The report doesn’t call it an attempted political coup. But buried in the antiseptic language of an investigative report issued yesterday, it appears several former top employees of Attorney General Ken Paxton were more concerned with furthering their own political career than getting at the truth – and, ironically, at least two were willing to break the law to do it.
Texas’ political world was rocked a year ago when seven top employees of the Office of the Attorney General filed a criminal complaint. They alleged Paxton had received a bribe to aid a campaign donor, Texas businessman Nate Paul.
[Background: Unraveling a Scandal in the Office of the Attorney General, Oct. 17, 2020.]
An internal investigation, however, finds the complaint had no substance and that Paxton himself took actions that were “proper pursuant to his legal obligations.” Meanwhile, “[t]here is no evidence that Nate Paul attempted to bribe [Ken Paxton].”
What emerges from the report is picture of an agency’s senior staff who had decided to take out their boss – a statewide elected official – and were unconcerned with whatever facts needed to be ignored or concocted to make it happen.
At issue in their criminal complaint was the appointment of an outside special prosecutor to investigate claims that a Texas businessman had been improperly targeted by federal law enforcement agents. That businessman had made one donation to Paxton, several years before the federal raid that would be the source of the legal inquiries in 2020.
According to the internal investigation former First Assistant Jeff Mateer – a central player in the political coup – and other members of the OAG senior leadership team, alleged the appointment of that special prosecutor was done without their knowledge and consent, and was evidence of a crime. And yet, the report finds agency records indicating they were involved in the hiring, and even signed off on it. One of those making the allegations – Ryan Vassar – appears to have approved the hiring of the special prosecutor… only to go in the computer system and change his approval status after the fact.
Interestingly, Mateer and the other disgruntled employees “flatly refused to cooperate” with the investigation.
For example, Mateer was known for his meticulous note-keeping, maintaining journals of his activities. When he abruptly resigned from his job on Oct. 2, 2020, he left behind his daily journals from January through June of that year. Yet, the investigative report found, his journals for July through his resignation were missing. When confronted with this, Mateer claimed he “did not have any journals in his possession and did not account for the absence of this significant piece of evidence.”
At best, the report indicates, the criminal complaint they made is based off incomplete information which they either withheld if they knew, or simply decided not to seek. For example, when one of the disgruntled employees learned the special prosecutor was issuing subpoenas a chain of events was set in motion that included going to court against the special prosecutor’s actions.
Unknown to them, perhaps because they did not ask, was that in addition to acting in his role with the OAG the outside attorney was also appointed to by the Travis County District Attorney to handle investigatory matters.
What also emerges in the report is a seeming indifference by some of the staffers to break the law in their effort to show Paxton was engaged in criminal behavior.
According to the internal investigation, former OAG senior staffers Ryan Vassar and Mark Penley obtained “grand jury information” which they leaked to a private, outside lawyer, in “violation of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 20.02.” The report indicates Penley “misled” a Travis County investigator in order to obtain those records.
Additionally, the investigation alleges, then-Deputy Attorney General Vassar “upon notice that an investigation was being conducted into his actions, deleted a government document and tampered with evidence (or attempted to tamper with evidence), likely violating Texas Penal Code sections 37.09 and 37.10.”
The motivations for all this activity are unclear, though perhaps hinted at on Page 27 of the report.
There it is mentioned that subsets of this band of disgruntled senior staffers “began visits with clients of the AG, including State government staff and elected officials, to attempt to cause political damage to the AG and his attorney-client relationship with those individuals.”
What that means is that they were meeting with members of the Texas Senate, according to a source close to the investigation. The individual spoke to Texas Scorecard on the condition of anonymity, since the person is not authorized to speak about the investigation or the report. Should Paxton have been forced to resign, or even impeached, the Texas Senate would have to confirm a replacement appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to serve out the remainder of Paxton’s term.
“It was an attempted coup, but no one will call it that,” said the source.
This source explains the meetings took place so Jeff Mateer and the others could determine what interest members of Texas Senate had in seeing Paxton removed as the attorney general – and who they would be willing to confirm if a situation presented itself. A key question from them, according to the source, was if they would be able to keep their jobs. Several, no doubt, hoped for promotions in a new administration.
In the end, none of them kept their jobs. Less than a month after issuing their complaint, all seven of the senior employees who had accused Texas Attorney General Paxton of criminal behavior were out of the agency.
And now, it appears, several might find themselves with criminal investigations into their own behavior.