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Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is ‘unmoored by disarray,’ report finds

paxton.jpeg
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at the 2018 Texas State Republican Convention.

Ken Paxton’s tenure as Texas’ attorney general has been tumultuous. Since he was elected to the office in 2015, Paxton’s been indicted on felony charges of security fraud – for which he still has not stood trial – and the FBI is investigating Paxton and his office for abuse of power.

Now, a report by the Associated Press has revealed even more dysfunction in the attorney general’s office. Jake Bleiberg, a Texas-based reporter for the AP, spoke to Texas Standard about his investigation. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You write that, behind the scenes, the Texas attorney general’s office has become “unmoored by disarray.” Tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that, specifically. 

Jake Bleiberg: That’s right. So in the two years since eight of Paxton’s top deputies went to the FBI and accused him of crimes, we’ve seen a real exodus from the office of senior lawyers, and especially senior lawyers with specialized areas of legal practice. One of these, that sort of is the lead example in our story, is the human trafficking division has lost enough people that, as of August, 40% of the jobs in that department were vacant. And what we’re actually seeing is that, you know, the fact that people are leaving and don’t want to work there is having an effect on the casework of the office. So my story starts out with an example out of Gatesville, Texas, a small Central Texas town. Last month in September, the attorney general’s office dismissed a series of human trafficking and child sexual assault cases there. In four of those cases, they said they were dropping them because they had lost track of the victim.

I gather that there have been some other things – like, for instance, the secretive firing of a Paxton supporter less than two months into his job. What were the circumstances there? 

That’s right. This happened back in January of 2021. A friend and supporter of General Paxton’s, whose family had given some money to General Paxton’s legal defense fund, was brought in in a senior position as an adviser to the Criminal Investigations Division. And he was ultimately fired just under eight weeks into the job after he displayed child pornography in a meeting in an effort to prove a point about how difficult the work of the criminal investigators was. This was relayed to us by three people who were familiar with the meeting, but it was something that one of those people told us afterwards. There was so much outrage over it from people in the meeting that Paxton’s top deputy actually went around and told people not to talk about what had happened.

Your account is based on hundreds of pages of records and interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees, and many of them spoke on condition of anonymity – was that because they feared retaliation?

So this report in the Associated Press was the product of months of work by colleagues and I, and a lot of that was talking to people who currently work for the agency who aren’t allowed to talk to the press, and then people who used to work there. But because of the sort of blowback from Paxton’s office that has been faced by the former deputies who reported him to the FBI, some of these people were very concerned that, if they put their names out in public, the attorney general’s office would sort of seek retribution in some way.

The thrust of this is that you have lawyers quitting over practices that they say, and you write, “aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent.” What has Ken Paxton had to say about your reporting?

Ken Paxton unfortunately didn’t take me up on repeated offers to him and his staff to talk to me about the story. I really wanted to understand the attorney general’s perspective on this and sort of his view of what’s going on in his office. But so far, they’ve had nothing to say that I’m aware of.

I would imagine that, privately, Ken Paxton and his loyalists would see this, especially with the Election Day fast approaching, as a political hit job by journalists designed to favor the Democrat who’s challenging him. What would you say to those objections?

Yeah, I think, you know, we’re putting this out basically because we’ve got it ready now. I think it is obviously important that we have an informed public who understand what is going on in the offices run by their elected officials. But I guess, to the idea that this is in some way partisan or a hit job, what I’d point to is that a lot of the criticism in this story, including stuff on the record, is coming from Republicans.

The person who I think was most concerned by what had happened that we reported on was the Republican district attorney in Coryell County, a man named Dusty Boyd, who is, you know, left to sort of clean up the pieces after the attorney general’s office dropped these eight human trafficking and child sexual assault charges in his county. And what he said to me very directly was he feels he made a mistake in trusting the attorney general’s office to come in and do a good job. And again, that’s a fellow Republican. That’s a member of Paxton’s party.

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