Gov. Greg Abbott says accusations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton "raise serious concerns"
By Emma Platoff
Senior officials in the Texas Attorney General's Office have asked federal law enforcement to "investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes" by their boss, the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday.
The senior staff members, including Jeff Mateer, who resigned from his post as Paxton's top aide this week after several years leading the agency, notified the agency's human resources director that they sought the investigation.
"We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses," seven agency leaders wrote in a one-page letter obtained by the Statesman.
The brief letter, dated Oct. 1, says the officials notified law enforcement of a potential crime on Sept. 30, but does not provide detailed accusations. The officials also say they notified Paxton himself of the accusation via text message on Oct. 1.
Paxton, a second-term state official and former state legislator who serves as co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition, has been under indictment for more than five years on felony charges of securities fraud. Paxton has yet to go to trial on the charges amid side battles over where the case will be heard and how much the special prosecutors appointed to take the case to trial will be paid.
The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that the allegations are tied to Paxton's relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and campaign donor, citing the text message Mateer and the other officials sent to Paxton last week.
"General Paxton, yesterday, each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations of law by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul," Mateer told Paxton in the Oct. 1 text, obtained by the Chronicle.
According to the report, Mateer and the other officials felt compelled to act after Paxton allegedly appointed a special prosecutor to target "adversaries" of Paul.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said in a statement that "the complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law."
She declined to comment further, citing an open investigation.
Ryan Bangert, the deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven aides who signed on to the letter, wrote to agency staff Sunday encouraging them "to ensure the agency continues its important work without interruption."
"I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office, and the people of Texas. The work we do together makes a difference every day in the lives of our fellow citizens," Bangert wrote. "Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all."
Meanwhile, top Texas Republicans reacted cautiously to the allegations against Paxton.
"These allegations raise serious concerns," Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday in a prepared statement. "I will withhold further comment until the results of any investigation are complete."
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called the news "obviously concerning."
"I learned about this from media reports," Patrick said in a statement. "I will wait until the investigation is complete before making any additional comments."
The office of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did not immediately return requests for comment.
An attorney with Paxton's defense team in the securities fraud case, Philip Hilder, declined to comment. Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors on the case, said Sunday that "we're going to look into this," but declined to elaborate further. It's not clear whether the latest allegations are related to the pending securities fraud charges.
Jordan Berry, a political adviser to Paxton, confirmed Sunday that he had resigned in the wake of the allegations.
Michelle Lee, a public affairs officer for the FBI, declined to comment on the matter, citing internal policy within the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice not to comment on the existence of pending or potential investigations. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the region said "we have no comment." Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Saturday evening "we do not have an investigation."
Paxton has faced numerous questions over his ethics over his more than a decade in public life. To help pay for his stacked team of defense attorneys, he has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts for his legal defense fund, claiming the contributions came from "family friends" and are exempt from a state bribery law that bars elected officials from receiving gifts from people who are subject to their authority.
In the securities fraud charges that are still pending, Paxton is accused of convincing investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing that he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and criticized the prosecution as politically motivated. In 2014, the Texas State Securities Board fined Paxton $1,000 for soliciting investment clients without being registered, and he signed a disciplinary order without disputing its findings.
Last year, his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, filed a bill that would have expanded her husband's power as attorney general, giving him the power to exempt individuals from state regulations like the one he has been charged with violating.
In 2018, Paxton's office filed — and then abruptly recalled — a formal court brief in a lawsuit over Plano's zoning policies, in a move that his supporters attributed to political influence from conservatives in his home county.
Paxton, a conservative who has often elbowed for airtime as the state's top culture warrior, has kept up a busy and high-profile role during the coronavirus pandemic.
This spring, he declared that Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on elective medical procedures, an effort to conserve hospital resources for coronavirus patients, also barred abortions in the state, sparking a lawsuit that would drag on for weeks and force hundreds of women to cancel appointments to terminate their pregnancies. His office threatened to sue the state's biggest cities if they did not roll back coronavirus-related safety precautions, including mask mandates, and told local officials they could not keep landlords from evicting their tenants during the pandemic.
Paxton used the power of his office to lean on a Colorado county after it shut its doors to vacation home owners — including a top donor.
Paxton has led major multi-state lawsuits to overturn laws like the Affordable Care Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often landing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's made equally political choices in the cases he chooses not to take. His office refused to defend a state agency, as it typically would, when it was sued for disciplining a state judge who refused to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And it declined to defend the Texas Ethics Commission in a lawsuit brought by the hardline conservative group Empower Texans, a political donor.
