By Alexa Ura, The Texas Tribune
“Lawyer currently leading Texas attorney general’s office has been swept up in Ken Paxton’s legal challenges” 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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In the state’s extensive log of high-profile court fights — from immigration to voting to a failed effort to overturn the 2020 election — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s name on legal filings is always trailed by another: Brent Webster, first assistant attorney general.
Following the Texas House’s Saturday vote to impeach Paxton, the attorney general’s second-in-command has temporarily become the state’s top lawyer.
The stunning vote immediately suspended Paxton from his duties and elevated a relatively unknown attorney into the place of a popular statewide officeholder. Webster is now in charge of a sprawling agency that serves as both the state’s law firm, working on routine matters like child support enforcement, and as a legal juggernaut helping to advance the Republican Party’s priorities in the courts. Paxton’s deputy since 2020, the self-proclaimed “constitutional conservative” has indicated he doesn’t plan to stray from the attorney general’s approach to the job.
In a Saturday email to agency employees, Webster touted the agency’s credentials as a foil to “the Biden Administration’s illegal actions.”
“The State of Texas has had no better elected official than Ken Paxton defending citizen’s rights, fighting for justice, and preserving freedom,” Webster wrote. “Thank you for your continued excellence and hard work during this time. You can rest assured that the executive team will continue to work tirelessly. We will continue to be the best legal team in America.”
It’s unclear how long Webster will remain at the helm. State law puts him in charge if the attorney general is “absent or unable to act.” Gov. Greg Abbott can decide to appoint someone to temporarily fill the vacancy. Abbott is a former attorney general himself with deep ties in the conservative legal universe, but he’s so far been silent on Paxton’s impeachment.
Webster’s tenure at the attorney general’s office began in October 2020 in the wake of the staffing shakeup that would ultimately lead to Paxton’s impeachment over allegations of misconduct, including bribery and abuse of office.
His own legal troubles
Webster took over for Jeff Mateer, a controversial figure in his own right, who resigned that month after reporting Paxton’s alleged criminal behavior to law enforcement agencies along with seven other top Paxton aides.
His work with the attorney general quickly mired him in legal problems of his own.
Webster faced a professional misconduct case brought by the State Bar of Texas for helping Paxton file a long-shot federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in four battleground states that handed the White House to President Joe Biden.
The misconduct lawsuit accused Webster of being “dishonest” for misrepresenting allegations of voting improprieties in the legal challenge, which was ultimately tossed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton faced a similar lawsuit in Collin County. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both denounced the state bar’s initial investigation of Paxton.
Webster also played a prominent role in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2020 by four former executives who claim they were fired from the attorney general’s office in retaliation for reporting their concerns about Paxton’s behavior to law enforcement.
Webster, the lawsuit alleged, personally fired or participated in the firing of several of the whistleblowers and contributed to an atmosphere of harassment and intimidation directed against whistleblowers.
The lawsuit recounted Webster’s first day as Paxton’s deputy on Oct. 5, 2020, beginning with his prompt move — “with great ceremony but without explanation” — to kick Blake Brickman out of a regularly scheduled 9 a.m. meeting with Paxton.
Later that day, Webster ordered Brickman, the deputy attorney general for policy and strategic initiatives, to store his personal cellphone in his car, a “bush-league attempt at intimidation” that was not imposed on other employees, the lawsuit said.
“In fact, Paxton himself carries multiple personal cell phones, including routinely cycling through ‘burner’ cell phones,” the lawsuit added.
Webster also was accompanied by an armed officer while interacting with the whistleblowers in the agency’s downtown Austin office and did not respond to requests for an explanation after several whistleblowers were temporarily suspended, the lawsuit said.
The attorney general’s office on Sunday did not respond to questions about Webster’s involvement beyond pointing to an outside law firm’s report they say shows the attorney general had “legitimate, non-retaliatory grounds” for firing the whistleblowers.
The report is dated May 24, 2023 — three months after Paxton agreed to settle the whistleblowers’ lawsuit and the day that the House General Investigating Committee unveiled that it was investigating Paxton in the run-up to impeachment.
