Texas Attorney General Agrees to Give $3.3 Million and an Apology to His Former Aides
HOUSTON — The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, agreed to pay $3.3 million in a settlement with four former senior aides who said he had retaliated against them after they accused him of corruption and other crimes.
Mr. Paxton agreed not only to the payment — which would come from state funds — but also to the text of an apology to the men, conservative lawyers who had once been in some of the state’s top legal positions.
“Attorney General Ken Paxton accepts that plaintiffs acted in a manner that they thought was right and apologizes for referring to them as ‘rogue employees,’” said a mediated settlement agreement filed with the State Supreme Court on Friday.
The case had been among the legal troubles hanging over Mr. Paxton, a Republican whose political survival was maintained by his close relation to former President Donald J. Trump and who has used his office to try to challenge the results of the 2020 election. In addition to the lawsuit by the aides, Mr. Paxton still faces a separate criminal indictment in a securities fraud case from 2015. Mr. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in that case.
For a time, the multiple accusations of malfeasance had appeared to weaken Mr. Paxton politically, and he found himself in a stiff primary battle from several well-funded Republican challengers, including George P. Bush, a son of the former Florida governor Jeb Bush and a statewide office holder at the time.
But Mr. Paxton prevailed in the primary, seemingly impervious to the attacks as he closely aligned himself with Mr. Trump and began to use his office to mount frequent legal challenges to actions by the Biden administration. He was re-elected to a third term by a wide margin in November.
“I have reached a settlement agreement to put this issue to rest,” Mr. Paxton said in a statement on Friday. “I have chosen this path to save taxpayer dollars and ensure my third term as attorney general is unburdened by unnecessary distractions.”
The mediated settlement agreement still must be finalized, and notes that it is contingent on “necessary approvals for funding,” which must still come from the Texas Legislature.
A federal investigation, opened as a result of the aides’ accusations, has not resulted in any charges.
The allegations of corruption and retaliation first surfaced in 2020, after several senior members of Mr. Paxton’s staff wrote a letter urging an investigation into the actions of their boss. The aides accused Mr. Paxton of using the attorney general’s office to serve the interests of a wealthy real estate investor in Austin, Nate Paul, who was a friend and political donor.
Four of the aides — Ryan Vassar, a former deputy attorney general for legal counsel; Mark Penley, a former deputy attorney general for criminal justice; James Blake Brickman, a former deputy attorney general for policy; and David Maxwell, a former director of the law enforcement division — brought their concerns to the F.B.I. and the Texas Rangers. The four told investigators that Mr. Paxton may have been guilty of bribery, abusing his office and obstructing a criminal investigation, among other potential criminal acts.
According to legal filings in the case, the aides had also relayed their concerns to the attorney general’s office; several weeks later, they were all fired. The aides filed suit after that, accusing Mr. Paxton of retaliating against them.
As the case proceeded, Mr. Paxton’s office produced a 374-page report that concluded, “AG Paxton committed no crime.”
Mr. Paxton has challenged the suit, arguing that the Texas Whistleblower Act does not apply to him or other elected officials. A Texas court of appeals ruled against him, and the case remains pending before the Texas Supreme Court. (The settlement agreement asks the state’s highest court to pause its consideration of the case until funding for the settlement is approved; if the Legislature does not approve the funding, the case would resume.)
Lawyers for the aides declined to elaborate on the terms of the settlement except to say that the money would be divided according to an agreement among the four of them.
In the settlement, Mr. Paxton also agreed to remove an October 2020 news release from the attorney general’s website in which he attacked the aides as “rogue employees.”
“The whistle-blowers sacrificed their jobs and have spent more than two years fighting for what is right,” said T.J. Turner, a lawyer for Mr. Maxwell. A lawyer for Mr. Brickman, Tom Nesbitt, said that the aides were “honorable public servants who have been fighting for what is right.”
The criminal case against Mr. Paxton has languished for more than seven years amid jurisdictional disputes and other legal maneuvers. The charges stem in part from accusations that in 2011, Mr. Paxton, then a member of the State House, had encouraged investors to put more than $600,000 into a company, while failing to tell them he was making a commission on their investment.