Exposed as a hypocrite, Bryan Slaton’s Texas House downfall could complicate GOP fight against 'groomers'

In public, former state Rep. Bryan Slaton was a conservative champion unafraid to ruffle feathers and pick fights, even with Republicans he deemed insufficiently conservative.

A self-described “bold and brave Christian-Conservative” who’d worked as a youth pastor, Slaton featured a picture of his wife and infant son on his campaign website. On social media, he railed against “groomers,” saying their efforts to sexualize minors needed to be stopped.

Away from the public eye, however, the Royse City Republican fell far short of the morally upright life he sold to voters — a guise ripped away by a scathing 16-page report that detailed his inappropriate sexual conduct with a 19-year-old legislative aide who worked in his Capitol office.

Slaton invited the woman to his Austin apartment late on a Friday night and poured her enough alcoholic drinks that she felt dizzy and had double vision, leading to unprotected sex, after which the woman reportedly purchased emergency contraceptives against a potential pregnancy, the report by a House investigative committee found.

Slaton resigned Monday and was expelled from the House by a unanimous vote Tuesday, but his hypocrisy has cast a harsher light on Republican-led efforts to crack down on supposedly grooming-related activities, including drag performances, gender-affirming care for transgender minors and classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBTQ advocates are pointing to Slaton to redirect attacks back on the GOP, saying conservative Republicans were so busy policing drag artists and transgender Texans that they missed abuse — and so-called “grooming behavior” — by one of their own.

Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, said those who voted to expel Slaton should also oppose legislation he supported that would ban transgender adolescents from receiving puberty blockers and hormone therapy, on which the House is scheduled to vote on Friday.

“It’s no surprise that the man obsessed with children’s bodies — especially transgender kids — is a predator,” González said in a statement. “The courage to stop a predator has to extend to opposing his crusade to fixate the entire state on children’s genitals. He’s been calling my community ‘perverts’ and ‘groomers’ for years — when it turns out he should’ve invested in a good mirror.”

Slaton’s downfall is taking time and energy away from Republican priorities, said Derek Ryan, a GOP political consultant.

“Now, members are going to have to start all of their conversations on these issues discussing [Slaton] as opposed to the issues they actually want to discuss,” Ryan said.

“They’ve got to discuss Rep. Slaton and what he was involved in, and the next questions are going to be, ‘Are there other Republicans out there saying the same things and having similar behavior behind the scenes?’” Ryan said.

Ryan said social media commentators are painting Slaton as the “real groomer” whose actions are what Republicans should really be focused on stopping.

The criticism comes at an inopportune time for conservatives and Republican leaders who face looming deadlines for the passage of bills in the legislative session’s closing weeks. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has criticized the House for moving too slowly on conservative priorities that have already been passed by the Senate.

“This is all time that is coming off the clock when the House could be passing conservative legislation,” Ryan said.

Ryan also criticized Slaton’s delayed decision to resign, calling it a disservice to his constituents, who will now go without representation until the regular session ends on Memorial Day.

“He’s choosing himself over his district and his constituents by not resigning,” Ryan said.

Slaton has remained silent on the matter since early April, when The Texas Tribune reported he was being investigated for an inappropriate sexual relationship with an aide, though his lawyer dismissed the allegations as “outrageous claims.”

In his resignation letter Monday, Slaton did not mention the scandal, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

But the report detailed the shock felt by several within the conservative movement after learning of Slaton’s conduct. A legislative staffer for another state representative was said to be “very emotional about it because everyone really looked up to” Slaton.

Shock waves extended beyond the Capitol. Donnie Wisenbaker, chair of the Hopkins County Republican Party in Slaton’s district, said Slaton’s actions fell short of the morals the party claims to represent and could impact how people view the GOP.

“It’s disappointing, but that’s why we don’t need to put men on pedestals, because all of us sin,” Wisenbaker said in an interview. “It's heartbreaking that this has happened. I hate it for the girl’s family, his family; I hate it for the girl.”

In a statement, the Hopkins County party said that even though Slaton had done “much good work” at the Capitol, it could not “condone conduct unbecoming” of a state representative.

Slaton’s fellow lawmakers, recognizing the damage the allegations could do to conservative causes, urged Slaton to resign within days after word of the inappropriate conduct began to buzz across the Capitol.

By April 5, four days after Slaton’s sexual encounter with his aide, “the entire Freedom Caucus,” a group that includes some of the most conservative lawmakers in the House, had learned of it, the report said.

An unidentified state representative confronted Slaton about the allegations on April 3, later telling him it was “bad for everyone” and asking him to resign, the report said. When Slaton asked the representative to support him and to keep their discussions private, the representative reported Slaton’s actions to the committee. He was one of four unnamed state representatives who asked the committee to investigate Slaton, according to the report.

Fear of political blowback was shared by many members of the State Republican Executive Committee, a 62-member group of activists who help set the party’s agenda. On Sunday night, more than half of the group called for Slaton’s resignation.

Fernando Treviño Jr., a member of the executive committee who called on Slaton to resign, said on social media that Slaton’s actions were “inexcusable and an embarrassment to the party, the House, and constituents of HD2.”

Slaton, a frequent thorn in the side of Republican House leaders who he criticized as too moderate, did not have many allies in the chamber. But even the few staunch conservatives who shared his political ideology began putting him at arm’s length well before the report was released.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said conservatives’ efforts to distance themselves from Slaton were understandable.

“You would view it as the height of hypocrisy for someone who has campaigned as well as authored legislation supporting traditional Christian values to not come close to living by those values,” he said. “For true conservatives who talk the talk but also walk the walk, it’s also an embarrassment because it undercuts everything they’re trying to achieve when someone they thought shared their values betrays those values so openly and brazenly.”

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Texas GOP lawmaker retains criminal defense lawyer in possible ethics investigation

State Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, has retained a criminal-defense attorney amid a potential ethics investigation by a House committee.

The lawyer, Patrick Short, issued a statement Monday morning saying his firm “has been engaged by State Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-TX 2) in a matter relating a possible complaint filed against him with the Texas House Committee on General Investigating.”

"We are aware of outrageous claims circulating online by second-tier media that make false claims against Representative Slaton,” Short said. "As a result, he has been advised to forward all inquiries in this matter—including any that may relate to a possible complaint—to his legal counsel."

Short did not identify the specific claims — or media — he was referring to, and he declined to comment further when reached by The Texas Tribune.

The Rockwall-based lawyer's website says he has "over 30 years of legal experience representing clients in East and North Texas in personal injury, wrongful death, criminal defense, and select civil litigation cases."

