban on same-sex marriage.
Paxton noted, in a speech to Texas delegates at the Republican National Convention in July, that his office had filed a dozen suits against the federal government in his first eighteen months in office. “So we’re on a really good pace,” he said.
But while their ideologies may be similar, Paxton’s predecessors had far more distinguished résumés. Before they became attorneys general, Cornyn and Abbott had been accomplished litigators, and both had served terms on the Texas Supreme Court.
And once they were elected attorneys general, both had reputations in the office for making the final edits on the state’s largest lawsuits, and Abbott confidently allowed his chief appellate lawyer, solicitor general Ted Cruz, to shine in public, putting Cruz on the path to winning election to the U.S. Senate.
Paxton, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly a towering figure during almost a dozen years in the Legislature, as a representative and later a senator.
He passed few bills of statewide importance. Perhaps the most notable piece of legislation that he passed was one requiring “Welcome to Texas” highway signs to include the phrase “Proud to Be the Home of President George W. Bush.” (Paxton later amended the statute to remove the phrase after Bush left office.)
Before the 2011 session, he ran against incumbent Joe Straus to become Speaker of the House, but he surrendered before the vote was taken because he’d failed to rally enough support in the Republican Caucus.
However, the bills Paxton didn’t get passed were probably more important to his political ascension. He carried a bill to prevent school districts from obtaining sex-education materials from organizations like Planned Parenthood, and he co-authored a state constitutional amendment to protect from lawsuits individuals and businesses that refused to provide services because of religious objections.
And he rallied support for legislation to require women to get a sonogram before an abortion. These proposals made Paxton a favorite of religious conservatives, and they aligned with his own fundamentalism.
Paxton has been married to his wife, Angela, for thirty years, and they have four children. They met as undergraduates at Baylor University, and she refers to June 1 as “I Love You Day,” the anniversary of the first time Paxton spoke those words to her.
They were among the founders of the nondenominational evangelical Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, just west of McKinney, where Angela would mentor young women, teaching them how to dress modestly but with style.
He’s served on the board of the Prestonwood Pregnancy and Family Care Center, an agency dedicated to steering women away from abortion.
The Paxtons later moved their worship to Prestonwood Baptist Church, a mega-congregation on two campuses in the northern Dallas suburbs, which is built on the “inerrant truth of the Bible.”
With the exception of the fraud indictments against him, Paxton is a pillar of his community, a fundamentalist who wears his Christianity on his sleeve.
Former law partner George Crumley said Paxton is one of the last people he would have expected to go into politics. “I can’t say that he’s shy, but he’s certainly not the guy who is the life of the party,” Crumley said. Paxton is “solid and trustworthy” but, if anything, spreads himself too thin. “If Ken had a fault in all of this it was that he had too much going on, too much on his plate.
You need to make sure you don’t let things slide. Ken is probably a victim of his own success and popularity.”
When Abbott decided in 2013 to run for governor, an opportunity opened for Paxton. His main Republican primary opponent in the spring of 2014 was state representative Dan Branch, a respected Dallas lawyer with close ties to Speaker Straus.
Both Branch and Straus were seen as insufficiently conservative by many Republican primary voters, and Paxton had pastors, tea party groups, and the rigidly conservative Cruz on his side. “My strategy was very simple . . . get the church out to vote,” Paxton told an audience at the First Baptist Church in Denison this past August.
He was referring to his first run for the House, in 2002, but it’s also exactly how Paxton defeated Branch in a runoff. More than two thirds of Republican voters in the primary and runoff attended church at least once a week, if not more, according to a survey by the Republican consulting firm Baselice & Associates.
With Democrats perpetually overmatched, winning the Republican nomination was tantamount to capturing the office in November.
A dark specter lurked in the background during that election, though. Paxton conceded that he had failed to list all his business interests on a financial disclosure document. Even more damning, he admitted to the Texas State Securities Board that he hadn’t registered as a securities dealer promoting investments.
He received a reprimand and a $1,000 fine. Partisans, reporters, and political junkies knew of Paxton’s transgressions before the election, but the allegations didn’t sink in with the general public until after he was in office.
In July 2015 a Collin County grand jury indicted Paxton on two first-degree felony counts of securities fraud and a third-degree felony for failing to register as a securities dealer.
The indictments charged Paxton with improperly encouraging investors in 2011 to invest more than $600,000 in a technology firm called Servergy Inc. Paxton allegedly didn’t disclose to his clients that he was getting paid for steering investors to Servergy.
The company also allegedly lied to potential investors about its funding sources; for example, its CEO told investors that Amazon was ordering Servergy’s products, when, in fact, a single Amazon employee had merely wanted to test one product, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents. (It’s not clear if Paxton knew about these alleged misrepresentations.)
Paxton’s appeals and legal filings have delayed the case for more than a year, but the state’s highest criminal court recently threw out his latest challenge, clearing the way for a trial in the coming months. “There is an indescribable peace in our family when, in the depths of our being, we know that I am innocent,” Paxton wrote in response to questions from Texas Monthly.
Paxton is the first sitting Texas attorney general to be indicted in more than thirty years, and his fate may hinge on whether he was merely being sloppy or intentionally misleading clients. Two years ago, before his indictment, Paxton claimed it was the former, attributing his problems to legal ignorance.
“Listen, there’s no lawyer who’s an expert on every area of the law,” Paxton told KERA, the Dallas NPR affiliate, in 2014. “Securities laws are very complicated.”
When Paxton took office in January 2015, there was concern among Austin’s cadre of elected officials and lobbyists about whether he was prepared to handle one of the most important jobs in state government.
But they were reassured when Paxton started surrounding himself with respected political and governmental veterans. The office, it seemed, would not be bumbling.
Paxton hired Chip Roy as his first assistant, Bernard McNamee as his chief of staff, and Scott Keller as his solicitor general. All three had been part of Cruz’s Senate office staff; Roy had been Cruz’s chief of staff and before that had worked for Cornyn and former governor Rick Perry.
