James Barragán

Ken Paxton says he’s being sued by the state bar for misconduct over his lawsuit challenging the 2020 election

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state's top lawyer, said Friday the state bar was suing him for professional misconduct related to his lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

"I have recently learned that the Texas State Bar — which has been waging a months-long witch-hunt against me — now plans to sue me and my top deputy for filing Texas v. Penn: the historic challenge to the unconstitutional 2020 presidential election joined by nearly half of all the states and over a hundred members of Congress," Paxton said in a statement released on social media. "I stand by this lawsuit completely."

A few hours after saying he was being sued by the bar, Paxton’s office announced an investigation into the Texas Bar Foundation for "facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens" by donating money to groups that "encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border." The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Alistair Dawson, a Houston trial lawyer who is the chair-elect of the Texas Bar Foundation, said in a news release that the foundation was "disappointed to learn that AG Paxton has decided to use taxpayer dollars on a fruitless exercise." He said the foundation does not receive taxpayer funds and its grants are paid for by donations from Texas lawyers.

"Had AG Paxton taken the time to come and speak with us rather than issue a press release, I am confident that he would have found no wrongdoing on the part of the Foundation," Dawson said. "Nevertheless, the Foundation is happy to cooperate and provide the AG’s office with documents and information relevant to the investigation."

Paxton, an embattled Republican seeking a third term, said state bar investigators who now appear to be moving on a lawsuit against him are biased and said the decision to sue him, which comes a week before early voting in his GOP runoff for attorney general, was politically motivated. He is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the May 24 election.

"Texas Bar: I’ll see you and the leftists that control you in court," he said. "I’ll never let you bully me, my staff or the Texans I represent into backing down or going soft on defending the Rule of Law — something for which you have little knowledge."

In fact, the investigation into Paxton has been pending for months. Last July, a group of 16 lawyers that included four former state bar presidents filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including his decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The attorneys said the lawsuit was "frivolous" and had been filed without evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it, saying Texas had no standing to sue.

In March, the investigation moved ahead and Paxton was given 20 days to decide whether he wanted a trial by jury or an administrative hearing to resolve the complaint.

Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers who filed the ethics complaint, said he also had not been notified of a trial but that Paxton would have received notification.

"I was as surprised as you were to see that tweet this morning," Harrington said.

But the complaint filed by Harrington's group was one of multiple grievances filed to the state bar. Another filed by attorney Brynne VanHettinga accused Paxton's top deputy, Brent Webster, of professional misconduct for filing the lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election results. The state bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline investigated that complaint and found that Webster's representations in that suit were "dishonest," according to a lawsuit filed in Williamson County court on Friday.

"His allegations were not supported by any charge, indictment, judicial finding and/or credible or admissible evidence, and failed to disclose to the Court that some of his representations and allegations had already been adjudicated and/or dismissed in a court of law," the complaint read.

The commission said Webster had violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

A filing for Paxton's case was still not available as of Friday afternoon.

Because Paxton appears to have chosen a trial over an administrative hearing, the case would be tried in Travis County, Harrington said. The case would not be overseen by a judge from the heavily Democratic county, however. Instead, it will be overseen by a judge from outside the county but within the Texas Judicial Branch’s administrative region, which stretches north to Hill County, west to San Saba County, east to Austin County and south to Lavaca County.

Sylvia Borunda Firth, the State Bar of Texas’ president, said in a statement that the group is "dedicated to fostering ethical conduct in the legal profession and protecting the public through the attorney discipline system" which provides procedural rules to process, investigate and prosecute complaints.

“The system is designed to ensure fairness to all parties," she said. "Partisan political considerations play no role in determining whether to pursue a grievance or how that grievance proceeds through the system. Any claims to the contrary are untrue."

Borunda Firth said the bar’s 12-person volunteer committee called the Commission for Lawyer Discipline provides oversight to the group’s disciplinary counsel, which administers the discipline system with help from volunteer grievance panels across the state. The committee members determine whether an attorney violated the state’s rules of professional conduct and what sanction is appropriate.

“These unpaid volunteers devote countless hours to hearing and considering cases to ensure attorneys are fulfilling their obligations to the public," she said. "Without them, the attorney discipline system could not function. We are grateful for their service.”

Separately, Paxton faces multiple other scandals. He continues to fight a seven-year-old securities fraud case and last year came under FBI investigation for abuse of office after eight of his former deputies accused him of bribery. He’s also asking the Texas Supreme Court to throw out a whistleblower case against him by four of those former employees, who allege they were fired after they reported Paxton to authorities. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing.