The Capitol has been abuzz about Slaton’s whereabouts after he missed one of the most important days of the session Thursday, when the House debated the budget. It was even more eyebrow-raising because the conservative rabble-rouser had proposed 27 amendments to the budget. Slaton was the only absence when the roll was called Thursday morning.

Slaton and multiple people close to him have not responded to requests for comment on his whereabouts. Slaton's office in the Capitol was closed Thursday, as well as Monday morning.

As speculation grew about Slaton during the budget debate Thursday, the chairman of the General Investigating Committee, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, issued a statement saying the panel does not comment “on any investigations it undertakes, including statements confirming or denying the existence of any ongoing investigation.”

The office of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, had no comment on Short's statement.

It remains to be seen whether Slaton will be present when the House returns at 2 p.m. Monday. After the budget debate last week, lawmakers went home for the Easter holiday weekend.

Slaton is known as one of the farthest-right members of the Texas House and a thorn in the side of his party’s leadership. He was first elected in 2021, defeating a a longtime Republican incumbent he criticized as too moderate.

Slaton is especially known for his stridently anti-LGBTQ views. Last year, he called for a blanket ban on minors at drag shows, saying it was necessary to protect children from “perverted adults." He has also proposed giving property tax cuts to straight, married couples — but not LGBTQ couples or those who have previously been divorced — based on the number of children they have.

Earlier this year, Slaton also filed a bill that would allow for a referendum on Texas secession from the United States during the state’s next general election, despite most experts agreeing such a move would be illegal.

Real Estate investor in Ken Paxton corruptions allegations ordered to jail again

Nate Paul, the Austin real estate developer central to allegations of illegal conduct by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been ordered to jail again after losing an appeal in a fraud case with a nonprofit.

On Friday, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin denied Paul’s appeal to overturn a lower district’s order that he serve 10 days in jail.

The order found him in contempt of court for lying in district court about money transfers he made that exceeded a court-imposed spending limit. While the appeals court agreed with Paul that some of the violations should be struck from the order, it kept in place the lower court’s finding of contempt of court and sent the case back down for the district court to act.

Within hours, state District Judge Jan Soifer in Austin issued an amended order that accused Paul of six violations of law, instead of eight, and ordered him to report to the Travis County Jail by 10 a.m. on April 10 to serve 10 days behind bars.

The court-ordered sanctions against Paul came in a lawsuit between the real estate developer and the Roy F. & Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that sued Paul for fraud after he refused to make financial disclosures about endowment money the nonprofit had invested in his businesses.

Ray Chester, an attorney for the Mitte Foundation, said in a statement his clients were “gratified” by the court's ruling, which was made after the nonprofit tried to collect on $2 million the nonprofit had won against Paul in court.

“Finally, Mr. Paul is going to get some of the punishment he deserves,” Chester said.

Brent Perry, an attorney for Paul, could not immediately be reached for comment. He had argued that Soifer’s order did not apply to Paul’s business accounts and that Soifer should be removed from the case because she was biased against his client.

Paul is central to allegations of corruption made against Paxton by eight of his former top deputies. Those deputies told authorities that Paxton had misused his office to benefit Paul, a friend and donor who had given $25,000 to Paxton in 2018.

Among the allegations was Paxton’s push to get the attorney general’s office involved in the Mitte Foundation’s lawsuit despite never previously showing interest in cases involving charities. In return, the employees said Paul donated to Paxton’s campaigns, helped him remodel his multimillion dollar home and hired Paxton’s alleged mistress. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.

The eight top deputies who accused Paxton of corruption were fired or resigned, but their reports spurred an FBI investigation into Paxton that is now being led by the U.S. Department of Justice.

No charges have been filed. Both Paul and Paxton have denied the allegations.

Last June, Soifer issued an order that Paul report any spending over $25,000 by him or his businesses that could otherwise be used to pay the $2 million judgment he owed Mitte. The order required Paul to share monthly reports of his spending with the court.

Paul did not submit those reports for five months. In November, a few days before the court would consider Mitte’s request to hold Paul in contempt, Paul filed his first report. But in court, the nonprofit’s lawyers argued that 12 days after Soifer’s order went into effect, Paul had paid $100,000 to Avery Bradley, a former University of Texas at Austin and NBA basketball player who had filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Paul’s firm, World Class Holdings.

When Paul was asked about the payment at the hearing, he said he did not remember it, only to later acknowledge the payment in an amended report to the court, Soifer wrote. She found that payment violated her order because it was not made for “fair value” because Paul did not get anything in return.

Soifer also found that Paul lied about bank statements in court and falsely swore under oath that he had made no payments over $25,000 in violation of her order.

“Mr. Paul’s lies to the court while under oath were pervasive and inexcusable, and served to deliberately thwart the functions of the Court,” Soifer wrote.

The appeals court threw out three other violations for a separate $963,000 payment made by another of Paul’s companies, Westlake Industries, because Soifer had not given Paul “full and unambiguous” notice that he could be held in contempt for those violations.

In her new order, Soifer berated Paul for repeatedly disobeying the court orders in the case and other related lawsuits.

“He has been sanctioned numerous times in the past, and such sanctions have failed to deter Mr. Paul from continued disobedience of court orders and lack of candor with the Court,” she wrote.

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Texas legislature has little appetite to fund Ken Paxton’s $3.3 million settlement with whistleblowers

Texas lawmakers are facing a choice: approve $3.3 million in state funds to end a lawsuit accusing Attorney General Ken Paxton of improperly firing four whistleblowers or reject an out-of-court settlement — potentially adding millions of dollars in costs while leaving the outcome of the lawsuit to fate in a long-shot attempt to make Paxton pay.

The multimillion-dollar settlement announced in February would resolve a 2-year-old lawsuit that alleges Paxton fired former high-ranking deputies in retaliation for accusing him of using his office to benefit a friend and political donor. The settlement would give the former employees back pay and several other concessions while ridding Paxton of one of several ongoing legal problems.

But in a blow to the former agency executives, lawmakers have shown little appetite to use state funds to help Paxton settle the case.

Plano Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican who heads the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, has said he was “troubled” that taxpayers would be on the hook for the settlement. House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said he does not support the use of taxpayer money to settle the lawsuit.

Neither legislative chamber included money for the settlement in the first drafts of the “miscellaneous claims” bill that includes state payments for legal cases.

[Attorney General Ken Paxton agrees to apologize and pay $3.3 million to whistleblowers in settlement]

Richard R. Carlson, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said the case is “politically charged like I haven’t seen in a whistleblower case in a long time.”