For communications director, Paxton hired Allison Castle, who had done the same job for Perry. It was an undeniably solid team with years of experience in state and federal government, the kind of staff Paxton would need, especially after deciding to continue to live in North Texas and visit the agency just a few days a week.
From his own campaign staff, Paxton hired Michelle Smith to oversee outreach to voters. Smith had previously been a member of the Rockwall City Council and the state director for Concerned Women for America. Her CWA biography states she has “worked hard to elect Christian conservative leaders.”
Though the rest of the team was based in the attorney general’s headquarters, Smith was assigned to a Dallas office so she’d be readily available to Paxton.
While legal, Paxton’s decision to live in McKinney instead of Austin has been costly to taxpayers. As with other statewide officials, Paxton receives personal security from DPS, but when the officers are outside Austin, they incur travel expenses.
Through May 2016, the extra cost of providing security for Paxton at his Collin County home exceeded $57,000, according to records from DPS.
In written comments, Paxton defended his decision to stay at home in McKinney, arguing that with modern technology there was no reason for him to work most days in Austin. “I spend every day tirelessly defending, promoting, and serving our great state, whether in Austin, traveling around Texas, or close to home with my family.”
The first major case facing Paxton after he took office was defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriage before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit while a similar case was pending before the Supreme Court. When the nation’s high court ruled that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, Paxton’s response created confusion.
In an official opinion, he outlined how a county clerk who had religious objections to same-sex marriage could pass the duty off to another clerk or simply refuse to issue any marriage licenses. In a statement, Paxton called the ruling “lawless” and urged clerks to stand against it by refusing to issue licenses, saying private attorneys would represent them for free.
This was a remarkable moment. Here was Texas’s top lawyer advising his constituents to disregard a ruling from the Supreme Court. One clerk, in Hood County, followed Paxton’s advice, and the county ended up paying almost $44,000 in legal fees when a lawsuit forced it to back down.
Though Paxton’s defiant stance on same-sex marriage was widely criticized by Democrats and progressives, his political base of social conservatives loved it.
And Paxton would draw on that goodwill later that summer when his felony indictments were handed down. After he was indicted, Paxton grew even more media-shy. His public speaking was limited to friendly audiences at churches and tea party events, and he withdrew from his office too, spending more and more time at his home in McKinney.
Often he was unavailable for days, with his aides unable to find him for needed responses to questions. All elected officeholders travel the state to speak to civic groups and promote their policies, but the difference for Paxton was that he had disengaged, according to AG office sources.
An unrelenting stream of news stories portrayed Paxton not as attorney general, defender of the unborn, individual religious liberty, and Second Amendment rights, but rather Ken Paxton, accused felon.
Paxton became concerned that—with his absence from agency headquarters—his aides were getting more positive attention than he was.
Everything done by the attorney general’s office occurs in Paxton’s name, but after his indictments, that simply was not enough. While speaking at the Pflugerville
First Baptist Church in September 2015, Paxton praised first assistant Roy as one of the “visionaries on this religious liberties issue,” but Paxton prefaced it by self-consciously saying, “I get credit, sometimes not credit, for what happens in my office.” The speculation circulating Austin was that with Paxton not around, Roy was the actual attorney general of Texas. Meanwhile, a frustrated McNamee resigned as chief of staff in November to return to private practice in Virginia.
Then came two reports that prompted a crisis within the office. In February of this year, the Texas Tribune posted an interview with Roy and solicitor general Keller on the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court arguments challenging President Obama’s executive order shielding some undocumented immigrants from deportation.
When reporter Julián Aguilar went off topic to ask how Paxton’s legal troubles were affecting the agency, Roy responded in a way that implied that the attorney general was often absent from the office:
“We’re in constant communication with the attorney general, and we’re focused on doing our job every day to defend the state of Texas. . . . The first assistant attorney general, the solicitor general, our head of civil litigation, all of us are charged to manage the daily affairs of this agency, and that’s what we’re doing.”
On March 1, the New York Times profiled Keller and Stephanie Toti, a lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Rights, as they prepared to face off before the U.S. Supreme Court over Texas’s new restrictions on abortion clinics.
The fight to preserve the anti-abortion law was one of Paxton’s signature issues, but his name didn’t even appear in the Times piece. Castle, the communications director, and her staff had contacted about fifty national news organizations but could not get Paxton any major interviews.
Tension grew between his political aides and the agency staff. Agency insiders said that while sitting in the Supreme Court cafeteria, Smith, Paxton’s political aide, pulled up a copy of the Times article on Keller, turned to a communications deputy, and complained that she was “sick and tired” of seeing other people’s names in the papers.
Smith denies the exchange occurred. (The Supreme Court would later overturn the law’s most restrictive measures, saying it placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.)
Paxton had traveled to Washington for the oral arguments. He bought his own tickets on Southwest Airlines on a promotional “Wanna Get Away” fare, for a round-trip total of $450. And in what appears to have been a fit of petty pique, a handwritten note was included on a voucher submitted to the state that read, “Purchasing own airfare resulted in conservation of state funds.” Attached to it was a copy of Roy’s voucher, showing that his ticket had cost the state $1,176. “Comparison for what our agency would have incurred,” another handwritten note says.
Eight days after the abortion hearing, Paxton called Roy and Castle individually into his office and gave them a choice of resigning or being fired. They resigned.
And the departures set off a cascade of more bad publicity. There were repeated stories about how one senior staff member after another was fleeing an attorney general’s office that appeared in turmoil. Even worse, Lauren McGaughy, of the Dallas Morning News,reported that several staffers, including Roy, were still receiving their salaries weeks after they’d left the agency.
The agency said that Roy and Castle had been put on “emergency leave,” a provision usually reserved for health and family emergencies. There were rumors that the emergency leave pay was used improperly as hush money for Roy and Castle, though both have told the Texas news media that they received only money that they were owed.
The controversy prompted a legislative inquiry into the practice of using emergency leave as de facto severance pay, which isn’t permitted for state employees. Paxton had bungled his way into another public relations disaster, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Paxton gave his first major speech after he took office to the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit that offers pro-bono legal support for Judeo-Christian groups or individuals who believe government has trampled on their religious liberties. This was fitting.
