Emma Platoff

Texas taxpayers are footing the bill for attorney general's $540-per-hour lead lawyer in whistleblower lawsuit

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The Texas attorney general's office will pay outside counsel $540 an hour to defend the state agency against accusations that it was retaliating against top aides when it fired them just weeks after they reported their boss, Ken Paxton, to authorities for possibly breaking the law.

William Helfand, a Houston attorney with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, will make $540 per hour for his work on the case while an associate attorney and a paralegal will make $350 and $215 per hour, respectively, according to a contract with the agency.

They filed the agency's first official response Monday to a lawsuit filed by four of eight whistleblowers who left the agency after leveling the accusations. Paxton's attorneys roundly rejected pages and pages of allegations of wrongdoing and retaliation in just a few brief sentences.

The agency “generally denies each and every claim and allegation" made by the whistleblowers, attorneys for the state wrote in the brief filing.

“Any action Plaintiffs allege to be an adverse employment action was the result of each Plaintiff's own misconduct, lack of competence, and/or disloyalty to the Office," the outside attorneys for the agency wrote.

Paxton is reportedly being investigated by the FBI over the allegations raised by the aides.

Separately, he has been under indictment since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges but has yet to stand trial amid side issues over venue and prosecutor pay. Notably, his defense team and political allies have loudly objected to the special prosecutors in the case making $300 per hour — far lower than the pay scale for the outside attorneys in the whistleblower case.

That point was not lost on Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors, who said it was "ludicrous for Paxton to believe that a seven-year attorney, not to mention a paralegal, should be paid more for defending him than two lawyers with over 80 years of combined experience should be paid for prosecuting him."

"And it is outrageous that the taxpayers of Texas will be obligated to pay the legal fees for defending Paxton's alleged misconduct that has reportedly triggered an FBI investigation," Wice added.

Four former top staffers at the agency — Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley and David Maxwell — sued their former employer Nov. 12, claiming they suffered retaliation, including wrongful termination, after reporting Paxton to authorities. At the time, just three of the men had been fired; Vassar, who had been placed on paid leave, was fired days after filing the lawsuit. His attorney, Joseph Knight, said he was given “made-up, nonsense reasons" for the termination, which he believes was motivated by the lawsuit.

The agency did not respond to questions about why Vassar was fired, but a spokesperson for Paxton has said that other terminations were not acts of retaliation. Spokespeople for the agency did not immediately return requests for comment on the lawsuit Monday morning.

TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt, who represent Brickman in the whistleblower suit, called the response from the attorney general's office "laughable and completely unsupported," pointing out that under Texas law, adverse personnel actions taken within three months of a whistleblower report are "presumed" to be retaliation.

"Calling the whistleblowers disloyal reveals Ken Paxton's perverted sense of what it means to be a public servant," the attorneys said in a joint statement. "The whistleblowers acted with loyalty to the rule of law, not to Ken Paxton personally, and he punished them for it."

Ultimately, five of the whistleblowers were fired and three resigned.

The top aides allege that Paxton broke the law by using the agency to do favors for a political donor, real estate investor Nate Paul. According to the aides, as well as numerous court records, official documents and media reports, Paxton intervened on Paul's behalf in a number of open records requests, rushed out a legal opinion that helped Paul avoid foreclosure sales on multiple properties, and took the unusual step of intervening in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin charity.

Most strikingly, Paxton hired an outside attorney to probe claims by Paul that federal and state authorities had mistreated Paul in a raid on his home and office in 2019. Paxton hired the outside lawyer, top aides say, even though agency staff had already vetted Paul's allegations and found them meritless.

Paxton has dismissed his aides' allegations as “false" and called them “rogue employees." In a statement last month, Paxton said he knows “a little something about being falsely accused" and dismissed the allegations made by the whistleblowers, which he said were “overblown, based upon assumptions, and to a large degree misrepresent the facts."

