Dysfunction at Texas AG office as Paxton seeks third term

GATESVILLE, Texas — Staff for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quietly dropped a string of human trafficking and child sex abuse cases this month after losing track of one of the victims, a stumble in open court emblematic of a broader dysfunction within one of America’s most prominent law firms. .

The Republican has raised his national profile in recent years, energizing the right by rushing into contentious court battles that have affected people far beyond Texas. He fought abortion access, Democratic immigration policy and the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

But as Paxton seeks to avoid legal trouble and win a third term as Texas’ top law enforcement official, his agency has been derailed by the disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned attorneys abandoning the practices they say are aimed at tilting legal work, rewarding loyalists and drumming up dissent.

An Associated Press investigation found that Paxton and his deputies sought to turn business into political advantage or advance a broader political agenda, including staff screenings of a debunked film questioning the election of 2020. The secret firing of a Paxton supporter less than two months after he took office as an agency adviser after he tried to make a point by posting child pornography at a meeting added to the troubles.

The AP’s account is based on hundreds of pages of recordings and interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal or because they were not allowed to speak publicly.

In the small town of Gatesville, the fallout was felt this month with the collapse of cases dubbed “Operation Fallen Angel”. Six of those charged last year with being involved in a scheme to force teenage girls to “exchange sex for crystal meth” are now free. One is being held in the Central Texas community on other charges. An eighth died in prison.

“It’s absolutely broken. It’s just broken. You don’t do it that way,” Republican District Attorney Dusty Boyd said of the attorney general’s office, which took over the cases from its five-lawyer team. “I made the mistake of trusting them that they would come and do a good job.”

Paxton and his team did not respond to voicemails, text messages and emailed questions sent on Tuesday.

For years, Paxton has weathered a storm of unrest like few other elected officials in the United States, including securities fraud charges and a federal investigation into corruption charges. He has largely denied wrongdoing and remained popular with GOP voters, even as he lost staff.

A prosecutor said he resigned in January after his superiors pressured him to conceal evidence in a murder case. Another attorney signed a resignation letter in March that warned of growing hostility toward LGBTQ employees. In August, records show the division on human trafficking cases – a major focus in Texas, where more than 50 migrants died in the back of a trailer in June – had a vacancy rate by 40%.

“When you encounter the type of climate change in an office, which affects agency-client relationships and trust, there will naturally be a lot of movement among staff,” said Ron Del Vento, who served as division manager under Paxton. . and four former Texas attorneys general before retiring in 2019.

“Collateral damage is inevitable,” he said.

The latest departures are the aftershocks of an extraordinary revolt in the fall of 2020, when eight of Paxton’s top MPs accused the attorney general of using the office to help a political donor who employed a woman with whom Paxton admitted having had an extramarital affair. The deputies all resigned or were fired after turning themselves in to the FBI, which opened an ongoing investigation.

In America’s biggest red state, the accusations have given GOP voters no second thought about Paxton, who brought Donald Trump’s endorsement to win his party’s nomination again. Paxton takes on Democratic challenger Rochelle Garza, a first-time candidate and former ACLU lawyer, in the November election.

“He was one of the greatest attorneys general in the state of Texas and one of the most conservative in the entire country,” said Abraham George, chairman of the Collin County Republican Party, adding that Paxton deserved the same presumption of innocence as anyone else. other American.

Following the dramatic exit of Paxton’s top performers in 2020, those named to leadership positions included a California attorney who donated $10,000 to help Paxton fight his 2015 securities fraud indictment and Tom Kelly Gleason, a former ice cream company owner whose father gave the lawyer $50,000. general’s legal defense fund.

Gleason was fired less than two months into his new job as a law enforcement adviser. Paxton’s office did not disclose why, but three people with knowledge of the matter said Gleason included child pornography in a work presentation at the agency’s Austin headquarters.

People said Gleason showed the video – which one described as showing a man raping a small child – in a misguided effort to highlight the hard work of agency investigators. He was met with outrage and caused the meeting to quickly dissolve.

Afterwards, Paxton deputy principal Brent Webster told staff not to talk about what happened, according to one of the people.

Gleason, who began his career as a police officer in the late 1970s, did not respond to voicemails, texts, emails and letters left at that home and business. A lawyer who represented him also did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In August, payrolls data shows the number of assistant attorneys general — the line attorneys who handle the day-to-day work of cases and litigation — in the criminal prosecutions division was down more than 25% from it two years ago. The data, which was obtained under the Public Records Act, shows the group that handles financial and white-collar affairs has been cut by more than half and merged with another division.

“It scares me for the people of Texas,” said Linda Eads, who served as an assistant attorney general in the early 2000s, when she said it was rare for a division to have more than two or three positions. vacant.

Boyd said staff turnover in Paxton’s human trafficking unit contributed to the collapse of business in Gatesville. Over the past two years, Republican lawmakers have doubled the division’s budget to $3 million, but Boyd questioned whether it was well spent.

On September 13, attorney general staff wrote in court documents that they were dismissing three trafficking cases because one witness recanted and dropping the other four because they were “unable to locate the victim.”

“For Pete’s sake, you’re the AG office. Can’t find the victim? Boyd said. “The culture is broken.”

Bill Turner, who spent five years in office under Paxton, said he resigned in January after top executives tried to block him from turning over evidence to the defense in a murder prosecution. He would not discuss specifics, saying it could affect ongoing work related to the case.

“We had a difference of opinion about the ethical obligations of a prosecutor and I didn’t think I could continue to work in that environment,” said Turner, who was previously an elected Democratic district attorney in Texas.

Two months later, Assistant Attorney General Jason Scully-Clemmons left the same division, accusing a new wave of executives in his resignation letter of “directing prosecutors to prioritize political considerations.” He also said the environment turned hostile to LGBTQ employees around the time Paxton issued a legal notice that sparked child abuse investigations among parents of transgender youth in Texas.

Several other employees told AP that ahead of the March primary election in Texas, Amber Platt, a criminal justice cases assistant, called a meeting to ask questions about upcoming cases that would help the re-election prospects of Paxton. Scully-Clemmons, who declined to comment, referenced the meeting in her letter.

In May, the head of Paxton’s election integrity division invited his team to a movie theater for a screening of “2000 Mules,” the debunked film that falsely claims to prove the 2020 election was stolen.

“General Paxton will be there, among others, and I think they would like to have good representation from our office,” Assistant Attorney General Jonathan White wrote in an email.

As experienced attorneys leave the attorney general’s office, newcomers who have stuck with Paxton have seen their careers and pay skyrocket.

Aaron Reitz, who graduated from law school in 2017, was hired as Paxton’s deputy principal’s assistant with a salary of $135,000 in October 2020. The following month, after the deputy reported Paxton to the FBI and resigned, Reitz was promoted to oversee the agency’s legal department. strategy, a senior job that pays $205,000.

In June, Reitz’s assistant sent out invitations to a “2000 mule viewing party”, complete with barbecue. Over 90 staff and interns were then invited to bring their own lunch.

Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and writers Paul J. Weber in Austin and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.

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