Paxton has a long history with the Plano-based group, crediting First Liberty president Kelly Shackelford with convincing him to enter politics, in 2002. In that first speech, Paxton played to religious fundamentalists’ fears of being victims of the tyranny of the majority and of a godless government.
Paxton said those who believe in religious liberty should stand against “mob rule” and referred to a “pop culture noise machine” on issues like same-sex marriage.
“Our Founding Fathers correctly understood that a government that mandates one opinion over another is tyrannical,” Paxton said.
The speech was also a bit of foreshadowing, because by the second year of Paxton’s administration, the attorney general’s office had started looking like a branch of First Liberty.
When more than 150 lawyers signed on to a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against Paxton because of the confusion he’d caused after the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, it was First Liberty general counsel Jeff Mateer who came to his aid, writing op-eds in the state’s newspapers defending Paxton. (The grievance was eventually dismissed.)
When Paxton was indicted, it was Midland oilman Tim Dunn—a member of the First Liberty board of directors—who wrote an editorial claiming Paxton was the victim of a conspiracy because he had once dared to challenge the reelection of Speaker Straus.
Dunn had also helped Paxton win the attorney general’s race by guaranteeing a $1 million loan to his campaign through Dunn’s Empower Texans political action committee.
After the ouster of Roy and Castle, Paxton turned to First Liberty to fill the vacancies. He hired Mateer as his first assistant to replace Roy. Paxton initially employed First Liberty chief of litigation Hiram Sasser as his chief of staff in the position left open by McNamee’s departure, but Sasser soon returned to his old job because of family health issues.
As Castle’s replacement as communications director, Paxton named management consultant Marc Rylander, who had until recently been a pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church. (In 2003 Rylander wrote a letter to the Morning Newschastising the paper for publishing same-sex commitment ceremonies, calling it a “journalistic compromise and tasteless submission to the homosexual agenda.” Rylander went on to write,
“The thought of a homosexual couple does not stir animosity in me. But the idea of that couple being recognized and honored in your paper is appalling.”)
It was unprecedented for a Texas attorney general to name the general counsel of a religious advocacy group as his top lieutenant and a pastor as his spokesperson.
“General Paxton has demonstrated antipathy toward the separation of church and state,” said Kathy Miller, the president of the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network. Paxton is “charged with upholding the law”; instead, she said, he is trying to undermine it.
But one of Paxton’s longtime friends from the Legislature—Republican representative Dan Flynn, of Canton—said many people of faith in Texas agree with Paxton and his agenda.
“We believe in protection of life. We believe in traditional family values, strong advocates of the Constitution,” Flynn said. “We believe in states’ rights, believe in the Second Amendment. All those issues that are important to Texans.”
Probably nothing was more symbolic of Paxton’s position on LGBT issues than the hiring of Mateer from First Liberty. The nonprofit pushed the idea that an individual’s constitutional liberties trump what they see as society’s changing morals and sensibilities.
When Plano adopted its anti-discrimination ordinance, Mateer opposed it and threatened a First Liberty lawsuit against the city on behalf of any business fined under it.
Before he became the top lawyer in Paxton’s shop, Mateer had represented Sweet Cakes by Melissa, an Oregon bakery that had refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.
Miller said that Mateer doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. The Freedom Network has noted that at conferences Mateer often holds up a $100 bill and says he will give it to anyone who can find the words “separation of church and state” in the Constitution. “So a fundamental principle of our nation’s founding is something he denies,” Miller said.
At a basic level, Mateer is correct. The words do not appear in the Constitution but instead are drawn from an 1802 Thomas Jefferson letter, which the Supreme Court cited in 1878 to uphold laws against polygamy.
“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” the court wrote.
Even the early Texans believed in the separation of church and state, mainly because of having lived under state-mandated Catholicism when a part of Mexico.
As Texans prepared to join the Union, in 1845, the founder of Paxton’s alma mater, R. E. B. Baylor, convinced his fellow Texans that the first state constitution should prohibit members of the clergy from serving in any executive or legislative office:
“It seems to me further that it is calculated to keep clear and well defined the distinction between Church and State, so essentially necessary to human liberty and happiness.”
Mateer, however, said he draws on a U.S. Supreme Court dissent written by Justice William Rehnquist, “who said Jefferson’s phrase separation of church and state is a misleading metaphor . . . I want to keep minimal federal government out of religion.”
The ties between Paxton and First Liberty are financial too. Because the criminal case against Paxton involves his private law practice, he cannot use campaign funds to pay for his defense, and any money he raises personally must be free of conflicts of interest with the attorney general’s office.
When Paxton accepted a $1,000 gift from First Liberty president Shackelford and his wife, it was listed on Paxton’s public disclosure forms as “gift . . . from family friend who meets the independent relationship exception,” although there is anything but an independent relationship between Paxton and Shackelford’s institute.
Perhaps the most revealing examples of Paxton’s close relationship with First Liberty are the five occasions in which he has used the prestige of his office to support the group, filing friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of First Liberty clients.
While such amicus briefs are really more of a political statement, they can boost the chances a court will take a case seriously, especially when that brief comes from a state attorney general.
Two of the briefs involved religious nonprofits that objected to filling out waiver forms so they would not have to pay for contraceptive insurance for employees under the Affordable Care Act. Though one pertained to Texas nonprofits, the other was on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns located in Denver.
On another occasion, Paxton filed an amicus on behalf of a Marine at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, who was receiving a bad-conduct discharge in part for posting a Bible verse in a work space she shared with another Marine and refusing an order to remove it. Closer to home, Paxton also supported First Liberty’s challenge to the Kountze school district over a one-time ban on cheerleaders’ putting Bible verses on banners at football games.
A district judge was prepared to dismiss the case because Kountze ISD had dropped its objection to the Bible verses, but First Liberty and a private attorney representing the cheerleaders’ families appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
A favorable Supreme Court ruling in the case not only set the stage for a permanent injunction against the school district but also opened the door to the possibility of First Liberty’s obtaining attorneys’ fees from the district’s insurance policy.