The relationship between Paul and Paxton remains unclear, though they are friendly and Paul gave Paxton's campaign $25,000 in 2018, as Paxton sought a second term as attorney general. Paul also revealed in a deposition this fall that he had employed a woman at Paxton's recommendation, though he said it was not a favor to Paxton. The woman, according to two people who said they learned directly from Paxton in 2018, had been involved in an extramarital affair with the attorney general.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/12/14/texas-attorney-general-ken-paxton-whistleblowers/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Here's why legal experts say Texas lawsuit to overturn election results is a long shot

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

Dec. 9, 2020

"Trump, Republicans pin hopes on Texas lawsuit to overturn election results, but legal experts say it's a long shot" 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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President Donald Trump on Wednesday latched on to a long-shot Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn a presidential election that handed the White House to Joe Biden.

Legal experts say Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's effort to contest election results of four key battleground states is all but certain to fail. But it has drawn support from the Republican attorneys general of 17 other states.

As the president's legal team loses case after improbable case in federal district and appellate courts, the Texas lawsuit offers a major advantage: It goes straight to the top. Under a special legal avenue unique to states, Paxton filed the case directly with the U.S. Supreme Court, a body Trump has suggested could deliver him the victory that voters did not.

“This is the big one!" the president tweeted Wednesday morning. His legal team sought to intervene in the case later Wednesday.

The Texas lawsuit takes issue with changes to election procedures in four battleground states: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Paxton argues those changes were unlawful and call into question Biden's victories in those states. He is asking the high court to block the critical battlegrounds from participating in the Electoral College.

Trump personally asked U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to argue the case before the court if the justices agree to hear it, The New York Times first reported Wednesday. Cruz — who argued several cases at the high court as Texas solicitor general — agreed, his office confirmed.

Although the Supreme Court has a six-member conservative majority, including three justices appointed by Trump, it has so far shown no interest in siding with him in the election cases his campaign has lobbed. On Tuesday, it decisively rejected Pennsylvania Republicans' effort to overturn Biden's victory there in a one-sentence order with no dissents.

Legal experts and court watchers expect a similar outcome in the Texas case. The court has asked for a response from the four battleground states Texas is suing, setting a Thursday deadline, but has given no indication about how it will decide the matter.

“This is the Hail Mary with time running out the clock kind of play here," said David Coale, an appellate attorney in Dallas. “This is really the last little window to sort of sneak in there and try to get a court involved."

States have a special legal ability to take cases directly to the Supreme Court, though such cases are rare, and more typically involve boundary disputes like water rights. If the high court accepts Texas' argument that it can sue the four battlegrounds in this case, Coale said, “then any state can sue any other state about just about anything."

Even if the court gets past tricky procedural issues, Texas' case faces an uphill battle.

Officials in the battleground states have roundly rejected Paxton's argument, calling it “false," “irresponsible," “a publicity stunt," “genuinely embarrassing," “beyond reckless" and “beneath the dignity of the office of attorney general."

They also point out that many of the claims Paxton makes about election irregularities in their states have already been litigated and roundly rejected. Experts, state election officials and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have all said there is no evidence of voter fraud on a scale that could have affected the outcome of the election.

“Texas alleges that there are 80,000 forged signatures on absentee ballots in Georgia, but they don't bring forward a single person who this happened to. That's because it didn't happen," said Jordan Fuchs, Georgia's deputy secretary of state.

Still, the long-shot odds of the Texas case have not kept it from sparking hope among Republicans in Texas and across the country.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a firebrand conservative who has served as Trump's Texas campaign chairman, said Paxton was right to challenge the battleground states, as did state GOP Chairman Allen West.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, treaded a characteristically careful line, signaling support for the lawsuit insofar as it “tries to accelerate the process, providing certainty and clarity about the entire election process."

But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is also a former Texas attorney general, was more critical of the lawsuit, telling a reporter, "I frankly struggle to understand the legal theory of it."

"Why would a state, even such a great state as Texas, have a say so on how other states administer their elections?" Cornyn asked. "I'm not convinced."

Texas was alone in filing the case this week, but on Wednesday, 17 states with Republican attorneys general signed onto an amicus brief at the high court backing Texas.

“Missouri is in the fight," said the state's attorney general, Eric Schmitt, who led the filing.

