Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
More than a year before Ken Paxton would be impeached by the Texas House, a state Senate committee began poking around an issue that could help determine whether the Republican attorney general remains in office or not.
At issue was Brandon Cammack, a five-year lawyer hired by the attorney general’s office in 2020 to investigate whether a Paxton friend — Austin real estate investor Nate Paul — had been mistreated in a federal investigation into Paul’s businesses.
Paxton has argued that Paul raised important questions that required investigation. But for high-ranking whistleblowers in Paxton’s office, Cammack’s hiring was one example of Paxton’s extraordinary willingness to misuse his power to help Paul.
At a February 2021 meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Joan Huffman — an influential Republican from Houston — asked Paxton how Cammack had come to be hired.
The question was an important one. In fall 2020, eight executives in Paxton’s agency met with FBI agents and state investigators to accuse Paxton of misusing his official authority to help Paul by hiring Cammack and by taking other unusual actions. Cammack, they alleged, misrepresented himself as a special prosecutor to secure 39 subpoenas intended to harass law enforcement and prosecutors investigating Paul.
Paxton referred Huffman’s question to his top aide, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, even though Paxton was directly involved in hiring and supervising Cammack and Webster was working elsewhere when Cammack was hired.
Standing next to Paxton, Webster replied that the Travis County district attorney’s office had asked for help investigating Paul’s claim that search warrants for his home and businesses had been improperly doctored in 2019.
Webster said Cammack was hired by the attorney general’s office as an “outside counsel” to assist the Travis County district attorney’s office with its investigation of Paul’s claims. Cammack later became a special prosecutor when he “worked with” the district attorney’s office to get the grand jury subpoenas, Webster said.
“I’ve interviewed [assistant district attorneys] from Travis County and seen documents from Travis County that prove the fact that the Travis County DA’s office made Brandon Cammack a special prosecutor,” Webster said. “We did not make Brandon Cammack a special prosecutor, that was within the purview of the Travis County DA’s office.”
Travis County prosecutors say Webster’s portrayal was not true.
Margaret Moore, the district attorney at the time of Cammack’s hiring, said her office did not ask Cammack to investigate the case or seek any subpoenas.
“We didn’t even know him,” Moore said.
Gregg Cox, who worked in high-level positions for the Travis County district attorney’s office until 2020, said Cammack obtained the subpoenas on his own.
“There was no invitation, there was no request, there was nothing that would have authorized the use of a special prosecutor or the issuance of grand jury subpoenas,” Cox said.
“They’re trying to justify something that was done inappropriately by falsely describing it,” Cox said.
As the Texas Senate prepares for Paxton’s impeachment trial in September, Webster’s comments could come under scrutiny by some of the same senators who heard his testimony in February 2021.
The Senate agreed to hold a trial on 16 of 20 articles of impeachment that were approved by the House, with four articles set aside for now.
One of the articles accused Paxton of violating state law regulating how outside attorneys are hired when he contracted with Cammack to conduct an investigation into Paul’s “baseless complaint.”
A second article accused Paxton of misusing public money by directing his office to publish a lengthy, unsigned report that concluded that Paxton had broken no laws. The report was filled with “false or misleading statements,” the article said.
The report, published in August 2021, also repeated claims that the Travis County district attorney’s office had initiated the investigation. It also claimed that two prosecutors in the office were overseeing Cammack’s work and that letters written by the office “expressed Travis County’s desire that an investigation take place.”
How Cammack was hired
According to former officials who worked for Paxton, Paul complained that federal agents had altered search warrants issued by a U.S. magistrate judge for the raids on Paul’s home and business in August 2019.
Paxton helped set up a May 2020 meeting that he attended with Travis County prosecutors, Paul and Paul’s lawyer to ask for help on the complaint.
When the district attorney’s office declined to pursue an investigation, Paxton asked prosecutors to refer the complaint back to the attorney general’s office, according to Moore. That was done in a June 10, 2020 letter to Paxton’s office.
Paxton then assigned Paul’s complaint to David Maxwell, the office’s director of law enforcement, and Mark Penley, who led the criminal justice division. Both men would later report Paxton to the FBI, be fired and file a whistleblower lawsuit that challenged their dismissals as inappropriate retaliation.
Maxwell and Penley consulted with forensic experts in the agency who found no evidence of tampering. They moved to close the investigation, but Paxton “pushed back,” unhappy with the result, their whistleblower lawsuit said.
In August 2020, Paxton asked another top deputy, Ryan Vassar, how to hire an outside counsel, according to the lawsuit. Vassar explained that the process would require authorization from at least 10 employees on the agency’s organization chart.
In early September 2020, Paxton told Vassar to draft a contract to hire Cammack as an outside counsel, the lawsuit said.
As head of the criminal justice division, Penley had to sign off on the contract under standard procedures but refused, saying there was no evidence of a crime, according to investigators for the House General Investigating Committee, which drafted the articles of impeachment. Cammack was hired anyway, investigators said.
In late September 2020, employees at the attorney general’s office learned that Cammack was claiming to represent the agency and using that power to request subpoenas against Paul’s rivals in various legal proceedings. Paul’s attorney accompanied Cammack when he served some of the subpoenas, House investigators said.
Top deputies at the attorney general’s office immediately worked to quash the subpoenas, arguing they were unlawfully executed, and a Travis County judge complied with the request.
A few days later, top employees, including Vassar, Penley and Maxwell, told authorities they believed Paxton was taking bribes for helping Paul.
In a May report to the House General Investigating Committee, investigators said Cammack had been hired at the recommendation of Paul’s lawyer.
“Under the direction of the attorney general”
Cammack’s contract was with the attorney general’s office and was signed by Paxton and Cammack. The contract identifies Cammack as an “outside counsel” and specifies that he is not to act as a prosecutor.
In a copy of one of Cammack’s requested subpoenas included in the whistleblower lawsuit, Cammack identifies himself as a special prosecutor for the attorney general’s office. He does not mention working for the Travis County district attorney’s office.
Moore, who is now out of office, said Paxton asked her office to refer Paul’s complaint to the attorney general’s office. She said she’s tried to bat down assertions that her office requested an investigation in the past.
In an October 2020 letter to Paxton, Moore said her office did not investigate the merits of Paul’s complaint before agreeing to the referral.
“The referral cannot and should not be used as any indication of a need for an investigation, a desire on the Travis County D.A.’s part for an investigation to take place, or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral,” she wrote.
Cox said the referral letter was standard procedure and did not indicate a request by the office to investigate the claim.
In an interview with the Tribune, Moore said her office did not seek the subpoenas requested by Cammack.
“We were given to believe [it was] under the direction of the attorney general,” she said.
The attorney general’s office, which still employs Webster, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Paxton’s defense team or a spokesperson for the House impeachment managers. A recent gag order from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is acting in the role of judge in the Paxton impeachment trial, bars trial participants from discussing the case publicly.
Paxton’s trial is set to begin Sept. 5, and witness lists — which will not be made public — are due by Aug. 22.
Join us for conversations that matter with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23.