But it’s a case in El Paso that raises the most-troubling questions about Mateer’s presence in the attorney general’s office. The suit began with Mayor John Cook’s backing a nondiscrimination ordinance, which led to an effort to recall the mayor spearheaded by Bishop Tom Brown and his Tom Brown Ministries and Word of Life Church.
The recall vote failed, and Cook turned around and filed a lawsuit alleging that Bishop Brown violated state campaign finance law during the recall election by utilizing forbidden corporate money.
Before joining Paxton’s staff, Mateer represented Brown in the case on behalf of First Liberty. And, in another interesting twist, the court had once asked then–attorney general Abbott’s office whether it wanted to become involved in the case, and Abbott’s staff declined.
But after Mateer joined the staff, Paxton’s office suddenly got involved in the case, writing a letter to an El Paso court asking it to reconsider federal campaign finance laws before awarding damages. The case was settled in May. Mateer said he had nothing to do with the El Paso filing and that he had immediately recused himself once he learned about it.
“I had no discussions with anyone, so I don’t know how it came in,” he said. But an email obtained through the Public Information Act shows that Dave Welch, the head of the U.S. Pastor Council, had contacted Mateer and another Paxton aide, asking them to intervene on Brown’s behalf.
Cook’s attorney, Mark Walker, said the filing was suspicious because of Mateer’s previous involvement in the case. “It’s outrageous. I don’t care what your political leaning is, I just want you to follow the law,” Walker said. “I’m concerned about over-politicization of the [attorney general’s] office, and I’m a pretty conservative person.”
By the time Mateer and Rylander joined the staff in early 2015, the public perception of Paxton couldn’t have been much lower. Newspapers in Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, and Longview had called for his resignation, while the Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News urged him to step aside until his criminal case could be resolved.
Paxton, still backed by his core supporters, was unmoved.
“Anybody remember how many papers endorsed me when I was running against a Democrat?” he asked a crowd of partisans. “The answer is none. So is it shocking to me that they’re not helping me right now?”
Still, he hired not one but two crisis-management public relations firms in March, and slowly they began to work to rehabilitate his image.
One of the firms was the Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, which, according to agency documents, was paid $2,529 by the attorney general’s office. The other was CRC Public Relations, an Alexandria, Virginia, company, which was paid $19,500 from Paxton’s campaign account.
The two Republican firms were familiar with each other. They had worked together in 2004 to organize and promote the controversial Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
The Dallas firm’s owner, Merrie Spaeth, had been the director of media relations in the Reagan White House. She had also coached special prosecutor Ken Starr for his presentation to the House during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
And most recently she had been advising Starr in his handling of the media in the rape scandal that occurred while he was president at Baylor University. (By coincidence, in January Paxton protected Baylor from having to release campus police reports on one of the rapes, citing common-law privacy even though the victim already had identified herself on ESPN.)
Paxton’s PR investment soon showed results. Six weeks after Castle’s staff had been unable to get Paxton any national media interviews, he suddenly had a flurry of exposure around the state’s arguments to the Supreme Court against Obama’s immigration policies, including interviews in New York with CNN and Fox News. Solicitor general Keller was again representing the state, but this time it was Paxton in the limelight.
In April Paxton shared the stage with Keller during an appearance on Greta Van Susteren’s On the Record, on Fox. After throwing a softball question to Paxton, Van Susteren made a point of noting for her viewers that Keller was the lawyer arguing the case.
She would do the same thing again in June, when the two men appeared on her show by satellite feed after Texas won a Supreme Court ruling that upheld an injunction against the Obama immigration plan.
Paxton might not have been the lawyer arguing the case, but he was going to play one on TV.
Though Paxton’s staff changes may have resulted in his receiving more positive press, they also weakened the barriers that traditionally separate state business from overtly partisan politics.
For instance, Rick Perry’s policy as governor—including when Castle was on his staff—was to use campaign or private funds for travel to avoid any chance that taxpayers would cover the cost of politicking.
When Abbott took over the governor’s office, he adopted the same policy. But after Castle left Paxton’s office, things changed rapidly.
The most egregious blending of state business with politics at taxpayers’ expense occurred on a June trip to the nation’s capital. The dates of the trip coincided with the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, where Paxton spoke on the final day. Paxton made the trip with Mateer, Rylander, and Smith.
Paxton tried to work in some state business. On the first morning in Washington, he held a news conference on the steps of the Supreme Court to announce that Texas was joining a 21-state lawsuit against Delaware for keeping unclaimed funds from a national check-writing service. But that hadn’t been the point of the trip.
In fact, the news conference had been added to his schedule at the last minute, and Rylander admitted it was held in Washington only because Paxton was already going to be there on other state business.
On the day after the news conference at the Supreme Court, Paxton gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation on climate change litigation involving Exxon. But besides that speech, Paxton’s schedule had numerous undocumented hours.
The Road to Majority conference is a Christian conservative political gathering that featured speeches by various Republican candidates, including GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Also coinciding with the trip was a filing by his Washington-based lawyers challenging a civil suit—separate from the criminal prosecution—filed against him by the Securities and Exchange Commission over his Servergy work.
Paxton’s lawyers did not respond to inquiries about whether he met with them during the trip.
Paxton’s own request for travel for the three days shows that the original reason for going to Washington was “for speaking event, ‘Think Tank,’ presented by Road to Majority.” But when he tweaked his travel plans on June 1, all mention of Road to Majority vanished from the travel requests for him and his entourage, becoming instead a simple “speaking event,” though the dates of travel continued to overlap with the political event.
The Road to Majority organizers posted photographs on Facebook of Paxton speaking. Mateer’s expense report listed the speech as “state business.”
The total cost to Texas taxpayers for the four days of travel for Paxton and his three aides during the political gathering exceeded $7,800.
Paxton didn’t use state funds to attend the July Republican National Convention, in Cleveland, but there too he took every opportunity to appear before an audience or a camera, even sitting for an interview with MSNBC.