Beyond its unusual requests, the case was unusual for the attorneys who are arguing it.

Paxton was listed as the state's lead attorney on the case, a highly unusual move for the attorney general, who has rarely been involved in such a hands-on way in the state's cases.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, the state's top appellate attorney and a former clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, didn't sign his name to the filing. Hawkins is the agency's appellate expert, so it's unusual for him not to appear on the case, legal experts said. Neither Hawkins nor the agency answered questions about why he was not involved.

Instead, the agency appears to have brought on an outside attorney, Lawrence Joseph, to handle the high-stakes case.

But court documents show he has often played a role in politically hot litigation. According to his website, he formed his firm in 2003 to undertake “politically incorrect" representation.

In 2014, Joseph authored a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of dozens of Texas Republicans, including U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and a number of members of Congress. In it, he argued against the Affordable Care Act. The case was filed by Steve Hotze, a prominent conservative activist in Houston who has sued Abbott and others numerous times this year over pandemic-related restrictions and changes to election protocols.

In 2020, Joseph wrote another amicus brief, siding with Trump, on behalf of the conservative group Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund. He argued that Congress lacked the power to subpoena Trump's tax returns.

The Texas attorney general's office did not respond to questions about how much Joseph is being paid for his work on the case.

Paxton, who has been indicted since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges, has been facing fresh legal trouble this fall after eight of his top deputies told authorities they believed he broke the law in using the agency to do favors for a political donor. The FBI is reportedly investigating the allegations. Paxton has fired five of the eight whistleblowers and now faces a lawsuit from four of them, alleging wrongful termination. He has denied wrongdoing.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/12/09/texas-lawsuit-election-trump/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas contests election results in four battleground states in unusual last-minute lawsuit

"In new lawsuit, Texas contests election results in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania" 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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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing four battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — whose election results handed the White House to President-elect Joe Biden.

In the suit, he claims that pandemic-era changes to election procedures in those states violated federal law, and asks the U.S. Supreme Court to block the states from voting in the Electoral College.

The last-minute bid, which legal experts have already characterized as a longshot, comes alongside dozens of similar attempts by President Donald Trump and his political allies. The majority of those lawsuits have already failed.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, officials in most states and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have said. Biden won in all four states where Paxton is challenging the results.

In a filing to the high court Tuesday, Paxton claims the four battleground states broke the law by instituting pandemic-related changes to election policies, whether “through executive fiat or friendly lawsuits, thereby weakening ballot integrity."

Paxton claimed that these changes allowed for voter fraud to occur — a conclusion experts and election officials have rejected — and said the court should push back a Dec. 14 deadline by which states must appoint their presidential electors.

“That deadline, however, should not cement a potentially illegitimate election result in the middle of this storm," attorneys for Texas wrote.

Officials in Georgia — where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger recertified the state's election results again Monday after a recount — were quick to dismiss Paxton's allegations, as were leaders in the other three states named in the lawsuit.

"The allegations in the lawsuit are false and irresponsible," Georgia's deputy secretary of state, Jordan Fuchs, said in a statement Tuesday. "Texas alleges that there are 80,000 forged signatures on absentee ballots in Georgia, but they don't bring forward a single person who this happened to. That's because it didn't happen."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel dismissed Paxton's suit as "a publicity stunt, not a serious legal pleading."

"Mr. Paxton's actions are beneath the dignity of the office of Attorney General and the people of the great state of Texas," she said.

Paxton and Trump are political allies whose interests often line up in court, as with Texas' challenge to the Affordable Care Act. Paxton, in public appearances, often characterizes their relationship as a friendly one, sharing the story of the time the president called while Paxton was in the shower.

Paxton, who has been under indictment since 2015 for felony securities fraud charges, is facing fresh criminal allegations from eight of his top deputies, who said they believe he broke the law by using the agency to do favors for a political donor. The FBI is investigating Paxton over those claims, according to the Associated Press. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

Notably, Paxton himself is listed as the agency's lead attorney on the case — a highly unusual role for the state official, who rarely plays a hands-on role even in the state's major cases. Paxton's new chief deputy, Brent Webster, signed onto the filing, but conspicuously absent is the agency's top lawyer for appellate work, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, who typically argues the state's cases before the Supreme Court and did so as recently as last month. None of Hawkins' deputies is listed as contributing to the case, nor are any of the agency's hundreds of other attorneys.

