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Ken Paxton dismissed House investigators as partisan Democrats. Their backgrounds suggest otherwise.

By Alex Nguyen and Carla Astudillo, The Texas Tribune

Ken Paxton dismissed House investigators as partisan Democrats. Their backgrounds suggest otherwise.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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After investigators for a Texas House committee concluded Wednesday that Attorney General Ken Paxton may have broken state laws and misused the powers of his office, Paxton responded by dismissing the findings as false testimony from “highly partisan Democrat lawyers.”

An examination of the history of the investigators for the House General Investigating Committee found no basis for Paxton’s claim. Most of the lawyers had ties to both political parties, though there were overall deeper connections to Republicans.

The committee quietly launched its investigation in March after Paxton and his agency agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle a lawsuit by four of his former deputies. The plaintiffs said they were improperly fired after telling federal and state investigators they believed Paxton had accepted bribes and engaged in other misconduct.

The Republican-led committee tasked five attorneys, who have over 120 years of legal experience combined, with the inquiry: Erin Epley, Terese Buess, Mark Donnelly, Donna Cameron and Brian Benken.

“The false testimony of highly partisan Democrat lawyers with the goal of manipulating and misleading the public is reprehensible,” Paxton said in a statement Wednesday.

But a Texas Tribune review of the investigators’ employment history, voting records and campaign donations did not support Paxton’s claim. Many served under both Republican and Democratic administrations during their careers as prosecutors. And taken together, the investigators donated several times more money to Republicans than to Democrats over the past decade.

Erin Epley

Epley, who led the inquiry, has worked under leaders from both political parties.

Between 2007 and 2016, she served as a public prosecutor in Harris County under both a Republican and Democratic district attorney. She later worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Texas in late 2018 after former President Donald Trump nominated Ryan Patrick — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s son — to be the district’s top federal prosecutor. Epley continued as a federal prosecutor in the Biden administration until March 2023.

Epley has previously voted in both parties’ primary elections and has made small donations to Democratic and Republican candidates.

In 2017, she donated $200 to Democrat Chris Morton, who was elected as a district court judge. A year later, she gave $50 to Republican Tammy J. Thomas, who ran for the 262nd Criminal District Court. In 2019, she contributed $100 to Derrick Reed, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in a district that includes the greater Houston area.

Brian Benken

Benken served as an investigator and assistant district attorney in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Harris County district attorney’s office, which was headed by a Republican. He later became a criminal defense attorney and eventually a popular private investigator, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Benken has donated a few thousand dollars exclusively to GOP candidates, including more than $900 to Trump in 2020. He also has voted in Republican primaries.

Terese Buess 

Buess is a veteran prosecutor in the Harris County district attorney’s office, having worked there since 1991, meaning she has served under both Republican and Democratic leaders.

For most of the past decade, she voted in Republican primary elections — but in 2020, she cast her ballot in the Democratic primary race. Buess has also donated $1,200 total to several Republican judge candidates since 2010.

Mark Donnelly

During his career, Donnelly has also served under leaders of both parties. Between 2001 and 2009, he worked as an assistant district attorney in the Harris County district attorney’s office, which was largely headed by a Republican. He later served in several roles in the U.S. Department of Justice between 2009 and 2022, which saw multiple changes in administration.

Donnelly has also voted in Republican primaries. And over a decade ago, he donated $200 each to three GOP judicial candidates.

Donna Cameron

Cameron worked as an assistant district attorney in Galveston County, including under a Republican top prosecutor.

Cameron has mostly voted in Republican primary elections, although she voted in the 2020 Democratic primary. And according to state financial campaign records, she donated $600 total to several judge candidates, including several Republicans and one Democrat over the past few years.

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