Paxton spoke to Texas delegates in a hotel ballroom on the morning of the convention’s third day. Angela, who has much more stage presence and charisma than her husband, introduced him, as she often does at events, by singing a ditty she’d written in which she declares herself a “pistol-packin’ mama” whose “husband sues Obama.”
The attorney general received a warm ovation from the party faithful. “I was on Fox News last night,” Paxton gleefully told them. “I just wanted to see how many of y’all stayed up to watch me at 2:05 a.m. this morning.” Everyone laughed, and Paxton seemed to be gently making fun of himself.
But then you do have to wonder: Who exactly goes on television in the middle of the night? In this case, a politician trying to beat an indictment.
Part of his strategy seems to be appearing on television as often as possible, and it’s hard to argue with the results. His indictment is barely even mentioned anymore during his TV appearances, and he’s rarely asked about it.
When Paxton was first indicted, his political career seemed in shambles, and there was rampant speculation that he would resign, especially after he shrank from the spotlight. But his public reemergence and his television offensive make his political survival seem like a real possibility.
His trial in Collin County is expected to begin in the coming months. Even if he’s convicted of the felonies, it’s not clear that Paxton would immediately be forced from office. He would likely be disbarred, but he could still carry on; there’s no requirement in the state constitution that the attorney general have a law license. Moreover, state law is murky on whether a convicted felon can remain in office.
On the other hand, if Paxton is acquitted, he would once again be tough to beat in a Republican primary, and with Democrats offering only token resistance in the general election, he’d be likely to win another term, in 2018.
On that count, he can draw inspiration from the last sitting Texas attorney general to be indicted, from another time and another party: In 1983 Democrat Jim Mattox was charged with abusing his office. As with Paxton, many Austin insiders thought his political career was over. But Mattox persevered. He was later acquitted, and in 1986 he won reelection.
Paxton was born in Minot Air Force Base while his father was stationed in the United States Air Force. His parents and their three children lived in a trailer, often without air conditioning, parked outside wherever his father was temporarily stationed. At various times, they lived in Florida, New York, North Carolina, California, and Oklahoma. As a youth, he wanted to play football, but his father would not let him play for fear of injury. A lifelong football fan, Paxton carried a jersey autographed by Bill Bates, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys. Bates later was named Paxton’s campaign treasurer.
At the age of twelve, Paxton nearly lost an eye in a game of hide-and-seek; a misdiagnosis led to long-term problems with his vision. As a result, his good eye is green; his damaged one, brown and droopy. He was again seriously injured while he was a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. An elbow to his face in a game of basketball shattered the bones around his already damaged right eye. At Baylor, he majored in psychology and was a member of the Baylor University Chamber of Commerce. In 1985, he was elected Student Body President of the Baylor Student Government Association.
Paxton received a psychology degree in 1985 from Baylor University, and he continued his education at the Hankamer School of Business, earning a Master of Business Administration in 1986. Paxton then worked for two years as a management consultant before returning to school in 1988. He enrolled at University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in 1991 earned his Juris Doctor degree.
Paxton then joined the firm of Strasburger & Price, L.L.P, where he worked from 1991 to 1995. He then went to work for J.C. Penney Company, Inc., as in-house legal counsel. In 2002, he left J.C. Penney to start his own firm specializing in estate planning, probate, real estate and general business matters and to run for office in Texas House District 70.
A resident of McKinney, Texas, Paxton serves or has served on numerous local organizations and councils. He is a member of the Chamber of Commerce in Allen, Frisco, and McKinney. He is a director of the Centennial Medical Center. He is a member and former director of the Collin County Bar Association, a member of the Dallas Estate Planning Council, director at Marketplace Ministries, and a member of Rotary International in McKinney. Paxton is a charter member of the nondenominational Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, founded in 1998 by senior pastor Chuck Swindoll.
Texas House of Representatives
On March 12, 2002, Paxton ran for his first nomination in the Republican primary for the Texas House in District 70 against five opponents. He captured 39.45% of the vote and moved into a runoff with Bill Vitz, whom he then defeated with 64% of the vote. He went on to face Fred Lusk (D) and Robert Worthington (L) for the newly redistricted open seat. On November 4, 2002, Paxton secured his first win with 28,012 votes to Lusk’s 7,074 votes and Worthington’s 600 votes.
On November 4, 2004, Paxton faced a challenge from Democrat Martin Woodward after running unopposed for the Republican nomination. Paxton captured 76% of the vote, or 58,520 votes compared to 18,451 votes for Woodward.
On November 4, 2006, Paxton won his third term in the Texas House of Representatives, defeating Rick Koster (D) and Robert Virasin (L). Paxton received 30,062 votes to Koster’s 12,265 votes and Virasin’s 1,222 votes.
On November 4, 2008, Paxton won House re-election by again defeating Robert Virasin (L), 73,450 to 11,751 votes.
Paxton ran unopposed for re-election in both the Republican primary and the general election in 2010. On November 11, 2010, entering his last term as a state representative, Paxton announced that he would run for Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives against Joe Straus of District 121 in Bexar County and fellow Republican Warren Chisum of District 88 in Pampa, Texas. Paxton said that if elected speaker, he would take “bold action in defense of our conservative values.”
Sensing certain defeat, Paxton pulled out of the Speaker’s race before the vote. Paxton was one of six Texas House candidates endorsed by HuckPAC, the official political action committee of Mike Huckabee. Paxton received endorsements and “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association and its state affiliate, the Texas State Rifle Association.
Straus was elected to his second term as Speaker and was re-elected in 2013, 2015, and 2017.
Texas State Senate
Paxton was elected to the Texas State Senate in 2012, and served for two years, until January 2015, when his term as Attorney General began.