The agency instead appears to have hired an outside attorney, Lawrence Joseph, to contribute to the case.

The agency did not answer questions about its staffing choices for the lawsuit, nor did Hawkins himself.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/12/08/texas-ken-paxton-election-georgia/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

FBI is investigating Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton: AP report

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The FBI is investigating Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Associated Press reported Tuesday evening, vetting allegations made by eight of Paxton's former top aides that he illegally used the power of his office to benefit a political donor.

Two unnamed sources told the AP that the bureau was examining claims made by the whistleblowers that Paxton broke the law by intervening several times in legal matters involving Nate Paul, a real estate investor and friend who donated $25,000 to Paxton's campaign in 2018.

On Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, eight aides in total told authorities that they believed Paxton had committed crimes as part of his relationship with Paul, citing bribery and abuse of office. Since then, four aides have been fired, three have resigned, and one has been placed on leave — sparking a whistleblower lawsuit.

Paxton, a Republican in his second term, has denied wrongdoing and said he will not resign his post, even as some in his own party call on him to do so and the state's top leaders call the allegations “concerning."

Earlier Tuesday, before the FBI investigation was made public, Paxton said in a statement that he knows “a little something about being falsely accused" and dismissed the allegations made by the whistleblowers as “overblown, based upon assumptions, and to a large degree misrepresent the facts."

Paxton has been under indictment for more than five years on securities fraud charges but has yet to stand trial. He has dismissed the charges as politically motivated and entered a not guilty plea.

Neither a campaign spokesperson for Paxton nor a defense attorney who is working on his long-running securities fraud case returned a request for comment about the FBI probe Tuesday. A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment.

The full scope of Paxton's relationship with Paul remains unclear, though Paul has characterized it as friendly. In a deposition earlier this month, Paul revealed that he had employed a woman at Paxton's recommendation, though he said it was not a favor to Paxton. The woman had been involved in an extramarital affair with Paxton, according to two people who said the attorney general told them of the relationship in 2018.

Since the allegations surfaced last month, four examples have emerged of Paxton using his 4,000-employee agency to benefit Paul.

The whistleblowers allege Paxton tried to help Paul on a pair of open-records disputes, urging state employees to release documents that should have been confidential, and that Paxton rushed a legal opinion on foreclosure sales during the coronavirus pandemic, which helped Paul avoid such sales on several of his properties.

The attorney general's office — at Paxton's direction, the whistleblowers say — also took the highly unusual step of intervening in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin-area charity.

And in September, Paxton hired an outside attorney to evaluate a complaint by Paul that he had been mistreated during an FBI raid on his property in 2019. Paxton's staff, the whistleblowers say, had already vetted the allegations and found them meritless, but Paxton continued to push the investigation.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/17/texas-ken-paxton-fbi/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Texas heads to US Supreme Court in bid to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Here's what to expect

"What to expect as Texas heads to the U.S. Supreme Court in bid to overturn the Affordable Care Act" 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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Texas, leading a coalition of Republican states, heads to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday morning to argue that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional and should be struck down in its entirety.

On Texas' side: the Trump administration. On the other side: a coalition of Democratic states led by California.

What's at stake?

Health insurance and popular benefits for millions of Americans, including some 1 million in Texas who have subsidized health insurance plans under the law. The sprawling health law touches nearly every facet of the American health care system — from popular protections for individuals with preexisting conditions to no-cost benefits for certain health services to allowing young adults to stay on their parents' insurance through age 26. Experts say it's almost impossible to imagine the chaos that would come from ending the law without a replacement, particularly during the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Texas already has the nation's highest uninsured rate.

Gov. Greg Abbott said years ago that if the Affordable Care Act were to fall, Texas would be ready with a replacement, but no plan has materialized. It would be difficult for the state to cover the gaps without congressional action, given its limited regulatory authority over the insurance market.