Greg Abbott's border inspections found 'zero drugs, weapons, or any other type of contraband': report

State troopers ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to inspect every commercial truck coming from Mexico earlier this month — which clogged international trade with Mexico — found zero drugs, weapons or any other type of contraband, according to data released by the Department of Public Safety to The Texas Tribune.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/21/greg-abbott-texas-border-inspections/.

Earlier this month, Abbott ordered troopers to thoroughly inspect every commercial truck coming from Mexico’s four border states in what he described as an effort to stop illegal drugs and migrants from being smuggled into Texas. His order for increased state inspections was part of his response to the Biden administration’s announcement that it will lift Title 42 — the pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border. The expiration of the order is expected to increase the number of migrants seeking entry to the U.S.

Over eight days, starting April 8, troopers conducted more than 4,100 inspections of trucks. Troopers didn’t find any contraband but took 850 trucks off the road for various violations related to their equipment. Other truckers were given warnings, and at least 345 were cited for things such as underinflated tires, broken turn signals and oil leaks.

DPS Director Steve McCraw said at a Friday news conference with Abbott that the reason troopers hadn’t found any drugs or migrants in commercial trucks is because drug cartels “don’t like troopers stopping them, certainly north of the border, and they certainly don’t like 100% inspections of commercial vehicles on the bridges. And once that started, we’ve seen a decreased amount of trafficking across bridges — common sense.”

But Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group for human rights in the Americas, said it’s not likely cartels stopped the smuggling of drugs because of the state’s inspections. He said many illegal drugs smuggled into the United States are hidden in small compartments or spare tires of people’s vehicles going through international bridges for tourists. He said if smugglers were trying to hide illegal drugs in a commercial truck, it’s most likely federal immigration officials found them before the trucks were directed to the DPS secondary inspections.

“It just seems odd to me that DPS would be that much of a deterrent for smugglers deciding whether to bring something after already passing through the gauntlet of CBP,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection routinely inspects commercial cargo coming from Mexico for illegal drugs and people being smuggled as soon as truckers cross the international bridges. CBP called Texas’ inspections duplicative and “unnecessary.”

The state inspections created a backlog of 18-wheelers on both sides of the border, with truckers reporting delays of several hours up to a few days, when it usually takes between 20 minutes and a couple of hours for commercial trucks to cross after they’ve been inspected by CBP. The delays also resulted in rotten produce and lost business for grocers.

The state’s inspections at eight commercial bridges that connect Texas cities with Mexican cities in Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas ended Friday after Abbott signed agreements with the four Mexican governors that they would increase security measures to prevent the smuggling of drugs and migrants. Abbott has said he would bring back the secondary inspections if the governors’ security initiatives don’t decrease the number of migrants attempting to cross the border.

Abbott said the deals with the four governors were “historic,” calling them an example of how border states can work together on immigration. But three of the four Mexican governors said they will simply continue security measures they put in place before Abbott ordered the state inspections.

Mexico is among the United States’ largest trading partners. The total trade between the two countries amounted to $56.25 billion in February, according to recent government data. Texas’ biggest ports of entry — Port Laredo, Ysleta, Pharr International Bridge, Eagle Pass, El Paso, Brownsville International Bridge and Del Rio International Bridge — accounted for nearly 65% of the total trade between the U.S. and Mexico in 2021.

Reporters James Barragán and Mitchell Ferman contributed to this report.

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

'I hate it here': National Guard members sound off on Texas border mission in leaked morale survey

Feb. 24, 2022

"“I hate it here”: National Guard members sound off on Texas border mission in leaked morale survey" 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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This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.

When asked in January what they liked about their deployment to the Texas-Mexico border, members of the Texas Air National Guard had few nice things to say.

“I hate it here,” one respondent said in an anonymous survey about the involuntary mission with no set end date that has taken as many as 10,000 troops away from their civilian lives and families.

Another, asked for general feedback, simply posted four middle- finger emojis.

Frustration, anxiety and anger prevailed in the survey responses obtained by the The Texas Tribune and the Military Times. The survey includes responses from nearly 250 members of Task Force South, one of six units that fall under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star — Gov. Greg Abbott’s unprecedentedly large attempt to secure the border with Guard members and state troopers.

“I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one Guardsman wrote in response to another question. “IF my job still exists when I return, I will have a giant hole to dig out of.”

Another member, whose husband travels for work, said they’ve had to pay an extra $2,000 each month for a nanny to watch their kids. Yet another worried about the future of a strained marriage after having to leave his wife and new baby behind.