Attorney General of Texas
Paxton’s 2013 campaign announcement
Paxton became a candidate for Texas attorney general when the incumbent Greg Abbott decided to run for governor to succeed the retiring Rick Perry. Paxton led a three-candidate field in the Republican primary held on March 4, 2014, polling 566,114 votes (44.4%). State Representative Dan Branch of Dallas County received 426,595 votes (33.5 percent). Eliminated in the primary was Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman of Austin, who polled the remaining 281,064 (22.1 percent). Paxton faced Dan Branch in the runoff election on May 27, 2014, and won with 465,395 votes (63.63 percent). Branch received 265,963 votes (36.36 percent).
In the November 4 general election, Paxton defeated a Democratic attorney from Houston named Sam Houston.
Paxton took office on January 5, 2015. Paxton’s campaign raised $945,000 in the first half of 2016, leaving Paxton with just under $3 million in his campaign account for a potential 2018 re-election bid.
Paxton’s wife, Angela Paxton, his closest political advisor, often opens up his events with a musical performance. She calls her husband “a very competitive person”. Paxton won the attorney general’s election without the endorsement of a single Texas newspaper. He generally avoids reporters, most of whom he considers biased against him. In 2019, Angela Paxton assumed the District 8 seat in the Texas Senate as a result of her victory in the 2018 general election for that post.
In 2018, Paxton ran for re-election unopposed in the Republican primary, and he was endorsed by U.S. President Donald Trump. Paxton won a second term as attorney general in the general election held on November 6, 2018, narrowly defeating Democratic nominee Justin Nelson, a lawyer, and Libertarian Party nominee Michael Ray Harris by a margin of 4,173,538 (50.6 percent) to 3,874,096 (47 percent) and Harris receiving 2.4%.
In 2018, Paxton falsely claimed that undocumented immigrants had committed over 600,000 crimes since 2011 in Texas. PolitiFact noted that it had debunked the numbers before, and that the numbers exceed the state’s estimates by more than 400%. In 2019, Paxton inaccurately claimed that the construction of a border fence in El Paso led to a dramatic reduction in the crime rate.
Obama executive orders
Paxton led a coalition of 26 states challenging President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) executive action.
According to The New York Times, Obama’s executive actions “would protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation and allow them to work indefinitely in the country legally.”
Paxton argued that the president should not be allowed to “unilaterally rewrite congressional laws and circumvent the people’s representatives.”
The Supreme Court heard the case, United States v. Texas, and issued a split 4-4 ruling in the case in June 2016. Because of the split ruling, a 2015 lower-court ruling invalidating Obama’s plan was left in place.
In July 2017, Paxton led a group of Republican Attorneys General and Idaho Governor Butch Otter in threatening the Trump administration that they would litigate if the president did not terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivalspolicy that had been put into place by president Barack Obama.
The other Attorneys General who joined in making the threats to Trump included Steve Marshall of Alabama, Leslie Rutledge of Arkansas, Lawrence Wasden of Idaho, Derek Schmidt of Kansas, Jeff Landry of Louisiana, Doug Peterson of Nebraska, Alan Wilson of South Carolina, and Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia.
Trump executive orders
In 2017, Paxton voiced support for the application of eminent domain to obtain right-of-way along the Rio Grande in Texas for construction of the border wall advocated by President Donald Trump as a means to curtail illegal immigration. Paxton said that private landowners must receive a fair price when property is taken for the pending construction. He said that the wall serves “a public purpose providing safety to people not only along the border, but to the entire nation. … I want people to be treated fairly, so they shouldn’t just have their land taken from them,” but there must be just compensation.
In 2017, Paxton joined thirteen other state attorneys general in filing a friend-of-the-court briefs in defense of both Trump’s first and second executive orders on travel and immigration.
In filings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court, Paxton argued that the order—which places a 90-day ban on the issuance of visas to traveled from six designated majority-Muslim countries, imposes a 120-day halt on the admission of refugees to the U.S., and caps annual refugee admissions to 50,000 people—is constitutionally and legally valid.
In May 2017, Paxton filed a preemptive lawsuit designed to ascertain the constitutionality of the new Texas ban on sanctuary cities, known as SB 4, signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott.
The suit asks the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas to clarify whether the law is at odds with the Fourth and Fourteenth constitutional amendments or is not in conflict with some other federal law.
Paxton said that the measure “is constitutional, lawful and a vital step in securing our borders. It guarantees cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement to protect Texans. Unfortunately, some municipalities and law enforcement agencies are unwilling to cooperate with the federal government and claim that SB 4 is unconstitutional.”
Among those opposed to the measure are the police chiefs and sheriffs of some of the largest jurisdictions in Texas. Critics call the ban legalization of discrimination against minorities, and suits against the legislation are expected to be filed.
Challenge to the Clean Power Plan
Paxton has mounted a legal challenge to the Clean Power Plan, which is President Obama’s “state-by-state effort to fight climate change by shifting away from coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources.” Paxton says the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to “force Texas to change how we regulate energy production” through an “unprecedented expansion of federal authority.” The Clean Power Plan would require Texas to cut an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down 21 percent from 2012 levels. Paxton says the required reductions would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high, and threaten reliability on the electrical grid. Paxton says there is no evidence that the plan will mitigate climate change, and that the EPA lacks the statutory authority to write the state’s policies.
Challenge to Department of Labor overtime rule
Paxton is suing the Obama administration over a new rule by the United States Department of Labor which would make five million additional workers eligible for overtime pay. The new rule would mean workers earning up to an annual salary of $47,500 would become eligible for overtime pay when working more than 40 hours per week. Paxton has said the new regulations “may lead to disastrous consequences for our economy.” Along with Texas, twenty other states have joined the lawsuit.
In June 2015, after the issuance of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, Paxton issued a statement offering moral support for clerks with religious objections to issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His statement said in part that “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”
in 2016, Paxton led a coalition of thirteen states that sought an injunction to block a guidance letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice that interpreted Title IX to require public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms that accorded with their gender identity.
Paxton wrote in court filings that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment” and termed the directive a “gun to the head” that threatens the independence of school districts.
The states dropped the suit after the directive was revoked by President Donald Trump.
Challenge to Department of Labor’s “Persuader Rule”
Paxton is involved in a legal challenge to a rule by the Department of Labor which forces employers to report any “actions, conduct or communications” undertaken to “affect an employee’s decisions regarding his or her representation or collective bargaining rights.”