Paxton, a Republican who won a third four-year term in November, is seen as a vulnerability by many in the Texas GOP because of his multiple legal entanglements. He’s been under indictment for felony securities fraud for seven years, has been sued by the State Bar of Texas for alleged professional misconduct and is being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for corruption related to the whistleblowers’ allegations.

Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

He’s also a target for Democrats who vehemently oppose his socially conservative politics.

It’s not just lawmakers who oppose using state funds to pay the settlement. Public Citizen Texas, a consumer advocacy group, has set up an online petition urging lawmakers to reject it.

Adrian Shelley, the group’s Texas director, said public dollars should not go toward bailing Paxton out of legal trouble. Paxton, he said, should be held accountable and pay the settlement out of his own funds, not the state’s.

“If there were a settlement that the parties agreed to, particularly one paid for by Paxton, then we would agree there’s a separate resolution,” he said.

But lawyers for both Paxton and the former employees who accused him of crimes say that’s impossible. Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, employees can sue a government agency, not an individual person, for firing them after reporting a crime. That means any fees Paxton would pay must come from state funds, not his own pocket, they argue.

“There is no legal mechanism by which the whistleblowers in this case could hold Ken Paxton personally liable, or recover damages directly from him,” said TJ Turner, an attorney for David Maxwell, who ran the attorney general’s law enforcement division before being fired. “Like it or not, this is how the law works.”

Chris Hilton, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, told lawmakers the same thing during a committee hearing in February, when Paxton was asked if he’d be willing to pay the settlement out of his campaign fund.

“There is no whistleblower case where an individual has paid anything because the individual is not liable under the terms of the statute,” Hilton said.

That argument has not swayed lawmakers. State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, who asked about the use of campaign funds to pay the settlement, said the former employees should seek “other means” by which to be compensated and that taxpayers should not have to pay for Paxton’s actions.

The apparent impasse at the Legislature has affected the course of the whistleblower lawsuit.

Last month, lawyers for the fired executives asked the Texas Supreme Court to pause the case after both sides worked out a potential settlement, subject to legislative approval.

On Wednesday, they asked the court to resume the case, saying Paxton refused to agree to a May deadline and was trying to “perpetually” stall the case amid the Legislature’s reluctance to fund the settlement.

Lawyers for the former employees said an impasse at the Legislature was troubling and could erode whistleblower protections.

Turner said the 1983 whistleblower law was intended to prevent retaliation against public employees who reported corruption. Refusing to approve the agreement amounted to the Legislature “breaking its promise and turning its back” on whistleblowers, he said.

“The Act encourages public employees to report criminal activity by providing a safety net if their employer retaliates against them,” Turner said in a statement. “If the legislature refuses to approve the settlement, it will be sending a strong message to future public employees who consider reporting public corruption: don’t bother. You’re on your own.”

Carlson said he agrees that future whistleblowers may be deterred from speaking out if the settlement is not approved. Even so, he said he understands the hesitation from lawmakers.

“I am very sympathetic to the whistleblowers, and I think they need to be compensated,” Carlson said. “But I also understand the people in the Legislature who are saying we shouldn’t let this go away without some accounting.”

The whistleblower lawsuit started after eight of Paxton’s former top deputies accused him of corruption in October 2020, alleging that the attorney general had used his position to improperly benefit his friend, real estate investor Nate Paul, who had donated $25,000 to Paxton’s campaign in 2018. All eight of the employees were fired or resigned from the attorney general’s office.

In November 2020, four of those employees — Maxwell, Blake Brickman, Mark Penley and Ryan Vassar — filed a whistleblower lawsuit arguing they had been fired for reporting the alleged crimes.

The whistleblowers alleged that Paxton had done favors for Paul, including helping the Austin businessman gain access to investigative documents related to 2019 searches of Paul’s home and businesses by state and federal authorities. They also claimed that Paxton rushed through a written opinion that said foreclosure sales had to be suspended under pandemic safety rules, allowing Paul to delay a foreclosure sale for one of his properties two days later.

In filings in the case, the whistleblowers alleged that in return, Paul had helped Paxton remodel his home and had given a job to a woman with whom Paxton was allegedly in a relationship. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.

Paxton and Paul have denied wrongdoing.

Under state law, any legal fees by state agencies that exceed $250,000 must be approved by the Legislature.

The $3.3 million price tag for Paxton’s settlement isn’t unusual.

In 2021, lawmakers approved $2.6 million after losing a case about a state abortion law, and more than $10 million for payments in a lawsuit against the state’s foster care system.

This year, the Legislature is considering paying more than $6 million for its defense of the voter ID law, which lawmakers initially approved in 2011 and courts later found to be unconstitutional, leading to revisions in the law. Joe Knight, an attorney for Vassar, said the voter ID payment was no different than the settlement his client was seeking.

“Not one member of the Legislature has contended that those who voted for the unconstitutional law should pay the State’s debt out of their own pockets,” Knight said in a statement.

“Our case shouldn’t be treated differently,” Knight said. “The State’s liability for [the Office of the Attorney General] wrongfully firing our clients should come from the same funds the Legislature is using to pay for its own members’ conduct in wrongfully enacting an unconstitutional law.”

Turner also criticized lawmakers for opposing the settlement.

“They say they want to save taxpayer money, but they gave the office of the Attorney General a $1.3 billion budget which includes $43 million for outside lawyers” to handle an antitrust lawsuit against Google, Turner said.

Prior to the departure of top agency staff, staff lawyers were handling that case.

The state has spent $600,000 defending Paxton in the whistleblower case. Hilton said the $3.3 million settlement, which would cover back pay and lawyer fees, is in the state’s financial interest. If the Legislature rejected the agreement, the case would continue and the state could potentially end up paying more than $3.3 million, even if Paxton were to win, he said. That could lead to a scenario in which lawmakers would be asked to approve another legal resolution in the future, only with a higher price tag.

“Financially speaking, there is no upside for the state to this case,” Hilton added. “Even total vindication at trial results in a significant expenditure.”

In 2013, state lawmakers approved a $1 million payment in a whistleblower case against the Texas Youth Commission that involved only one plaintiff. Paxton’s lawsuit has four plaintiffs.

Disclosure: Google and the State Bar of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Ken Paxton’s whistleblowers ask Texas Supreme Court to take up their case as $3.3 million settlement in jeopardy

Attorneys for the four whistleblowers who sued after they were fired by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday to restart the clock on Paxton’s appeal of their case. This request was made after Paxton’s lawyers would not agree to setting a deadline to finalize a $3.3 million legal settlement by the end of the legislative session in May.