The survey responses provide the clearest insights yet into the simmering dissatisfaction among troops stationed at the border. The survey was distributed before the Tribune and Military Times published an investigation earlier this month detailing problems with the mission that included hasty mobilization, alarming morale issues, meager living conditions, delays in payment and the perception by troops that the mission was politically motivated to score reelection points for Abbott. Those findings have been consistently denied or downplayed by Texas officials.

Nearly 250 members of the unit — around half its troop strength — completed the survey between Jan. 5-10, according to the source who provided the survey results. The source is not being named because they were not authorized to share the survey.

Task Force South largely consists of Texas Air National Guard members under the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group. Those troops work in the Brownsville area of southernmost Texas and most are living in hotels during the deployment — the best living conditions among the thousands of Texas troops at the border.

The obtained data is from five free-response questions that asked airmen to list positives and negatives about the mission, offer feedback on benefits and off-duty restrictions and weigh in on Operation Lone Star in general. An analysis of the responses by the Tribune and Military Times found:

  • More than half expressed skepticism or frustration with Operation Lone Star and how senior leaders planned, executed and communicated about the mission.
  • Nearly 30% vented about the mobilization's length, haste or involuntary nature in their answers.
  • About 30% said the most difficult part of Operation Lone Star was the deployment’s impact on their civilian lives, including lost wages, disrupted families and interrupted careers and educations.
  • More than 1 in 5 either offered no substantive feedback on what they “like most” about Operation Lone Star or said they disliked everything about the mission.
  • Almost 3 out of 4 airmen said they wanted better state benefits. Troops on state active-duty missions like Operation Lone Star don’t get benefits common to federal deployments like tax exemptions, retirement credit, Veterans Affairs disability coverage for injuries or education benefits like GI Bill credit or the Hazlewood Act, which is a Texas education benefit that gives free tuition to veterans who served on active-duty missions.

It wasn’t all bad though. While the feedback was overwhelmingly negative, there were a few members who said they were happy with the pay (“when it comes on time,” some specified) and around 2 in 5 said they appreciated the camaraderie among the troops.

When reached for comment, Texas Military Department spokesperson Col. Rita Holton said the agency “consistently seek[s] opportunities to recognize service members, instill esprit de corps, and solicit feedback in order to continue improving morale across the board.”

“Surveys are an important, yet confidential, method in doing so,” Holton said. She also said the benefits disparity is an unavoidable consequence of the mission being done under state active-duty authority.

Holton said the surveys “[allow] leadership teams to proactively address” problems, but the source who provided the survey results said task force leadership initially didn’t respond to the results or communicate a plan to address the complaints troops made. Internal leadership meetings “focused on the positives that people seem to like their [colleagues], Mexican food in the area, etc.,” the source said.

But seven hours after the Tribune and Military Times submitted questions to the agency asking what it had done to address the troops’ concerns, Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, the operation’s commander, signed a policy memo relaxing the off-duty curfew, alcohol restrictions and distance limits on off-duty travel. Leaders communicating the changes to the troops said they were the result of members’ feedback in surveys — despite the surveys being completed more than a month ago.

The agency refused to provide the results of a similar survey sent to all Operation Lone Star troops on Jan. 3. State military officials are trying to block a public information request from Military Times and the Tribune for that information, claiming that releasing the results would put troops at risk and “have a chilling effect” on future survey participation.

Lives left behind

The responses illustrate the personal consequences of the short-notice, involuntary activation.

Most state active-duty missions are short-term emergency responses, such as the Texas Guard’s response to the 2021 winter storm or hurricanes in recent years. But Operation Lone Star is different — thousands of troops have been there involuntarily since last fall, and they’re likely to be there until they’re replaced with a fresh wave of troops this fall, according to planning documents.

“What strategic or tactical thought has there been toward the impact of [Operation Lone Star] on the morale and retention of the Guard?” one member asked. “I had [nine days’] notice to leave my wife and baby during an immensely stressful point in our marriage.”

Another echoed his concerns.

“[I had] 10 days to try and find a substitute who could manage my classes at work, make plans to keep my house in shape, prepare my family mentally and emotionally, and of course, pack myself,” the airman said. Troops who don’t report for the involuntary mission could be arrested, Texas officials have acknowledged.

Many of the troops on the mission arrived immediately following federal deployments and a separate state mobilization to help with hurricane relief in Texas and Louisiana, one airman said. Now, major life milestones are still on hold.

“Myself and others have been gone for what will be a year and a half … with mere days in between,” another airman said. “Weddings, home builds and starting [a] family have been put off for the time being, and [this mission] is grinding down what little resolve we have left.”

