During the impeachment trial of the Attorney General of Texas in September 2023, Tony Buzbee cross-examined Ken Paxton’s former employee turned hapless informant.

You were involved in staging a coup, weren’t you? That’s what you were up to. That’s the reason you went to the governor’s office, that’s the reason you were talking to TLR, that’s the reason you were engaged in conduct like removing your boss’s name from agency letterhead, you were staging a coup.

This spirited moment early in the trial followed the rushed impeachment of Attorney General Paxton by the Texas House at the end of the legislative session. Less than a week after Buzbee’s cross of the rogue employee, the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton.

Following the trial, Buzbee appeared on a podcast.

After he described the House’s weak case, Buzbee explained the dangers of a weaponized impeachment process. Someone could be elected statewide, then impeached and removed from office. This would be done through a process that bypassed the voters. “It would come down to 30 people, 31 people in the Senate deciding statewide officials,” Buzbee said.

In an interview with Texas Scorecard, Paxton pointed to Texans for Lawsuit Reform as the driver of this new political playbook. He pointed to their failure to defeat him electorally in the 2022 Republican Primary.

“It was embarrassing to them, how much they spent, and the fact that they support somebody that got third place, almost last place, with a lot of money and a lot of their efforts,” he said. “But instead of making things good with me and trying to work things out in the future, they decided no, let’s work on this internal plot. Let’s do everything we can to take him out another way. The voters have spoken, but we don’t believe in what the voters have said.”

TLR’s fingerprints kept appearing during the impeachment drive against Paxton.

A week before a handful of employees from Paxton’s office went to the FBI, they went to attorney Johnny Sutton, a partner with the Ashcroft law firm.

The firm’s namesake is John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General under former President George W. Bush. Also, as reported by the Dallas Express, Sutton was George W. Bush’s criminal justice policy director when he was the governor of Texas. During Bush’s presidency, Sutton “led one of the largest and busiest United States Attorney’s Offices in the nation.”

During the Senate trial, it was revealed that for the three years Sutton represented Paxton’s accusers, he had not billed them.

During George P. Bush’s time at the General Land Office, from June 2022 until May 2023, the GLO paid the Ashcroft law firm more than $178,000. The GLO drew these payments from their general revenue and permanent school funds.

Texas Scorecard obtained the record of these payments from the Texas Comptroller. The payments show that they were for “Legal Services.” A request was made to the GLO, now headed by Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, for clarification of what specific legal services were rendered. “Under former Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the Ashcroft Law Firm was initially engaged to represent the General Land Office in a lawsuit against the Biden Administration for improperly halting border wall construction,” wrote Kimberly Hubbard, Senior Director of Communications for the GLO. “Their scope of work was expanded to include disaster recovery issues for the agency. With the change in leadership at the GLO in 2023 and Commissioner Buckingham taking the helm, this contract expired in March 2023, and this law firm no longer represents the GLO.”

Paxton, and his attorney Buzbee, noted that there was a TLR-connected mover in his office: James Blake Brickman. He is the son of Jim Brickman. A D Magazine profile reported that he runs Green Brick Partners, a homebuilding and land development company that develops large master-planned communities in multiple states, including Texas.

“I knew that Dick Weekley had a relationship with Blake,” Paxton said of his former employee. “His father is a homebuilder and they had connected and I think they had him in my office to do exactly what he did. He was a plant.”

Buzbee said there was a “crisis moment” when the soon-to-be labeled whistleblowers sent everybody on the eighth floor home. After they had the floor to themselves, these so-called whistleblowers shared notes about Nate Paul, a real estate developer and Paxton donor. Buzbee said these staffers then “started jumping to conclusions.”

In October 2020, eight of Paxton’s top aides accused Paxton of bribery and abuse of office. Five were fired and three resigned. Four of the five terminated employees sued Paxton. They alleged he did political favors for Paul by having his office intervene in Paul’s legal disputes.

According to Buzbee, Brickman gave an unsworn statement submitted to the Texas House. The House impeachment team used this unsworn statement as a basis for the impeachment. “He was the one that put it all together,” Buzbee said. “He’s the one that put all the pieces together; he was the driving force behind all this.” Immediately before joining the Texas Attorney General’s office, Brickman had served as chief of staff to former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R). He’s also the grandson of former Kentucky Democrat Gov. Ned Breathitt.

Transparency USA reported that Jim Brickman, Blake’s father, donated $10,000 to the 2024 re-election campaign of embattled House Speaker Dade Phelan.

Since the impeachment crashed and burned, Blake Brickman has been the most vocal of the self-proclaimed whistleblowers. He is now employed at 8VC, a venture capital firm in Austin.

As of May 9, 2024, he’s listed as President of the Cicero Institute, a public policy firm. Another former employee of the AG’s office, Ryan Vassar, works there as well. Vasser is best known for confessing on cross-examination that he, Brickman, and the other employees who tried to take down Ken Paxton “took no evidence” to the FBI.

Both 8VC and the Cicero Institute have a connection to TLR. In a 2021 podcast appearance, Dick Weekley discussed maintaining TLR’s “political infrastructure.” During this discussion, he name-dropped a California to Texas transplant he’d been meeting: Joe Lonsdale. He is a venture capitalist, owns 8VC, and founded the Cicero Institute with his wife. In February 2024, he shared a Wall Street Journal byline with Jeb Bush.