The whistleblowers are former deputies to Paxton who say they were fired in retribution for accusing him of malfeasance to law enforcement.

The multimillion-dollar settlement, announced last month, would give back pay to the four former employees and would include an apology from Paxton as well as other concessions. But the agreement needs to be approved by state lawmakers, who have expressed an unwillingness to use taxpayer dollars to settle Paxton’s case. At the request of the parties, the Texas Supreme Court has put the whistleblower case on pause while the two sides look to finalize the deal. But without a deadline, the case could be on pause indefinitely.

“Sadly, we have not been able to reach a final settlement because [the Office of the Attorney General] will not agree to include in the formal agreement a deadline for the legislature to approve funding this session, even though that was the fundamental premise upon which they asked us to negotiate in the first place,” the attorneys said in a statement. “So we’ll go back to court, where the taxpayers will end up paying more to defend OAG than they would to settle this case.”

The attorneys said they would still settle the case if lawmakers approved the $3.3 million settlement this session.

“But we cannot and did not agree to give [the Office of the Attorney General] the benefit of a settlement while the whistleblowers wait in perpetuity for legislative approval,” they wrote.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Real estate investor in Ken Paxton corruption allegations ordered to jail

Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor who was central to allegations of illegal conduct by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been found in contempt of court, fined more than $180,000 and ordered to serve jail time by a state judge in Travis County.

In October 2020, top deputies in Paxton's agency told federal authorities that they believed the attorney general misused his authority to benefit Paul, a friend and campaign donor. Those eight top deputies were fired or resigned, but their allegations spurred an FBI investigation into Paxton that is now being led by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Paxton and Paul have denied the allegations, which were detailed in a whistleblower lawsuit by four former Paxton deputies who claimed they were improperly fired in retaliation for reporting their suspicions to investigators.

The court-ordered sanctions against Paul came in a lawsuit between the real estate developer and The Roy F. & Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that sued Paul for fraud.

Ray Chester, an attorney for the Mitte Foundation, said his clients were pleased by the decision from state District Judge Jan Soifer, which was revealed in a letter sent Friday to lawyers for Paul and Mitte.

"We feel vindicated by the decision," Chester said, calling it "one of the steps to getting justice."

Brent Perry, Paul's attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was unclear if he would appeal the decision.

According to the whistleblower lawsuit, Paxton overrode a decision by his agency's Charitable Trust Division and directed the attorney general's office to intervene in the Mitte Foundation lawsuit against Paul. "It was odd, considering that (Paxton) had never done so before or even shown any interest in a charity case,” the lawsuit said.

The whistleblowers also alleged that Paxton helped Paul gain access to investigative documents related to 2019 searches of Paul's home and business by federal and state investigators. Paul argued the searches were improper, but after agency lawyers determined that the claim was without merit, Paxton went beyond normal procedures to ensure that an outside counsel was hired to investigate, the whistleblowers alleged.

In addition, Paxton ordered a written opinion that was published at 2 a.m. on a Sunday stating that foreclosure sales had to be suspended under pandemic safety rules, which benefited Paul by delaying a foreclosure sale for one of his properties two days later, according to the whistleblowers.

In return, the whistleblowers said, Paul gave Paxton a $25,000 campaign donation, paid to remodel his home and employed Paxton's mistress. Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney.

According to a Friday letter sent by a staff attorney for Soifer, the judge found Paul in civil and criminal contempt, concluding that he had offered false testimony. He was ordered to serve 10 days in jail beginning March 15.

"Mr. Paul’s flagrant lies to the Court while under oath were pervasive and inexcusable, and served to deliberately thwart the functions of the Court in enforcing its injunction," Elliott Beck, a staff attorney for Soifer, wrote in the letter.

Beck added that Paul's actions were "part of a pattern of non-compliance with court orders." Paul was fined $181,760 for violating the court order.

Last June, in an attempt to force Paul to pay the Mitte Foundation a $2 million judgment the nonprofit had won against him, Soifer issued an injunction ordering Paul to make monthly expenditure reports to the court and barring him from spending more than $25,000 at a time.

Paul did not file reports for five months, Chester said, and the Mitte Foundation asked Soifer to hold him in contempt. In a November hearing, the nonprofit's lawyers argued that Paul had paid about $960,000 to Westlake Industries, a company Paul owns, and $100,000 to Avery Bradley, a former University of Texas and NBA basketball player who had filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Paul's firm, World Class Holdings.

The nonprofit's lawyers confronted Paul with his bank records showing the $100,000 transfer to Bradley, which Paul said he did not recognize. Soifer then recessed the hearing for a week to give Paul time to gather bank records and identify all of his bank accounts, which the court said he failed to do.

The nonprofit's lawyers were able to obtain bank records for Westlake Industries, which showed a $967,000 payment on the day the injunction went into effect.

"The timing was really suspicious, and he owns 100% of Westlake Industries," Chester said.

In his letter, Beck said Paul "offered false testimony, committing perjury, sitting in the witness box just a few feet away from the Court, in responding to multiple questions by counsel and the Court."

"He lied about both transfers referenced above and he lied about his personal bank accounts, even when confronted with evidence of such accounts," Beck wrote. "He failed and refused to produce documents of such accounts, even after the hearing was recessed for a week to give him time to gather such documents."

Chester said he is currently drafting the violation order at Soifer's direction.

The Mitte Foundation first invested a part of its endowment in Paul's companies in 2011. The nonprofit later sued Paul for breach of contract for failing to make financial disclosures.

Through one of Paul's companies, the Mitte Foundation holds part ownership in two downtown Austin buildings that are under contract for sale for a combined $172 million, of which the Mitte Foundation would get a "significant portion," according to Chester. The close of the sale was delayed by a Paul appeal, which was recently denied by the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, though Paul's lawyers have several months to seek review by the Texas Supreme Court.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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Ron DeSantis looms large over Greg Abbott in Texas as 2024 draws near

In July 2021, a Dallas radio host asked Gov. Greg Abbott if he was fed up with constantly being measured against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I know you guys are compadres in many ways,” the host, Mark Davis, said to Abbott, but “have you had it up to your eyeballs with being compared?"

Abbott dismissed the notion there was any tension between him and the then-rising star in the GOP.

“DeSantis and I do a lot of things together,” he said, while adding that Texas had beat Florida to the punch in passing permitless carry for handguns and a ban on abortions after roughly six weeks gestation. “We talk in ways and times that people have no idea about … and so I just kind of roll my eyes and scoff a little bit when people say these things.”