The mission has halted schooling and day jobs as well. One airman said they were taking a pay cut from their civilian job, and the Texas Guard’s hardship bonus pay wasn’t enough to make up their salary.

“We were rushed down here from our homes and families just to sit around for a month waiting on training [and] equipment (most of which we are still waiting on), without the proper infrastructure to support such a [massive] mobilization,” the airman said.

A college student bemoaned that the mission had delayed their graduation — and worried they “may have to restart my nursing program all over again even [though] I was supposed to graduate in December 2022.”

And one health care worker, exasperated that the Guard had indefinitely “plucked” them from their job amid the coronavirus pandemic, argued they were “lied to about the duration.”

“Whether or not you agree with the politics and morals of [Operation Lone Star], the best thing you could do to improve morale would be to shorten [deployments],” the member said. “I’ve spoken to very few people who plan on continuing their service in the Texas [National Guard], much less staying on [the border] any longer than they have to. Send people home.”

Meanwhile, problems stemming from the mission’s rapid expansion are alienating even the troops who support Abbott’s approach to securing the border.

One Guard member who reported enjoying “working in the field” to catch migrants also decried leadership’s “lack of answers [and an] unknown date to return to family and civilian career.”

“People [quit] school, [their] jobs, [their] relationships all because of the stress of not knowing when they can pick it back up or plan to start again,” the airman explained. “It’s unrealistic for the younger [airmen].”

Another service member, who thinks the operation isn’t tough enough on migrants, also demanded that senior leaders also “pay us correctly and give us actual [health] insurance.”

Other troops resented feeling like a number or a political pawn in Abbott’s 2022 reelection campaign. Abbott is facing multiple challengers from his right in the Republican primary on March 1 who have criticized him for not being tough enough on the border. Many of the mission’s critics have condemned its scale as a political ploy, despite record migration at the border.

“Members feel like political [pawns] and do not feel like their [issues] are being heard,” said one airman.

Another decried how the mission “feels like being used for a political agenda.”

“Most of us signed up to help Texas in times of need like hurricanes,” the Guard member said. “This doesn’t feel like we are helping any Texans besides the governor and his ability to say he has activated the [Guard] to the border.”

Flagging morale

The mission’s shortcomings could exacerbate a deepening morale crisis in the Texas Guard.

“I support the mission and overall am glad to be part of it,” one Guard member said. “But morale issues are becoming critical and will get worse unless dramatic action is taken to get ahead of it.”

Following a string of suicides linked to the mission, there’s fear of future self-harm by members.

“I’m concerned with having members drinking without limits, knowing they have personal firearms [with them] and mental health struggles,” one airman explained. “With limited … access to mental health providers, and the rise in suicides on the Army side [of the mission], I feel we are doing nothing to prevent suicides coming to the 432nd.”

That airman called Operation Lone Star a “huge disappointment.”

“I never imagined members of the military would be treated so poorly[,] and I plan to leave the Air Guard after this because of how myself and others around me have been treated,” the member said.

Some respondents praised the effort and said they’d stay on as long as they could, despite the murky timeline and living with roommates or without a full kitchen. But more airmen indicated in the survey that Operation Lone Star will be their final mission in the Texas National Guard.

Military Times and the Tribune previously reported a recent trend of low retention numbers for the state’s Army Guard, while more troops leave critical fields like cyber warfare for the Air Guard as well.

Some are burnt out by the onslaught of missions and activations in recent years, from pandemic response to assistance in severe weather. Others worry their civilian lives have suffered too much.

According to one service member, multiple airmen had just returned from basic or technical training or a deployment, only to be pointed to the Mexico border during their first Guard drill back home.

“We’re going to lose a lot of good [airmen],” they said. “Why are we doing that to our members?!?!?!?”

Multiple people are bracing themselves to rebuild progress they’ve lost at their regular jobs when they return from the border. One airman, who called Operation Lone Star a “political mess between the federal and state government” now plans to separate from the Guard when their contract expires in 2023 after losing most of their clients from their civilian job.

“[Operation Lone Star] cares more about numbers than the impact on individuals and their families,” said one. “It does greater harm to our members than good by putting their families and own lives at risk for an unclear mission.”

Another said they hope other states learn from the mission’s troubles.

“We are disposable in the eyes of top leaders, from the governor on down,” declared the service member. “The leadership failures of this mission will be a case study for military leaders for years to come.”

José Luis Martínez contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/24/national-guard-Texas-border-morale-survey/.

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