Known as the “Persuader Rule,” the new regulation went into effect in April 2016. Opponents of the rule say it will prevent employers from speaking on labor issues or seeking legal counsel.
In June 2016, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction against the rule. Paxton called the injunction “a victory for the preservation of the sanctity of attorney-client confidentiality.”
In 2016, Paxton was one of 11 Republican state attorneys general who sided with ExxonMobil in the company’s suit to block a climate change probe by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Paxton and the other state AGs filed an amicus curiae brief, contending that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey used her office to “tip the scales on a public policy debate, undermine the first Amendment and abuse the office’s subpoena power.”
Healey had launched a probe of ExxonMobil’s historical marketing and sale of fossil fuel products, requiring the company to produce 40 years worth of documents regarding fossil fuel products and securities.
Healey said the documents would prove that ExxonMobil “knew about the risks of climate change decades ago and fraudulently concealed that knowledge from the public.”
The amicus brief supported Exxon Mobil’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
Paxton questioned Healey’s use of law-enforcement authority regarding the global warming controversy, which he called an “ongoing public policy debate of international importance.”
Paxton described Healey’s attempts to obtain historical company records for a public policy debate as a threat to freedom of speech, stating:
“The Constitution was written to protect citizens from government witch-hunts that are nothing more than an attempt to suppress speech on an issue of public importance, just because a government official happens to disagree with that particular viewpoint.”
The brief portrayed climate change as an issue that was still a matter of scientific debate, although in fact the scientific consensus is that the earth is warming and human activity is primarily responsible.
U.S. Virgin Islands attorney general Claude Walker had also issued a subpoena for Exxon’s records. Paxton issued a request to intervene in the case, stating: “What is Exxon Mobil’s transgression? Holding a view about climate change that the Attorney General of the Virgin Islands disagrees with. This is about the criminalization of speech and thought.” Walker dropped the subpoena in June 2016.
Volkswagen, Apple, and MoneyGram lawsuits
In 2012, Paxton was part of a lawsuit against Apple, charging the company with violating antitrust laws by conspiring with publishers to artificially raise the prices of electronic books. Apple was ordered to pay $400 million to U.S. consumers who paid artificially-inflated prices for e-books, and $20 million to the states in reimbursement for legal costs.
In June 2016, it was announced that Volkswagen would pay the state of Texas $50 million in relation to the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Paxton had sued the company in 2015 in connection with the automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to circumvent emissions limits.
Paxton is part of a 21-state lawsuit against the state of Delaware. The lawsuit alleges that MoneyGram gave uncashed checks to the state of Delaware instead of the state where the money order or travelers check was bought. The case has gone directly to the U.S. Supreme Court because it is a dispute among states. Paxton said an audit showed that Delaware owed other states $150 million, and that Delaware unlawfully took possession of uncashed checks instead of sending the checks back to the states where the money orders were purchased.The state of Delaware disputes these claims.
Lawsuit over homestead tax exemptions
In 2015, the Texas State Legislature passed a law implementing property tax reductions by increasing the homestead exemption to $25,000 and prohibiting localities from reducing or repealing any local option homestead exemption already on the books. After this law was passed, 21 school districts reduced or eliminated their local optional homestead exemptions. In 2016, Paxton intervened in a lawsuit challenging the practice of school districts reducing or repealing their local optional homestead exemptions.
Second Amendment lawsuits
In 2016, three University of Texas at Austin professors sued in an effort to ban concealed handguns from campus. The state’s campus carry law allows law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons. The lawsuit brought by the professors seeks to block the law. Paxton called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said it should be dismissed.
In 2016, Paxton sued the city of Austin to allow license holders to openly carry handguns in city hall.
Paxton has “crusaded against voter fraud” as state attorney general; there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas, although the state’s “efforts to enact and enforce the strictest voter ID law in the nation were so plagued by delays, revisions, court interventions and inadequate education that the casting of ballots in the 2016 election was inevitably troubled.”
Paxton’s office is seeking 2016 Texas voting records in an effort to find voter fraud, such as potential voting by non-citizens or in the name of the deceased. This includes individual voting history and application materials for voter registrations.
Officials in Bexar County say there have been no major cases of voter fraud in San Antonio. However, the Associated Press reported that the top election official in Bexar County estimates that nearly six hundred affidavits submitted by voters declined to present identification and should have been declined.
Instead, the official said such voters should have been required to cast provisional ballots. AP projected that the overall number who cast improper affidavits as 13,500 in the largest Texas counties.
Fort Bend County’s top elections official said that these cases are not voter fraud, noting that only those who were registered to vote qualified for an affidavit, and that “poll workers were trained to ‘err on the side of letting people use the affidavit instead of denying them the chance to vote.'”
The San Antonio Express-News criticized the state’s voter identification law, which Paxton seeks to have reinstated after it was struck down by United States District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christ, who found the measure to be a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and found that it was passed with the intent to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters. Paxton’s office appealed the decision. Appeals continue in the case.
In March 2017, Paxton told The Washington Times that he was convinced that voter fraud exists in Texas, and claimed that local election officials in Texas were not on the lookout for detecting fraud. Experts stated that there is no reliable evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, and a Texas study of elections over a decade determined that there were about three cases of fraud for every one million votes in the state.
Religion in schools
Paxton “has often criticized what he calls anti-Christian discrimination in Texas schools.” In 2015, Paxton opposed an atheist group’s legal action seeking a halt to the reading of religious prayers before school board meetings. In December 2016, Paxton gained attention after intervening in a dispute in Killeen, Texas, in which a middle school principal told a nurse’s aide to take down a six-foot poster in the school containing a quote from Christian scripture. Paxton sided with the aide, who won in court.