Over a year and a half later, the comparisons have only intensified as speculation mounts about whether the two governors of the most populous Republican-controlled states will jump into the 2024 presidential race. But those comparisons don’t exactly cast them in an equal light.

Even in his own state, Abbott is overshadowed by DeSantis as more Texas Republicans are energized by the possibility of a presidential run by the Florida governor. DeSantis has also become the de facto conservative measuring stick that Abbott’s GOP critics use to highlight the Texas governor’s perceived shortcomings. That’s despite a number of similarities in the priorities and policies pushed by the two governors in recent years.

DeSantis and Abbott often appear to be locked in an unspoken ideological arms race, seemingly competing for the title of the nation’s most conservative governor, as they take turns leading and then following one another, enacting policies and backing bills that push both states further to the right. Among the areas where the two have echoed each other: reopening businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting abortion, expanding gun access, transporting migrants to blue cities, cracking down on diversity policies in K-12 and higher education and supporting bans on the Chinese government and its citizens from purchasing state land.

On paper, Abbott and DeSantis have a lot in common. Both scored high-profile reelection wins in November while Republicans underperformed elsewhere. And both are fundraising juggernauts who have raked in a number of seven-figure donations for their respective gubernatorial races.

[In Texas, where money has long dominated politics, Greg Abbott is in a league of his own]

And yet, despite being a mainstay on Fox News, Abbott doesn’t match the popularity or the national profile that DeSantis has garnered within his party.

“You look at [Abbott] and say, ‘Sure, he brings the conservative credentials, but he’s not seen like the fighter that Donald Trump is or DeSantis is becoming,’” said Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

Luke Macias, a conservative political consultant in Texas who is often critical of Abbott, said it’s about more than just policy. It’s about leadership.

“Abbott's posture in the culture war is much more akin to the old guard establishment wing of the GOP,” Macias said. “DeSantis acknowledges the culture war and publicly talks about the need to take on the left.”

Abbott’s more passive style was seen in the abortion and gun bills of 2021 that he now touts as conservative wins, Macias noted. While activists had been agitating for a “heartbeat bill” to restrict abortion and “constitutional carry” to loosen gun laws for years, Abbott did not openly back the legislation until it was clear they were advancing at the Capitol that session. He later signed both bills into law.

If there is a rivalry, though, it’s one-sided, with Florida Republicans professing little interest in Abbott’s maneuvering. While polls show Texas Republicans prefer DeSantis overwhelmingly as their top alternative to former President Donald Trump for 2024, Abbott is so far hardly a blip in polling anywhere. For now, DeSantis is considered far more likely — and formidable — a presidential contender.

A Fox News poll released Sunday found Trump getting 43% in the 2024 primary, while DeSantis behind him with 28% and Abbott much farther back, with 2%.

Evan Power, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, said Florida does not “see Texas as a rival in … our freedom or where we are legislatively anymore.”

“Not to be disrespectful to Gov. Abbott, but I don’t think there are many people in the DeSantis orbit who consider that to be a rivalry,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist who co-chaired DeSantis’ inauguration. Around the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Ballard added, “I never have anyone say to me, ‘Did [DeSantis] get that from Gov. Abbott? Did you see what Gov. Abbott did in Texas?’”

In a recent interview with The Texas Tribune, Abbott again shrugged off the notion he is competing with DeSantis.

“The reality is we really just focus on Texas and working for our constituents here in our state,” Abbott said.

DeSantis will make his most anticipated trip to Texas yet this weekend, when he is set to visit Houston and Dallas to headline annual fundraising dinners for the county GOPs in each city. It is part of an increase in his out-of-state travel — along with a book release Tuesday — that is only further stoking speculation he is gearing up to run for president.

Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel announced DeSantis’ appearance in a statement that was careful to treat the two states as peers rather than rivals.

“Alongside Texas,” she said, “Florida is one of the nation's most prosperous and free states thanks to Governor Ron DeSantis' leadership.”

Twin issues

The comparisons between Abbott and DeSantis have arisen on a vast range of policy issues, but they started in earnest amid the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Abbott’s pandemic management became a top issue in his Republican primary for reelection in the spring of 2021, with challengers like Don Huffines assailing Abbott over business shutdowns on his watch. Huffines regularly pitted Abbott against DeSantis, saying at one point that Abbott “was following that lyin', fraudulent [Dr. Anthony] Fauci for over nine months” while DeSantis “was basically running the country.”

In reality, Texas lifted its statewide stay-at-home order at the end of April 2020, and Florida followed a few days later. DeSantis himself said during a January 2021 speech in Austin that Texas “has by and large done a good job as well” on COVID-19 mandates.

But for Abbott’s intraparty critics, the die was cast, and DeSantis became the new conservative standard bearer.

Along the way, Abbott and DeSantis presented a cordial relationship when they crossed paths, including at a joint news conference along the Texas-Mexico border in July 2021. DeSantis addressed Abbott casually — “Thank you, Greg” — and praised his efforts to secure the border under then-new President Joe Biden.

“We appreciate you stepping up where the federal government won’t,” DeSantis told Abbott.

For months, Abbott was essentially unrivaled in national headlines among governors for his efforts to spotlight border security and crack down on illegal immigration. Since April, Abbott had been busing migrants to Democrat-led cities across the country, earning regular appearances on Fox News and plaudits from conservatives across the nation.

But then one day in September, DeSantis flew two planes full of migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis’ stunt instantly overshadowed Abbott’s efforts, creating a national firestorm driven by DeSantis’ larger political profile and questions about the legality — and ethics — of the flights.

“Kudos to [DeSantis],” tweeted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who previously proposed legislation to create a new port of entry on Martha’s Vineyard.

Reporters inquired about whether Abbott coordinated with DeSantis on the flights — after all, the flights originated in San Antonio. His office said they welcomed DeSantis’ interest in the border situation, but below the surface, it was easy to see tension. An Abbott spokesperson said the governor’s office had talked to DeSantis’ about “supporting our busing strategy” but added that Texas was “not involved” in the Martha’s Vineyard flights. And in a TV interview days later, Abbott plainly sought to distinguish Texas’ migrant busing from the DeSantis-ordered flights, saying Texas gets written permission from migrants to transport them, among other things.

“It’s just done completely differently,” Abbott said.

Since then, Texas’ busing efforts have continued sending more than 9,100 migrants to Democrat-led cities, while Florida’s migrant flights, which are being investigated for criminal activity, have stopped.

