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Texas Supreme Court rules against AG Ken Paxton, greenlights his deposition in whistleblower case

Three men in suits stand at a podium.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
/
The Texas Newsroom
From left, Ryn Vassar, Blake Brickman and Mark Penley, three of four former deputies who brought a suit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, speak at a news conference at the Capitol on Sept. 25, 2023.

The Texas Supreme Court has denied Attorney General Ken Paxton's motion to end a lawsuit brought forward by a group of former employees who were terminated after reporting the Republican to the FBI.

The court’s late Friday ruling means Paxton will have to answer questions under oath in the case that prompted his impeachment last year.

Paxton’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling, attorneys for whistleblowers Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley and David Maxwell said, “We look forward to the opportunity to finally place the attorney general and the other witnesses under oath and question them about the facts in our lawsuit.”

The four men worked for Paxton in 2020 when they reported him to the FBI. They accused him of abusing his office to help a political donor.

The men were terminated shortly afterward. The group then filed a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination under the Texas Whistleblower Act.

Last year, both parties announced they had reached a settlement agreement for $3.3 million that included an apology from Paxton for calling them “rogue employees” in a news release.

But the Texas Legislature refused to appropriate the money to fund the settlement during last year’s regular session.

Instead, the House of Representatives launched an investigation into the whistleblower claims that resulted in the historic impeachment of Paxton — the state's first in more that 40 years.

Paxton was acquitted of all articles of impeachment by the Texas Senate in September.

Status of the whistleblowers' lawsuit

As part of the lawsuit, the four whistleblowers have asked to depose Paxton and three of his top aides: Brent Webster, who serves as the first assistant attorney general; Lesley French Henneke, who serves as chief of staff at the Office of the Attorney General; and Michelle Smith, Paxton’s senior adviser.

In December, a Travis County District Court judge gave the greenlight for the depositions to move forward, but Paxton appealed the decision.

Last week, the Texas Third Court of Appeals denied Paxton’s challenge.

But the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court dealt a blow to Paxton on Friday, voting 6-2 to allow the depositions to happen.

Two justices, Jimmy Blacklock and John Phillip Devine, dissented — arguing, in part, that they would have preferred to allow the deposition of Smith first before reconsidering the necessity of taking testimony from Paxton, Webster and Henneke.

Under the Travis County District Court judge's order, the oral depositions of all involved parties should be taken no later than Feb. 9.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the Texas Capitol Reporter for The Texas Newsroom. Got a tip? Email him at smb@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel.
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