Paxton and Texans for Lawsuit Reform were not always at war.

As did others in this article series, Paxton agreed that the organization once played a constructive role in the 1990s. That was when it sought to curb frivolous lawsuits. Paxton supported their initiatives when he was elected to the Texas House in 2003.

“I appreciated what they were trying to accomplish,” he recalled. “I thought it was important to address those issues because clearly the legal system was more favorable to the people who were filing; things were out of whack.”

TLR has morphed from an organization lasered in on lawsuit abuse into something far more pernicious—a lobby group that leverages its financial war chest to shield corporate wrongdoing from accountability.

“They’ve definitely lost their way,” he said of TLR. “They are not the TLR of 10 years ago that I voted with; they are completely different.”

Paxton contends TLR’s shift happened after they notched significant tort reform victories. Texas was now open for business. The legal landscape was now more favorable to the organization’s business allies.

At that point, Paxton said TLR faced a choice. “Once you’ve accomplished your goals, you either end your organization, or you create a new organization or keep the same organization and create new ideas,” he said. “I think they morphed into something completely different that I don’t like, and I don’t think it’s good for Texas.”

Paxton traced his high-profile battle with TLR back to his efforts as Attorney General to reign in alleged anti-competitive practices by big tech companies.

“I think that’s when it all started,” he said. “I think when I started saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, what Google is doing here is anti-competitive, it’s hurting other businesses, hurting consumers’ … TLR does not [agree].”

He argued TLR tried to “undo” his office’s ability to pursue corporate fraud under Texas’ deceptive trade practices statute.

“We have sued Pfizer because they at times put money, greed above taking care of their consumers and telling the consumer the truth about what they’re doing,” Paxton said. “And I just want them to tell the truth. That’s all this is. We’re asking corporations to be honest with the consumer and not try to harm them and not try to gouge them.”

Paxton believes TLR’s coziness with major corporate players has blinded them to the need for accountability.

He mentioned that a prospective TLR donor was advised in a pitch meeting to “give us money and not pay attention to what’s going on in Texas politics.”

Paxton argued that lack of accountability has allowed TLR to work quietly. Doing what exactly? Work against some of the conservative base’s top legislative priorities.

“I do know enough legislators who told me that TLR doesn’t care about those types of issues: the pro-life movement, protecting children,” he said. “That’s not their interest. If that’s not their interest, just leave it alone. Just don’t bring it up.”

Paxton gave an example of TLR putting corporate medical interests over a patient’s well-being. That being their opposition to creating legal remedies for minors who had gender mutilation surgery.

Paxton reserved his harshest criticism for TLR’s political maneuvering. That would be not only their spending millions against his re-election but also propping up Democrats.

“Why did you waste money?” he asked. “Why are you helping the Democrats control the Texas House? Why did you support a Democrat [in a] Senate race with millions of dollars, and we lose it? We lost a seat that could have been Republican by just a few votes, because of what TLR did.”

The Senate seat Paxton referred to is Senate District 27—an area that includes Corpus Christi and South Padre Island. Democrat Morgan LaMantia, the current state senator for the district, defeated Republican Adam Hinojosa by less than one percent of the vote in 2022.

TLR backed LaMantia. Support of the Democrats in this race was based on the flawed belief that Republicans would do poorly in the midterm election.

In Paxton’s view, TLR made a devil’s bargain, protecting the interests of their corporate benefactors at the expense of selling out to Democrats.

“They’re trying to help [House Speaker] Dade Phelan keep control, and they’re helping the Democrats who control the Texas House,” he argued. “They are duplicitous and they’re dishonest about what they actually are trying to do.”

Campaign finance reports acquired by Transparency USA show an ongoing pattern of questionable support in elections by TLR.

They donated more than $117,000 to incumbent State Rep. Reggie Smith—a trial lawyer—in the March 2024 Republican primary for House District 62 in North Texas. Conservative candidate Shelley Luther defeated him. Luther entered the political spotlight after she was arrested and jailed in 2020 for defiance of government shutdown orders when she reopened her Dallas salon.

They’ve also backed State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth). In the 2021 legislative session, she chaired the House committee that killed two proposed measures to ban child gender mutilation procedures. Attorney Mitch Little said in part two of this series how Texans for Lawsuit Reform chose to stand against protecting children from such procedures. TLR donated more than $268,000 to Klick in the 2024 election cycle. She’s headed to a runoff against David Lowe in the May 28 election.

Paxton advised Texas voters to see TLR’s endorsement of a candidate as a red flag. “I think you should automatically know this is not your state rep,” he said. “He is controlled by Texans for Lawsuit Reform. He is not there to take care of you.”

He closed with a pointed message for TLR’s leadership.

“Texans for Lawsuit Reform has long since passed its prime,” Paxton said. “They’ve done enough damage over the last couple of years and it’s time for them to do something different. They should retire, go enjoy their retirement. They’ve obviously been around a while. Just go enjoy their families and retire.”

The final article in this series will explore what the future holds for TLR.

Daniel Greer

Daniel Greer is the Director of Innovation for Texas Scorecard.