The comparisons have only picked up since Texas’ legislative session started in early January.

On Jan. 15, Abbott declared on Twitter that he would sign a Senate bill to ban certain foreign entities and citizens from buying land in Texas, a proposal in which he had not previously shown much interest. Abbott cast it as an extension of a far narrower bill he signed in 2021, though it was hard to ignore the more immediate timeline: Five days earlier, DeSantis said at a news conference in Florida he wanted to ban China from buying property there.

“Basically, anything that DeSantis does, Abbott's got to follow,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Chinese American Democrat from Houston who has spearheaded the opposition to the Texas Senate bill.

Earlier this month, Abbott courted controversy again when his chief of staff sent a letter to state agencies and public colleges warning that it is illegal to make hiring decisions based on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The letter came about a week after DeSantis announced a plan to block DEI programs at Florida state colleges.

Abbott’s not the only Texas official who is watching Florida. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is prioritizing legislation to restrict classroom discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation after seeing DeSantis champion it in Florida. And state House Speaker Dade Phelan is drawing inspiration from DeSantis as he aims to hold big technology companies accountable this session.

To Republicans like state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, Texas and Florida are working more as a partnership than a rivalry, with each state swapping big ideas and constituents winning out.

“They’ve done some things we haven’t; we’ve done some things they haven’t,” said Creighton, the Senate’s Education Committee chair who traveled to Tallahassee in December to meet with DeSantis and his education advisers.

Creighton, in an interview, said he was surprised by how much time DeSantis gave him to discuss education policy.

“I didn’t really approach it from a competitive standpoint. I approached it as a partnership,” Creighton said, characterizing their conversation as a “comparison of some of the policies that Florida and Texas have passed but don’t necessarily match up exactly.”

Creighton said DeSantis was “very complimentary of Texas and certainly very interested in what we’re doing here.” He mentioned “a few conversations” he has had with Abbott “in a very respectful way,” Creighton added.

Abbott overlooked

Abbott’s allies say the DeSantis comparisons often overlook Abbott’s record.

“I don’t think Greg Abbott gets the credit he deserves for being a leader on conservative issues,” said John Wittman, a former top aide to Abbott, pointing to Abbott’s record on abortion, guns and the border. Plus, Wittman added, “economically I don’t think anyone can compete with him.”

Abbott himself has become more willing to assert where Texas has led the way. He said in the recent interview with the Tribune that Texas has been a “national leader” in restricting abortion and expanding gun rights, implicitly contrasting with the Sunshine State. He has also made more direct comparisons on his Twitter feed, including in December when a user asked him about the news Florida was pulling $2 billion in assets from BlackRock over the investment firm’s environmental, social and governance policies.

“Texas was the first state to ban BlackRock from doing business with our state,” Abbott replied, citing a 2021 law he signed.

In the Legislature, Republicans also feel as though their conservative accomplishments have been underappreciated amid the national spotlight on DeSantis.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, needled DeSantis last year over his championing of new election restrictions in Florida, tweeting he was “glad Gov [DeSantis] liked our ideas and signed a bill Gov. [Abbott] signed over a year ago.”

State Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant, piled on in a tweet responding to Hughes.

“Agreed. Florida needs to catch up to Texas and pass these policies,” Hefner said, ticking off “constitutional carry,” “heartbeat bill” and “abortion ban.”

DeSantis is indeed looking to make new progress on those issues when the Florida Legislature meets next month. He is seeking a permitless carry law and potentially a bill to ban abortion as early as six weeks, similar to Texas’ “heartbeat bill.”

Last week, DeSantis announced another priority with an unavoidable nexus to the Lone Star State: a far-reaching crackdown on illegal immigration. Among the proposals he wants is the repeal of a law allowing undocumented migrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities.

Texas governors — including Abbott and his predecessor, Rick Perry — have long faced pressure from their right to repeal a similar law in Texas but have not given in.

The relationship between the two governors is noticeably more muted than that of their predecessors. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott enjoyed a close friendship, playfully competing to bring jobs to their states. Scott went to law school in Texas and started his career here.

Scott specifically followed in Perry’s footsteps by traveling to blue states to try to poach jobs from them.

At the time, Perry was perceived as the more prominent GOP star of the two governors.

“Rick Scott wants to be the new Rick Perry,” Politico wrote in 2015.


Certainly, part of the reason why DeSantis has a higher national profile is because he’s sending stronger signals that he intends to run for president.

DeSantis campaigned for Republicans nationwide during the midterms, he has written a book that came out Tuesday and he is increasingly making political appearances outside Florida, including the Texas trip this weekend.

Abbott has done none of that, and his team says he is making a point to avoid the national GOP travel circuit for now.

Notably, however, Abbott has remained silent on Trump’s 2024 campaign. The two have been on generally good terms over the years, and Trump endorsed Abbott early in his reelection bid as he was drawing primary challengers.

Asked about 2024 these days, Abbott does not rule out a campaign but says he is currently focused on Texas. His aides say he will wait after the current legislative session — which ends in late May — to consider a White House bid. That period — late spring — is roughly when DeSantis is expected to launch a campaign.

If Abbott does not run, he will no doubt face pressure to take sides ahead of the early Texas primary, potentially picking between Trump and DeSantis.

Meanwhile, other Texas Republican officials are already sizing up a 2024 pool without so much as an acknowledgement of Abbott’s potential interest.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is backing Trump again after twice chairing his campaigns in Texas.

“I just don’t know Ron DeSantis,” Patrick said at a conference in Austin last month, calling Trump “the person to beat” at the moment. “I think Ron DeSantis has done a terrific job in Florida. I have nothing negative to say about him — I think he’s done a really good job — but I’m a Trump guy.”

In a recent radio interview, another Trump loyalist in Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton, lauded DeSantis as he explained why he was nonetheless sticking with Trump for 2024, citing his White House record.

“I love Ron DeSantis,” Paxton said. “I think he’s done a great job as governor of Florida.”

Disclosure: Politico has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority bills signal another swing at pushing Texas to the right

Feb. 13, 2023

"Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s priority bills signal another swing at pushing Texas to the right" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced a list Monday of 30 wide-ranging bills that he has designated his legislative priorities, including providing property tax relief and increasing natural gas plants to improve the reliability of the state’s power grid. He also detailed more specifically his plans to push a socially conservative agenda that would ban certain books in schools, restrict transgender student athlete participation in collegiate sports and end gender-transition treatment for young people.