What are the legal arguments?

Texas argues that the entire fate of the act turns on one key provision, the individual mandate. Once a penalty you had to pay for not purchasing insurance, the mandate was set to $0 by Congress in a 2017 tax cut. Texas argues that since the mandate is $0, it cannot be interpreted as a tax, and thus must fall as unconstitutional.

The state's legal team goes a step further than that — and here's where it loses some legal scholars. Texas claims that if the individual mandate must fall as unconstitutional, the entirety of the sprawling health law has to go with it. That question of “severability" is at the core of the case.

A number of legal scholars don't buy that, and a conservative federal appellate court, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said much the same when it heard the case a few years ago. In its December 2019 ruling, the court said the individual mandate was unconstitutional, but that it needed to hear more arguments about why the rest of the law had to fall with it.

The California coalition has argued that the individual mandate remains constitutional, but that even if it were not, the rest of the law could stand without it.

Why is Texas involved?

Texas, leading a coalition of Republican states, filed this lawsuit in February 2018, though that was not its first time challenging the law. Texas is just one state, but given its size and Republican leadership, the attorney general here has often led the way on major challenges to federal law (see also: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, environmental regulations) as well as other major multi-state investigations (like a probe into Google). Abbott, a former attorney general, used to describe his job this way: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and then I go home."

In this case, the Trump administration has sided with Texas and the other red states, leaving Democratic states like California to defend the federal law. Congressional Republicans have vowed for years that they would “repeal and replace" Obamacare, but it has never happened.

What's the likeliest outcome?

It's impossible to say for sure how the court will decide this case — especially now that it has welcomed a new member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The Affordable Care Act has come before the high court and survived more than once, but that was when the court had a very different makeup.

However, legal experts on both sides of the political aisle have said from the start that they consider Texas' legal arguments weak, and many say it's unlikely the court will strike the law down in its entirety. The court could decide to punt the case on a procedural issue. Or it could uphold most of the law, but ax the now-toothless individual mandate and perhaps a few closely related provisions.

“The likeliest outcome is that the justices vote to get rid of the lawsuit, because it's so galactically stupid, to be totally candid," Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan law professor who has followed the case closely, told The Texas Tribune shortly after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. “But I think any confidence you might have had before Justice Ginsburg died that the case would be turned away has surely been shaken. And I think there's a lot more uncertainty about the future of the ACA."

A ruling would likely come sometime next year.

Disclosure: Google has been a financial supporter 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/09/texas-supreme-court-affordable-care-act-obamacare/.

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All 7 whistleblowers who accused Texas AG of criminal violations have resigned, been fired or put on leave

"All seven of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's whistleblowers have resigned, been fired or put on leave" 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.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Ryan Bangert confirming his resignation.

The last of the seven top aides who accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of criminal violations has resigned from the agency.

Ryan Bangert, who served in one of the agency's highest posts as deputy first assistant attorney general, resigned Wednesday, he told The Texas Tribune. The attorney general's office did not respond to a request Wednesday seeking to confirm Bangert's employment status.

“It has been my honor and privilege to serve alongside the men and women of the Office of the Attorney General," Bangert said in a statement. The Dallas Morning News first reported the information.

Two of the other whistleblowers were fired last week, two more were put on leave, and two others have already resigned — leaving the sprawling agency without seven of its top officials. A spokesman for Paxton denied that the firings were retaliation, citing unspecified violations of agency policy.

Bangert and six of his colleagues alerted law enforcement weeks ago that they had a “good faith" belief that their boss had committed bribery and abuse of office by using the agency to serve the interests of a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.

Paxton has called the employees “rogue" and their allegations “false." But documents and media reports have shown several highly unusual instances when Paxton's office got involved in separate legal matters that involved Paul.

The attorney general's office did not respond to a request Wednesday seeking to confirm Bangert's employment status.

Bangert, who was hired in 2019, served in one of the agency's most senior posts, and leaves as the agency is hemorrhaging top staff. In addition to the seven whistleblowers, the agency recently said goodbye to Katherine Cary, its chief of staff, who resigned.