Paxton had agreed in February to apologize for calling the whistleblowers “rogue employees” and to acknowledge that the former employees acted in a manner they thought was right when reporting the attorney general to law enforcement.
The four whistleblowers also would receive $3.3 million — a payout that required the Legislature’s approval.
Instead, the settlement spurred the House General Investigating Committee to examine if Paxton was attempting to use taxpayer dollars to cover up his actions in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act, which protects public employees from retaliation for reporting suspected criminal activity.
The two-month investigation culminated in the committee issuing the 20 articles of impeachment that the House overwhelmingly adopted Saturday in a 121-23 vote.
Background as a prosecutor
A trained lawyer with a law degree from the University of Houston, Webster spent his early legal career in Williamson County, where he began as a criminal prosecutor and eventually worked his way up to first assistant district attorney. During his time there, he was awarded the “Crime Victim Advocate Hall of Fame Award” for his service to crime victims.
In 2016, he was on the ballot for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals but ran a low-profile campaign, as is typical for candidates for the state’s highest criminal court. He was forced into a Republican runoff election by a candidate who shared a name with Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had earned national recognition when he ran for president the year before.
Webster ultimately lost by 16 points to Walker, who barely hit the campaign trail and launched a Facebook campaign page five days after voting had already started in the primary.
After departing the Williamson County district attorney’s office at the end of that year, Webster was blamed for setting the county up to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars that should have been seized through cases involving asset forfeitures.
Webster had failed to serve required citations in more than 60 cases, which typically involve cash tied to illegal drugs, according to District Attorney Shawn Dick. In 2017, Webster told the Austin American-Statesman the office had been short-staffed at the time, forcing him to prioritize criminal prosecutions over the seizures.
He was in private practice, including work as a criminal defense attorney, when Paxton tapped him for the first assistant attorney general job, noting he would bring “substantial real-world experience” to the office.
“Brent has invaluable and extensive experience in a variety of legal and policy matters. I am confident that he will diligently and faithfully serve the office and the people of Texas,” Paxton said in a statement at the time.
As Paxton’s top aide, Webster has overseen the operations of large state agencies with hundreds of attorneys and thousands of employees stationed across the state carrying out work that includes enforcing child support orders and environmental regulations, investigating human trafficking and interpreting open records laws.
In his email to employees, Webster said he has “deep involvement” in the agency’s “most important litigation and all operations,” promising its day-to-day functions would “continue smoothly” even as Paxton criticized the impeachment proceedings as getting in the way of the agency’s core functions.
With a $275,000 annual salary, Webster is the agency’s highest-paid employee, making more than even the attorney general.
The office is also responsible for representing the state in court, including in consumer protection lawsuits and against challenges to state laws, though more recent attorneys general — starting with Abbott’s election in 2002 — have taken on a more adversarial role to Democratic presidential administrations. Most of that legal work is carried out by deputies and litigation teams, with Paxton making the occasional appearance at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When we go to head-to-head against the federal government and the Department of Justice, we win,” Webster said in his email to staff, emulating his boss’ posturing from just the day before.
On the eve of Paxton’s impeachment vote, Webster led a group of aides out to face the gaggle of reporters that had convened at the attorney general’s office in downtown Austin.
They assembled in front of a deep blue backdrop emblazoned with the agency’s official seal, flanked by two banners that read “Liberty and justice for Texas.”
A defiant Paxton denounced the proceedings against him as an “illegal impeachment scheme” that “imperils critical litigation” his office has brought against the Biden administration.
“In addition to defending Texas from illegal federal policy, my office works day and night to solve cold cases, fight human trafficking, prosecute Medicaid fraud and hold predatory corporations accountable when they harm the public,” Paxton said. “For this crucial work to continue, the political theater must come to an end.”
Looking over Paxton’s left shoulder, Webster nodded along.
Chuck Lindell contributed to this story.
Disclosure: The State Bar of Texas and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/29/paxton-impeachment-brent-webster/.
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