In a statement announcing his priority bills, Patrick said he believed Texans largely supported his proposals because they “largely reflect the policies supported by the conservative majority of Texans.”

Traditionally, the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and the House speaker, who presides over the lower chamber of the Legislature, unveil 20 bills with low bill numbers near the start of each legislative session to indicate their priorities. Since 2017, Patrick, who is seen as one of the strongest lieutenant governors in modern Texas history, has expanded his priority list to 30.

Patrick gave reporters a glimpse at his legislative priorities in December. But Monday’s announcement had brief descriptions of the priority bills (many of which have not been filed yet) and more directly addressed controversial legislation that the most socially conservative members in the Republican Party have called for, including bills that seek to impose restrictions on transgender Texans.

Patrick also included legislation to ban what he deems “obscene” books in schools and to prohibit children from being “exposed” to drag shows. Such legislation has come after clamor from some Republicans to ban books that they deem sexually explicit in public schools and after similar groups and activists have called for an end to events where drag performers read to children. In recent months, Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials have taken action to have some books removed from school shelves, including ones that have content related to gender identity or portray LGBTQ relationships.

On education, Patrick said he would fight to “empower parents” including through “school choice,” indicating a support for voucher legislation that would use state dollars for parents to take their kids out of public schools and place them in private schools. At the collegiate level, he also doubled down on ending tenure, a policy idea he initially floated last year as a way to stop professors from teaching critical race theory, and banning diversity, equity and inclusion policies in hiring practices.

These issues are consistent with Patrick’s typical role pushing the Legislature to the right. He is perhaps the most socially conservative among the state’s “Big Three” leaders, which also include Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan. But Patrick shied away from them during his earlier announcement in December, focusing more on property taxes, immigration and the electric grid.

Patrick, who has a Republican majority in the Senate, should have an easy time passing his priorities through the upper chamber despite what is expected to be strong opposition from advocacy groups on issues around LGBTQ rights, education and civil liberties. But the bills must pass through both chambers of the Legislature and then be signed by the governor to become law.

In the past, the House has stifled attempts to pull money away from public schools and divert it to private education, largely because rural Republicans do not have private school options in many of their districts and public schools are some of their districts’ biggest employers. The lower chamber has also had less of an appetite for socially controversial legislation, like passing bills targeting LGBTQ people.

But the chamber has grown more socially conservative in recent elections, passing a bill that banned transgender student athletes from participating in K-12 sports. And this year, key players, like Abbott have indicated support for vouchers and Patrick has said he is hopeful that lawmakers can create a framework that would not hurt rural districts.

Patrick also said he wants to remove district attorneys and state judges who “refuse to follow Texas law.” Republican lawmakers have been particularly angry at prosecutors and judges in Democrat-dominated parts of the state who do not prosecute certain kinds of crimes, like small possession of marijuana or minor theft charges, and judges who let defendants leave jail under no cash bail agreements. Proponents of those policies say such discretion allows prosecutors more time to focus on major crimes that are more important to tackle.

Patrick also signaled the importance of rural Texas by designating among his priorities the state’s future water needs, the need for more mental health hospitals in rural areas and a need to assist rural law enforcement agents, who don’t have tax bases as broad as urban centers.

He also made “banning local COVID-19 mandates” a priority, perhaps in a nod to Abbott’s threat to keep in place his emergency powers until lawmakers codified his order to ban cities and counties from implementing vaccine and mask mandates.

Patrick, who has to maneuver the 31 senators who make up his chamber, tried to reassure some of the members whose priorities perhaps did not make his list.

“This session I could have used 50 low bill numbers because there are so many issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “Just because a bill does not make the priority list does not mean it is not a priority for me or the Senate.”

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Texas Republican arrested on suspicion of drunken driving

State Sen. Charles Schwertner was arrested early Tuesday morning on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, according to Travis County sheriff’s office records.

Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, was booked into the Travis County jail at 2:12 a.m. and charged with driving while intoxicated. Records showed Schwertner was in Travis County sheriff’s custody most of Tuesday morning, but had received a personal recognizance bond and was released from jail shortly after noon. He is an orthopedic surgeon by trade.

As he left the Travis County jail after noon, Schwertner told reporters: “I’m deeply sorry, apologetic to my citizens and my family. I made a mistake.”

Schwertner’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Texas Tribune. His attorney, Perry Minton, did not respond to a request from the Tribune but told the Austin American-Statesman, which first reported news of Schwertner's arrest on Twitter: “I met with Senator Schwertner very early this morning directly after his unfortunate arrest. He was certainly humble and embarrassed by his circumstances but he was clear-eyed, sober and making good sense. Because of this, we’ll be interested in the discovery once it becomes available.”

Schwertner was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving early Tuesday morning. Credit: Austin Police Department

A day after the arrest, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, castigated Schwertner for his actions.

"There is zero excuse for driving under the influence and putting lives in danger, in particular by a member of the legislature whose conduct should be held to a higher standard," he said in a statement. "I will await the final outcome of this issue in court before making any further statement on the matter."

Schwertner was arrested around 12:45 a.m., when an Austin police officer saw the black Cadillac that Schwertner was driving “swerving to the right and the left and split the two lanes repeatedly,” according to an affidavit of probable cause. The officer followed the car and saw it continue to swerve between lanes, the affidavit said. The officer stopped the car and the driver identified himself as Schwertner.

The officer said Schwertner had “bloodshot, glassy, watery eyes, was confused, and had slurred speech patterns.” The officer also said Schwertner had “a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath.”

The officer described Schwertner as “polite, sleepy, cooperative” in the report. Schwertner refused a breath test, and he was not given a blood test to measure his blood alcohol concentration. Schwertner has no previous DWI convictions, according to the affidavit.

Schwertner, who leads the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee, was expected at the Capitol at 11 a.m. Tuesday when the Senate reconvened for the week. The Business and Commerce Committee also had a scheduled hearing to discuss proposed changes by the state’s Public Utilities Commission to the energy market’s design that stemmed from failures that led to millions of people losing power across the state during the 2021 winter freeze. Schwertner, who has served in the Senate since 2013, has expressed dissatisfaction with those changes.

Schwertner missed the Senate’s scheduled meeting and the Business and Commerce Committee’s meeting. Sen. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican who is serving his first term in the Senate, took the helm of the committee as the group’s vice chair.

“The chair, as you know, is not going to be able to be with us today,” said King, who previously served in the House.