In the immediate aftermath of the accusations against Paxton, it was Bangert who sent an agency-wide email assuring the roughly 4,000 staff members that “In light of recent events reported in the media … the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office, and the people of Texas."

“Together, we owe a duty to this office and the people of the State, who we serve, to ensure the agency continues its important work without interruption," he wrote the afternoon of Oct. 4, a Sunday.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/28/texas-ken-paxton-whistleblowers/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Federal appeals court upholds Gov. Abbott’s order — Texas counties can offer single drop-off ballot location

"Texas counties can offer only one drop-off ballot location, federal appeals court rules, upholding Gov. Greg Abbott's order" 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.

Texas counties may collect mail-in ballots at only one location, a federal appeals court ruled late Monday, once again upholding an order from Gov. Greg Abbott that restricts voting options.

Abbott in July acted to lengthen the early voting period and allow voters to deliver completed absentee ballots in person for longer than the normal period. But after large Democratic counties including Harris and Travis established several sites where voters could deliver their ballots, Abbott ordered Oct. 1 that they would be limited to one.

A number of civil rights groups sued in at least four lawsuits, calling the order an act of voter suppression that would disproportionately impact low-income voters, voters with disabilities, older voters and voters of color in Democratic counties. A federal judge on Friday sided with those groups, blocking Texas from enforcing the ruling.

But a three-judge panel on the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted that ruling on Saturday and on Monday gave a more formal word on the matter in a written opinion.

“Leaving the Governor's October 1 Proclamation in place still gives Texas absentee voters many ways to cast their ballots in the November 3 election. These methods for remote voting outstrip what Texas law previously permitted in a pre-COVID world," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan for the panel of three judges all appointed by President Donald Trump. “The October 1 Proclamation abridges no one's right to vote."

Travis County had designated four locations and Harris County — home to 2.4 million registered voters and spanning a greater distance than the entire state of Rhode Island — had designated a dozen before Abbott's order forced them to close most sites. Fort Bend and Galveston counties also planned to use multiple locations, according to court documents.

Voting rights advocates and local election administrators said the extra sites were critical for helping voters cast their ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Texas is set to receive an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, and amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays, advocates say, in-person drop-off locations are critical.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has not hesitated to say the governor's decision amounts to voter suppression.

“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous," Hollins said earlier this month.

In some states, voters can simply leave their ballots in boxes outside town halls or local churches. Not in Texas, where voters must show an election worker an approved form of identification and can only bring their own ballot.

Abbott had argued that the measure was necessary to ensure election integrity, but he did not provide any evidence and his office did not answer questions about how limiting the highly regulated drop-off locations would do so. In court filings, lawyers for the Texas Attorney General's Office wrote that some counties wouldn't provide “adequate election security, including poll watchers" — “inconsistencies" that the state argued “introduced a risk to ballot integrity."

Abbott said that poll watchers must be allowed at the drop-off sites, as they are at in-person voting sites. Experts say voter fraud is rare, but Republican officials in Texas and nationally have sought to cast doubt on the security of absentee ballots even as their political party calls on its own voters to use them.

The appeals court ruled Monday that Texas did not need to show evidence of voter fraud to justify its decision to limit counties to one location.

“Such evidence has never been required to justify a state's prophylactic measures to decrease occasions for vote fraud or to increase the uniformity and predictability of election administration," Duncan wrote for the court.

One voter who sued the state over the order, 82-year-old Ralph Edelbach, said in court documents that closing the site nearest his Cypress home will mean he adds an extra 20 miles each way to his trip to deliver his ballot, forcing him to spend nearly 90 minutes round trip.

That inconvenience will only be greater, advocates say, for voters with disabilities or those without reliable access to transportation.

The groups that sued the governor include the Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/13/texas-election-ballot-drop-off/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s top aides want him investigated for bribery and other alleged crimes: report

By Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune

Oct. 3, 2020

"Gov. Greg Abbott says accusations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton "raise serious concerns" 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.

Senior officials in the Texas Attorney General's Office have asked federal law enforcement to "investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes" by their boss, the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday.

