By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
“Meet the 4 whistleblowers behind most of the impeachment allegations against Ken Paxton” 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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When the Texas House impeached now-suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton last month, lawmakers relied heavily on allegations made by four men who were fired from top jobs at Paxton’s agency.
The four fired executives filed a lawsuit in November 2020, arguing that the Texas Whistleblower Act protected them from retaliation after reporting to law enforcement their belief that Paxton had improperly helped his friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.
The lawsuit also gave the public a first look at their allegations against Paxton, saying he improperly pressured agency employees to get involved in legal disputes to benefit Paul and his businesses.
In return, they said, Paul helped fund a renovation of Paxton’s Austin home and employed a woman who was allegedly involved in an extramarital relationship with Paxton. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.
Here is a look at the four whistleblowers, what they did in the attorney general’s office and what they claim Paxton did that led them to report his actions to authorities.
Paxton recruited Blake Brickman to the attorney general’s office in February 2020. After a career in Republican politics and working as a lawyer in private practice, Brickman served as Paxton’s deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives.
From 2015-19, Brickman was chief of staff to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, considered one of the most conservative governors in the country. Earlier in his career, Brickman was chief of staff for Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and a campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, also a Republican.
John Hodgson, a staunchly conservative Kentucky state representative who served with Brickman in Bevin’s administration, lauded Brickman for his conservative principles.
“We worked together every day for four years fighting for ways to make government smaller and more accountable,” Hodgson said in a statement provided by Brickman’s lawyer. “Blake is a fearless defender of the rule of law and conservative values.”
Brickman pushed back against Paxton’s desire to get the agency’s Charitable Trust Division involved in a legal dispute between Paul’s businesses and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, the whistleblower lawsuit said. The Austin nonprofit had sued Paul’s business for fraud, alleging that Paul failed to make financial disclosures about its investments.
At Paxton’s direction, Brickman reviewed the case and concluded that the agency should not get involved, particularly in ways helpful to Paul, because the Charitable Trust Division was intended to help nonprofits. Paxton disregarded the advice and pressured agency lawyers to intervene in the lawsuit, delaying the sale of some of Paul’s properties to pay the nonprofit, according to investigators hired by the House General Investigating Committee.
Brickman was fired on Oct. 20, 2020, for “insubordination,” just a few weeks after reporting Paxton’s alleged crimes to the FBI.
Several months earlier, Paxton praised Brickman at a monthly meeting and gave him a copy of “Scalia Speaks,” a collection of speeches by the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice. Inside the book, Paxton had inscribed, “Blake, I am so grateful you joined our team at the Texas AG’s office. I am confident that you will continue to make a difference for our office and all of Texas.”
Ryan Vassar worked for Paxton for five years, rising to be the agency’s chief legal officer before he was fired in November 2020.
When Paxton personally promoted him to deputy attorney general for legal counsel at age 35, Vassar was the youngest person Paxton had appointed to the position, which involved supervising 60 lawyers and 30 professional staff across five divisions.
Prior to the attorney general’s office, Vassar had worked for other top Texas Republicans, including former Gov. Rick Perry as a fellow in the office of general counsel and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett as a law clerk.
In the whistleblower lawsuit, Vassar alleged that Paxton pressured him to make decisions on public records requests that would have helped Paul gain information about an FBI investigation of his businesses. Vassar argued that under decades of precedent, information about ongoing law enforcement investigations should remain confidential. He also told Paxton that ordering the information to be made public could compromise the attorney general’s ability to withhold information about its own pending investigations.
Even so, Paxton directed his agency to take no position on whether the documents should be released, the whistleblower lawsuit alleged.
After another request from Paul’s lawyers in May 2020, Paxton directed the agency to order the release of an unredacted FBI brief that referenced its investigation into Paul. Vassar released those records on Paxton’s order.
Vassar also opposed the hiring of Brandon Cammack, a five-year lawyer whom Paxton hired to work as a special counsel investigating Paul’s claim that warrants used to search his home and businesses in 2019 had been altered. A prior investigation by other members of the attorney general’s office found no evidence to support Paul’s complaint.
After informing the office that he had reported Paxton’s work on Paul’s behalf to the FBI, Vassar was placed on leave pending an “open-ended” investigation by the attorney general’s office. He was escorted to his office by an armed guard to collect his belongings and told to turn over his agency laptop and cellphone.
He was fired on Nov. 17, 2020, less than two months after making his report to the FBI.
Mark Penley was fired in November 2020 after a little more than a year as deputy attorney general for criminal justice, supervising about 220 employees.
Penley is a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Texas and has almost 40 years of legal experience. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Penley served for five years, reaching the rank of captain.
Penley was directed to examine whether the FBI had violated Paul’s civil rights when investigators searched his home and businesses in August 2019. Paul’s lawyers claimed federal officials had altered a search warrant after it had been signed by a federal magistrate, but Penley and David Maxwell, the agency’s director of law enforcement, could find no evidence of that.
Penley recommended that the attorney general’s office close its investigation into Paul’s complaint, but Paxton pushed back, eventually hiring Cammack as an outside lawyer over the objections of Penley, who argued that the complaint had already been investigated and disproven.
A day after informing the attorney general’s office that he had reported Paxton to the FBI, Penley was placed on leave pending an investigation, and his email account and building-access badge were disabled.
Penley asked multiple times what he was being investigated for but received no answer, according to the whistleblower complaint.
On Nov. 2, Penley and Maxwell were called into the office of Brent Webster, a Paxton loyalist who had been named first assistant attorney general when Jeff Mateer resigned from the agency’s No. 2 position after reporting Paxton to the FBI. They say they were pressured to resign but refused, and later that day were fired.
Penley is a lifelong Republican, according to his lawyer, and struggled to get another job after being fired.
“After losing his job as head of the Criminal Division of the OAG, Mark was out of work for six months before being forced to take a job in the Dallas District Attorney’s office as a low-level misdemeanor prosecutor,” his lawyer Don Tittle said in a statement.
David Maxwell worked in the attorney general’s office for almost 10 years, rising to director of law enforcement, supervising 350 employees. He came to the agency under then-Attorney General Greg Abbott and stayed after Paxton took over in 2015.
Before joining the attorney general’s office, Maxwell was with the Texas Department of Public Safety for 38 years, attaining the rank of sergeant and working as a Texas Ranger for 24 years. He has nearly 50 years of law enforcement experience investigating crimes, including public corruption.
Paxton directed Maxwell and Penley to investigate Paul’s claim that law enforcement officials had improperly searched his home and businesses. But the two top deputies could find no evidence of wrongdoing and advised Paul and his attorney to file their complaints with a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice if they wanted to proceed.
Paxton pushed back and asked his two senior officials to keep investigating.
Drawing on his career in law enforcement, Maxwell said he warned Paxton that his actions on Paul’s behalf appeared to be illegal and that he “was going to get himself indicted” for bribery, abuse of office and other crimes, the lawsuit said.
Although Maxwell was on vacation when seven other high-ranking officials reported Paxton to the FBI, he took his concerns to a former colleague, Randy Price, deputy director of law enforcement operations for the Texas Rangers. Maxwell also made reports to the FBI, the Justice Department and the Travis County district attorney’s office.
He was placed on investigative leave Oct. 2, 2020, a day after the top deputies told Paxton they had reported him to the FBI. Like Penley, Maxwell said he was not told why he was under investigation and was pressured to resign. Instead, he was fired Nov. 2.
In the time since, Maxwell has been unable to find comparable employment, his attorney said.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/16/ken-paxton-impeachment-whistleblowers/.
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