Last year, he was a major player in Texas' botched effort to review its voter rolls.
Paxton often boasts of his close relationship with the president, frequently greeting him on the tarmac when Air Force One touches down in Texas, and sharing stories during public appearances about their communication on major Texas-led litigation — the time Trump called while Paxton was in the shower is a favorite.
In 2018, Paxton narrowly bested his Democratic opponent, Justin Nelson, to win reelection in an unexpectedly tight race. Nelson had made Paxton's indictments the centerpiece of his campaign.
"Ken Paxton is the top law enforcement official in the state," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Saturday. "Yet, he has proven for years that he cannot follow the law himself."
Calls could build in the coming days among other Republicans for Paxton to more specifically address the charges or resign. On Sunday, state Rep. Sarah Davis, a Houston Republican representing a district that Democrats are targeting this year, became the first known GOP member at the Legislature to suggest Paxton resign if he does not "quickly address these allegations."
"Although innocent until proven guilty, AG Paxton has been under indictment for the past five years," Davis tweeted. "With these new allegations of bribery and abuse of office, Paxton needs to quickly address these allegations or resign so he can devote his time to his own personal legal matters."
Cassandra Pollock, Patrick Svitek and Abby Livingston contributed reporting.
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Austin FC's opening match at LAFC has already gotten plenty of buzz, and not just because the team will be playing its first-ever match. The opener will also see two famous fans pitted against each other: Will Ferrell and Matthew McConaughey.
Since he joined the club as a part-time owner in 2019, McConaughey hasn't been quiet about going Verde. The Austin icon has been a hypeman for the team on the Jimmy Kimmel show, spoken with MLS Commissioner Don Garber at SXSW and is vocal about the club on Twitter.
On Tuesday, McConaughey talked all things Austin FC from what appeared to be an Airstream.
"We've been talking about this," McConaughey said. "We've been building this brick by brick. We understand it's Verde, it's listos, but now it's live."
"I just got some chills saying that," McConaughey added.
This weekend will put the club to the test for the first time against LAFC, which also happens to be part-owned by a big Hollywood name. Comedian and actor Will Ferrell will be on the other side of the pitch come Saturday, and he's ready to start a rivalry.
After talking to McConaughey about both teams, Ferrell told Spectrum News he's excited to watch his team play the so-called "Austin Cacti" this season.
"I can only hope for a rivalry," Ferrell said. "I think Austin is going to be a fantastic market for a brand new soccer team, and I can't wait to be there when LAFC plays the 'Austin Cactuses.'"
Talked to Will Ferrell about his connection w/ @McConaughey as @MLS owners. He welcomes a @LAFC rivalry w/ @AustinFC and has his own nickname for the team. 🌵⚽️ @SpecNewsATX #DownhillMovie pic.twitter.com/yTPfTzVchM
— Victor Diaz (@VictorOchoDiaz) February 14, 2020
Now with five days to go, McConaughey said that he and Ferrell had been having a "war with words" over the match and are planning on placing bets before game time.
It's not the first time the two have found themselves on opposing sides of a sport. Back in 2018, Ferrell made his way to Austin to see USC football duke it out with the Longhorns (psst,—UT won.)
McConaughey and Austin FC are hoping to see yet another loss for Ferrell as they head to their first game on Saturday, but the match will be quite the challenge.
The MLS set the opening schedule for more than fame; the newly-formed Austin FC has been one of the most talked-about teams this preseason, and LAFC is projected at No. 2 in the league's power rankings. Austin FC currently sits at No. 21.
Head Coach Josh Wolff has said LAFC has one of the best offenses in the league.
"LAFC has one of the best attacking teams in the league," Wolff said. "They will punish you. They've never been shy of putting up goals, and again, I expect them to be one of the best teams in the league this year."
The club has lived up to Wolff's words: in just their second season of existence, LAFC took first in the Western Conference and were Supporters' Shield winners in 2019.
Austin FC will need to hold off LAFC captain Carlos Vela, a versatile winger/attacking midfielder who won the Most Valuable Player title in 2019, as well as high-scoring forward Diego Rossi.
Meanwhile, LAFC will face challenges in DP Cecilio Dominguez and midfielder Alex Ring, the former NYCFC "ringleader" who has worn the captain's armband already for his newest team. Forward Rodney Redes may or not be playing Saturday due to a "ding" on his knee, but if he does, he'll be a force to be reckoned with as well.
Austin FC's inaugural match will be nationally broadcast on FOX and FOX Deportes and will be featured on Alt 97.5 FM.
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Starting Monday, Austin voters will decide whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B is one of eight proposed city code or charter amendments on the May 1 ballot, but it is perhaps the most contentious.