In early 2017 Paxton objected to a Texas school’s use of an empty classroom to allow its Muslim students to pray, issuing a press release that claimed that “the high school’s prayer room is … apparently excluding students of other faiths.” School officials said that Paxton had never asked them about this assertion, and that the room was a spare room used by faculty and non-Muslim students as well as for multiple activities, from grading papers to Buddhist meditation. The Frisco Independent School District superintendent, in a letter sent in response to Paxton, called his press release “a publicity stunt by the [Office of Attorney General] to politicize a nonissue.”
Paxton has defended the State of Texas in a federal lawsuit involving the drawing of Texas’s congressional districts. In 2017, a three-judge panel of a U.S. federal court based in San Antonio ruled that the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature drew congressional-district to discriminate against minority voters, and ordered the redrawing of Texas’s 35th and 27th congressional districts. Paxton is appealing the ruling, contending that the previous maps were lawful, and vowed to “aggressively defend the maps on all fronts”; U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett criticized the appeal as a “desperate, highly questionable Paxton-Abbott maneuver” coming “after yet another ruling against the state of Texas for intentional discrimination.”
In April 2017, Paxton rendered a legal opinion in a dispute between the Texas House and Senate over how to close a pending revenue gap of $2.5 billion. He argued that a Senate proposal to delay payment of a transportation debt would likely be determined in court to be constitutional. State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound asked for Paxton’s opinion. The House, however, was unmoved. House Appropriations Committee chairman John Zerwas of Richmond said that there must be other ways to finance the budget without “spending money twice from state highway funds.” Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio compared the Senate proposal to accounting tricks like those of the defunct Enron Corporation of Houston.
Affordable Care Act
Paxton initiated a lawsuit seeking to have the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) ruled unconstitutional in its entirety.
Indictment and securities litigation
State securities-fraud charges
On July 28, 2015, a state grand jury indicted Paxton on three criminal charges: two counts of securities fraud (a first-degree felony) and one count of failing to register with state securities regulators (a third-degree felony). Paxton’s indictment marked the first such criminal indictment of a Texas Attorney General in 32 years since Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox was indicted for bribery in 1983. The complainants in the case are Joel Hochberg, a Florida businessman and Byron Cook, a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. Paxton and Cook were former friends and roommates while serving together in the Texas House, who were members of the same investment club. Three special prosecutors are leading the state’s case.
The state prosecution against Paxton stems from his promotion of Servergy Inc., a technology company, to investors in 2011. Prosecutors allege that Paxton promoted Servergy to investors (raising $840,000) while failing to disclose that he was receiving compensation from the company in the form of 100,000 shares of stock in return. Paxton says the 100,000 shares of the stock of the company that he received from Servergy’s founder and CEO were a gift, and not a sales commission.
On August 3, 2015, following the unsealing of the grand jury indictment, Paxton was arrested and booked. He pleaded not guilty, and has portrayed “the case against him as a political witch-hunt.” Paxton and his supporters claim that the prosecution has its origin in a dispute among Texas Republicans, with conservatives like Paxton on one side and moderates like Cook on the other, and suggest that Cook’s complaint, several years after the Servergy deal, was political payback.
Paxton unsuccessfully sought to quash the indictments. This challenge was rejected by the trial judge, the Texas Court of Appeals, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ criminal court of last resort.
In March 2017, District Judge George Gallagher, a Republican from Fort Worth, granted the prosecution’s motion for a change of venue, moving the trial to Houston. Gallagher also denied Paxton’s motion to dismiss one of the charges against him because of issues which arose about the grand jury. On May 30, 2017, the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas agreed with Paxton that the transfer of Paxton’s trial to Houston required assignment of the case to a new judge to replace Judge Gallagher and all orders issued by Judge Gallagher after the change of venue were voided. Paxton’s new judge is Democrat Robert Johnson of the 177th District Court in Harris County. Johnson was chosen at random to preside.
Because of a fight over the fees demanded by the special prosecutors, Paxton’s trial has been delayed three times.
In November 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals invalided the trial court’s order approving of payments of attorneys’ fees to the special prosecutors in the case, and directed the lower court to issue payments “in accordance with an approved fee schedule,” siding with county commissioners in Paxton’s home county of Collin County, who had rejected the prosecutors’ invoice.
The special prosecutors in the case have suggested that if they are not paid, they could withdraw from prosecution of Paxton. The special prosecutors filed a motion for reconsideration in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in December 2018.
Securities and Exchange Commission complaint dismissal with prejudice
On April 11, 2016
the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil enforcement action against Paxton in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The SEC’s complaint specifically charged Paxton with violating various provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 and various provisions (including Rule 10b-5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by defrauding the Servergy investors.Paxton denied the allegations. One of the defendants and Servergy itself reached a separate settlement with the SEC, agreeing to pay $260,000 in penalties.
On October 7, 2016
U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant III conditionally dismissed the SEC’s civil fraud charges, finding the SEC had not alleged Paxton had any legal obligation to inform investors that he was receiving a commission and giving the SEC two weeks to refile with any new allegations. Mazzant said that the SEC was trying to fit a “square peg into a round hole.”
On October 22, 2016
the SEC refiled its securities fraud claims against Paxton. The SEC made the additional allegations that Paxton and Cook’s investment club required all of its members to accept the same risks on all investments and that it specifically forbade members from making money off investments of other members. The SEC further alleged that Paxton did not properly disclose his Severgy ownership stake on his taxes and that he attempted to conceal the stake by at different times claiming it was his fee for legal services, that it was a gift, and that he had only received it after investing money. Cook later backtracked on these claims, undermining the SEC case against Paxton, when Cook’s attorney conceded there was never a “formal investment group” involving Cook and Paxton but rather an “ad hoc arrangement where, from time to time, good friends might invest in the same transaction” with the particular participants varying from transaction to transaction.
On March 2, 2017
Mazzant dismissed the civil securities fraud case against Paxton for a second time on grounds that the attorney general had “no plausible legal duty” to inform investors that he would earn a commission if they purchased stock in a technical company that Paxton represented. With the second dismissal of the case with prejudice, the SEC cannot bring new action on the same claim against Paxton. The dismissal of the SEC case does not have a direct impact on the state criminal case, which remains pending.