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The Whistleblowers Behind the Impeachment Proceedings of Suspended Texas AG Ken Paxton

Posted  June 16, 2023

Whistleblowers come from all industries, occupations, backgrounds, and political affiliations.  On June 16, the Texas Tribune ran a profile on the four whistleblowers behind impeachment allegations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which drives home the point.

First, some necessary context.  In November 2020, the four whistleblowers filed a lawsuit against Paxton under the Texas Whistleblower Act.  That lawsuit alleged that Paxton engaged in wrongful conduct, including “applying . . . pressure on the [four whistleblowers and others] to use the personnel, legal authority and other resources of the [AG’s office] to advance the legal and personal interest of Nate Paul and his business activities”—the whistleblowers say Paul was Paxton’s “close friend and campaign donor.”  The whistleblowers alleged that they held a “good faith belief that Paxton had violated Texas criminal law, including . . . the laws regarding bribery, improper influence, and abuse of office . . . .”  As alleged in their complaint, the whistleblowers reported their concerns to law enforcement authorities and subsequently suffered retaliation and adverse employment actions.

A few years later, in February 2023, “Paxton agreed to settle the whistleblower lawsuit” for “$3.3 million,” which had to be “approved by the Legislature,” which set off a House investigation, according to PBS.  In May 2023, the Republican-led Texas House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against now-suspended Texas AG Paxton.  As PBS reported, “The GOP-led House of Representatives . . . approved 20 articles of impeachment on sweeping allegations of wrongdoing that have trailed the state’s top lawyer for years, including abuse of office and bribery.  The vote immediately suspended Paxton from office.”  The House vote was 121 Yeas to 23 Nays.

Now a bit about the four whistleblowers as described in the Texas Tribune’s profile of them or in the whistleblowers’ allegations in their lawsuit:

  • Blake Brickman spent his “career in Republican politics and working as a lawyer in private practice.” Before working at the AG’s office, Brickman “served as the Chief of Staff for the Governor of Kentucky, a Republican, for four years” and “served as Chief of Staff to a United States Senator, a Republican.”  In February 2020, Paxton recruited Brickman to the AG’s office, where Brickman was the “Deputy Attorney General for Policy & Strategy Initiatives.”  The lawsuit claims that Paxton even “presented Brickman with a book on which Paxton inscribed a note saying he was ‘so grateful [Brickman] joined our team.’”
  • Ryan Vassar worked for “top Texas Republicans” and was a law clerk for a Texas Supreme Court Justice before joining the AG’s office. Vassar performed various roles at the AG’s office for over five years.  In 2020, he was the “Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel” at the AG’s office, a position to which “Paxton personally promoted him.”  In that role, Vassar “served as the chief legal officer for the OAG.”  According to the lawsuit, he “represented the OAG before other state and federal bodies and oversaw 60 attorneys and 30 professional staff across 5 different divisions, which are responsible for rendering approximately 50,000 legal decisions each year.”
  • Mark Penley has over 30 years of legal experience and is a former federal prosecutor. The Tribune notes that he graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served for five years, reaching the rank of captain.  The Tribune cites Penley’s lawyer to say “Penley is a lifelong Republican.”  In the AG’s office, Penley served as the Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice for a little over a year.  In that role, “[h]e supervised the Criminal Prosecutions, Special Prosecutions, Criminal Appeals, and Crime Victims Services Divisions which were comprised of approximately 220 employees.”
  • David Maxwell worked for over 40 years in law enforcement in Texas, including 35 years with the Texas Department of Public Safety, 24 years as a Texas Ranger. According to the lawsuit, Maxwell was “involved in investigating some of the most serious criminal matters and conduct in [Texas] for decades and has a well-earned reputation as an honest, thorough, and tough law enforcement investigator.”  According to the Tribune, Maxwell “came to the agency under then-Attorney General [now Governor] Greg Abbott and stayed after Paxton took over in 2015.”  Maxwell worked in the AG’s office for roughly 10 years, where he served as the Deputy Director and then Director of the Law Enforcement Division, overseeing 350 employees.

We will wait to see how the Texas Senate handles the impeachment proceedings.  As reported by the Texas Tribune, the “Senate plans to consider impeachment rules on June 20 and to start the trial by Aug. 28.”  In any case, the above descriptions and allegations about the whistleblowers provide yet another reminder that blowing the whistle is not a matter of party affiliation or loyalty.  It’s about bringing concerns to light.  To that end, one of the “ayes” in the impeachment vote, Texas Representative Cody Vasut, submitted a reason for his vote that is telling:

[T]here is sufficient evidence before the house that Attorney General Ken Paxton committed acts while in office that are properly the subject of impeachment and trial in the Senate . . . .  No political consideration is relevant.  My conscience compels me in this matter to vote aye.  Here I stand; I can do no other.

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