Spearheaded by the political action committee Save Austin Now, Prop B is a direct response to City Council's 2019 decision to overturn a 23-year-old ban on such activities. This is the second time the group has tried to get the issue on the ballot since the first petition was ruled invalid by the county clerk for duplicate signatures and other issues last year. Homeless advocates campaigned against the ban, arguing that it criminalized homelessness and led to citations and tickets that prevented homeless people from accessing housing, employment and other resources. Since then, the city's homeless population has grown in size and visibility.
SAN, advocates and council members generally agree that the situation is untenable, but they disagree about the ban's merit. Austinites who are directly impacted—including people who live near camps, downtown business owners and homeless residents—feel similarly embattled, telling Austonia that, regardless of how they plan to vote, not enough is being done to house the homeless.
Word on the street
Lisa Novak bought a condo in the East Riverside neighborhood in 2013, drawn in by its affordability and Guerrero Park. She attributes the increase in camping along the Riverside Drive median to council's decision to repeal the ban. "It turned into open season," she said.
Lisa Novak took this photo of campers along the Riverside Drive median, near where she lives. (Lisa Novak)
Novak worries about the recent spate of fires and how camps affect area business owners and incoming tourists. After her husband witnessed a violent exchange between two panhandlers, the couple stopped walking to their neighborhood H-E-B. She will vote for Prop B and disagrees with advocates who say it criminalizes homelessness. "I'm sorry, but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations," she said.
Kevin Ludlow's Windsor Park home sits right behind a long-time homeless camp along Little Tannehill Branch Creek. He estimates he has spent hundreds of hours talking to city staff, council members, nonprofits and police about trash and safety concerns.
Ludlow is undecided on Prop B. He thinks a ban will address these issues, but he also feels police could be more responsive to reports of theft, vandalism and other crimes without penalizing campers who are otherwise law-abiding. "There's no winning hand, and I feel it's by design," he said.
Longtime Downtown business Kruger's Diamond Jewelers often has homeless residents camping outside the entryway. (Emma Freer)
David Kruger, fourth-generation owner of Kruger's Diamond Jewelers on Congress Avenue, is similarly ambivalent. Although homeless residents often camp out in his entryway, his issue is with city leadership, whom he feels are incapable of developing solutions. "I'm probably going to vote in favor of it, I guess, but I'd feel better if there was another item that addressed the problem," he said, comparing Prop B to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Christopher Carr, a member of the Austin Homeless Advisory Committee who has been intermittently homeless since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, is more decisive. A poet who loves opera and has bipolar disorder, he camps near the intersection of 15th and San Antonio streets. When the ban was in effect, he was often harassed by police he says. "You felt like you might have a few seconds before the cops showed up (if you sat down on a sidewalk)," he said.
Christopher Carr attends a meeting of the Challenger Street Newspaper, for which he is a contributor and distributor, outside of City Hall on Sunday. (Emma Freer)
Since the ban was lifted, Carr feels Austin's housed residents have turned against the homeless: "If you don't like seeing all these tents everywhere, why don't you not like the country where this level of indigency exists?"
A stopgap measure
Save Austin Now argues that repealing the ban has adversely impacted public safety, residents and businesses and left homeless people to live in unsafe conditions. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association and SAN board member, added that the council vote left residents out of the process. "For me, the big issue is 'let the citizens vote,'" he said. "If the citizens vote down Prop B, we'll live with it."
But the May 1 election is likely not the end of this debate. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping in a clear rebuke of local policy.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the ban in 2019, argued that the decision has made homelessness more visible, leading to greater investment by the city and nonprofits. "No matter what happens with Prop B or with these bills at the Legislature, our community can't forget about this issue," he said. "We decriminalized homelessness not because we saw it as a solution to homelessness but because we thought it was (an issue of) right-or-wrong."
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University of Texas students can expect a "near normal" fall semester this year.
The plan, sent to the Daily Texan via email from communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost Kathleen Harrison, is to hold 91.7% of classes in person, 4.2% of classes in a hybrid format and the remaining 3.1% of classes will stay online.
The announcement is a stark increase from last fall, during which over 60% of classes were online, 24% were hybrid and only 16% were in-person. President Jay Hartzell said last month he expects the upcoming semester to look more similar to fall 2019 than fall 2020.
The new schedule is not set in stone—Harrison said UT will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus and that safety of the community is a top priority.
"The University's decisions are based on the latest data and information available," Harrison said. "If conditions change, we will continue to keep the safety of our community a top priority and adjust as needed."
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