The senior staff members, including Jeff Mateer, who resigned from his post as Paxton's top aide this week after several years leading the agency, notified the agency's human resources director that they sought the investigation.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses," seven agency leaders wrote in a one-page letter obtained by the Statesman.

The brief letter, dated Oct. 1, says the officials notified law enforcement of a potential crime on Sept. 30, but does not provide detailed accusations. The officials also say they notified Paxton himself of the accusation via text message on Oct. 1.

Paxton, a second-term state official and former state legislator who serves as co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition, has been under indictment for more than five years on felony charges of securities fraud. Paxton has yet to go to trial on the charges amid side battles over where the case will be heard and how much the special prosecutors appointed to take the case to trial will be paid.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said in a statement that "the complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law."

She declined to comment further, citing an open investigation.

"These allegations raise serious concerns," Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday in a prepared statement. "I will withhold further comment until the results of any investigation are complete." The offices of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did not immediately return requests for comment.

An attorney with Paxton's defense team in the securities fraud case, Philip Hilder, as well as one of the special prosecutors, Brian Wice, declined to comment on the latest allegations.

Jordan Berry, a political adviser to Paxton, confirmed Sunday that he had resigned in the wake of the allegations.

Michelle Lee, a public affairs officer for the FBI, declined to comment on the matter, citing internal policy within the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice not to comment on the existence of pending or potential investigations. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the region said "we have no comment." Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Saturday evening "we do not have an investigation."

Paxton has faced numerous questions over his ethics over his more than a decade in public life. To help pay for his stacked team of defense attorneys, he has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts for his legal defense fund, claiming the contributions came from “family friends" and are exempt from a state bribery law that bars elected officials from receiving gifts from people who are subject to their authority.

In the securities fraud charges that are still pending, Paxton is accused of convincing investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and criticized the prosecution as politically motivated. In 2014, the Texas State Securities Board fined Paxton $1,000 for soliciting investment clients without being registered, and he signed a disciplinary order without disputing its findings.

Last year, his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, filed a bill that would have expanded her husband's power as attorney general, giving him the power to exempt individuals from state regulations like the one he has been charged with violating.

In 2018, Paxton's office filed — and then abruptly recalled — a formal court brief in a lawsuit over Plano's zoning policies, in a move that his supporters attributed to political influence from conservatives in his home county.

Paxton, a conservative who has often elbowed for airtime as the state's top culture warrior, has kept up a busy and high-profile role during the coronavirus pandemic.

This spring, he declared that Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on elective medical procedures, an effort to conserve hospital resources for coronavirus patients, also barred abortions in the state, sparking a lawsuit that would drag on for weeks and force hundreds of women to cancel appointments to terminate their pregnancies. His office threatened to sue the state's biggest cities if they did not roll back coronavirus-related safety precautions, including mask mandates, and told local officials they could not keep landlords from evicting their tenants during the pandemic.

Paxton used the power of his office to lean on a Colorado county after it shut its doors to vacation home owners — including a top donor.

Paxton has led major multi-state lawsuits to overturn laws like the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often landing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's made equally political choices in the cases he chooses not to take. His office refused to defend a state agency, as it typically would, when it was sued for disciplining a state judge who refused to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And it declined to defend the Texas Ethics Commission in a lawsuit brought by the hardline conservative group Empower Texans, a political donor.

Last year, he was a major player in Texas' botched effort to review its voter rolls.

Paxton often boasts of his close relationship with the president, frequently greeting him on the tarmac when Air Force One touches down in Texas, and sharing stories during public appearances about their communication on major Texas-led litigation — the time Trump called while Paxton was in the shower is a favorite.

In 2018, Paxton narrowly bested his Democratic opponent, Justin Nelson, to win reelection in an unexpectedly tight race. Nelson had made Paxton's indictments the centerpiece of his campaign.

“Ken Paxton is the top law enforcement official in the state," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Saturday. “Yet, he has proven for years that he cannot follow the law himself."

Patrick Svitek and Abby Livingston contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/03/texas-ken-paxton-bribery-investigation/.

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