Schwertner, 52, has faced other scandals in the past. In 2018, he was accused of sending sexually explicit photos of his genitals to a graduate student at the University of Texas. He denied the allegations, saying that someone else sent the messages using his LinkedIn account and another privacy phone messaging app that belongs to him.

A university investigation, which described the senator as uncooperative, did not clear Schwertner of wrongdoing but said it could not prove Schwertner sent the texts.

After the sexual harassment allegation, Schwertner voluntarily gave up his chairmanship of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee to work on other issues in the Legislature and spend more time with his family. Patrick followed the investigation closely.

In 2016, after Austin voters approved stricter requirements for drivers that prompted Uber and Lyft to leave town, Schwertner spearheaded Senate legislation designed to create statewide regulations that would allow the companies to return to the city. The bill aimed to ensure the companies had the same rules in every city in Texas. When he argued for the bill in the Legislature, he said ride-hailing companies provided transportation to people who otherwise “are getting in vehicles and driving drunk.”

Other state lawmakers have faced drunken driving charges in recent years. Former state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican, was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated in April 2021. He decided to retire later that year.

In 2017, state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, a Dallas Democrat, was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated. She remains in the Legislature.

Such arrests have also been used as political attacks. In 2013, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, was arrested for and pleaded guilty to drunken driving. Then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, demanded her resignation and threatened to use his line-item veto power to cut funding to the office’s Public Accountability Office if she did not resign. When Lehmberg did not resign, Perry defunded the unit. He was later indicted in relation to the move but was cleared of charges.

Texas AG Ken Paxton agrees to apologize and pay $3.3 million to whistleblowers in settlement

Attorney General Ken Paxton and four of his former top deputies who said he improperly fired them after they accused him of crimes have reached a tentative agreement to end a whistleblower lawsuit that would pay those employees $3.3 million dollars.

In a filing on Friday, attorneys for Paxton and the whistleblowers asked the Texas Supreme Court to further defer consideration of the whistleblower case until the two sides can finalize the tentative agreement. Once the deal is finalized and payment by the attorney general's office is approved, the two sides will move to end the case, the filing said.

"The whistleblowers sacrificed their jobs and have spent more than two years fighting for what is right," said TJ Turner, an attorney for David Maxwell, a whistleblower and former director of law enforcement for the attorney general's office. "We believe the terms of the settlement speak for themselves."

Paxton, a Republican who won a third four-year term in November, said in a statement that he agreed to the settlement to save taxpayer money and start his new term unencumbered by the accusations.

"After over two years of litigating with four ex-staffers who accused me in October 2020 of ‘potential’ wrongdoing, I have reached a settlement agreement to put this issue to rest," Paxton said. "I have chosen this path to save taxpayer dollars and ensure my third term as Attorney General is unburdened by unnecessary distractions. This settlement achieves these goals. I look forward to serving the People of Texas for the next four years free from this unfortunate sideshow."

The tentative agreement would pay $3.3 million to the four whistleblowers and keep in place an appeals court ruling that allowed the case to move forward. Paxton had asked the Supreme Court to void that ruling. The settlement, once finalized, also will include a statement from Paxton saying he “accepts that plaintiffs acted in a manner that they thought was right and apologizes for referring to them as 'rogue employees.’”

The attorney general’s office also agreed to delete a news release from its website that called the whistleblowers “rogue employees.” The news release had been deleted as of Friday morning.

The settlement will be structured to pay whistleblower Ryan Vassar for 27 months of back pay for work he would have done had he not been fired. That will allow Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, to claim 27 months of service credit toward his state pension fund.

The attorney general’s office also agreed to stop opposing Maxwell’s bid to change paperwork filed with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement about his removal from the attorney general’s office. Such paperwork is important in law enforcement work, and a firing could be a red flag to future employers.

The settlement, which was mediated by attorney Patrick Keel of Austin, is contingent on the approval of funding.

The other two whistleblowers in the suit are Mark Penley, former deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and Blake Brickman, former deputy attorney general for policy and strategic initiatives.

The whistleblower lawsuit was filed after eight former top deputies to Paxton accused him of bribery and abuse of office in October 2020 and reported Paxton’s alleged actions to authorities. All eight of those employees were either fired or resigned.

Their reports led to an FBI investigation. No charges have been filed and Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

In November 2020, four of those former employees filed a whistleblower lawsuit claiming Paxton had improperly retaliated against them after they accused him of criminal acts. They sought reinstatement and compensation for lost wages, as well as pay for future lost earnings and damages for emotional pain and suffering.

Two weeks ago, three of the four plaintiffs in that lawsuit – Penley, Maxwell and Vassar – asked the Texas Supreme Court to put their case on hold while they negotiated a settlement with Paxton. Brickman initially sought to oppose the motion but signed onto the settlement agreement filed with the court Friday.

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee, and that he fired the employees not in retaliation for their complaint but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. Last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The whistleblower suit isn’t Paxton’s only legal problem.

Paxton is still facing felony securities fraud charges tied to private business deals in 2011. He has denied wrongdoing in the nearly 8-year-old case.

The Texas State Bar also sued Paxton last year for professional misconduct for allegedly misrepresenting that he had uncovered substantial evidence of fraud in a bid to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s election victories in four battleground states. Paxton has denied wrongdoing and dismissed the suit as politically motivated.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton negotiates settlement with his former deputies over retaliation lawsuit

Jan. 31, 2023

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal team is in settlement negotiation talks with three of the four former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him for firing them after they accused Paxton of criminal acts.

Paxton’s lawyers, in a joint filing last week with attorneys for Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar — Paxton’s former deputies — asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement. The lawyers wrote they were “actively engaged in settlement discussions” with mediation set for Wednesday.

Lawyers for a fourth plaintiff, Blake Brickman, opposed the motion in their own filing and urged the court to move forward with its consideration. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

The high-profile case has been yet another black eye for Paxton, a Republican whose litany of legal troubles have followed him throughout much of his tenure as attorney general and at times alienated him from other GOP state officials. Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges in August 2015. That case is still pending and Paxton has denied wrongdoing. More recently, Paxton was sued last year by the Texas State Bar for professional misconduct for misrepresenting that he had uncovered new evidence to file a lawsuit to challenge the results of the 2020 presidential elections in four battleground states. Paxton has maintained the suit is politically motivated and denied wrongdoing.

The case stems from allegation in October 2020 by eight former top Paxton aides who reported to authorities that the attorney general had abused his office and accepted a bribe in exchange for helping a political donor with his business affairs. The whistleblowers also alleged that Paxton, who is married, helped the donor because the donor had given Paxton’s alleged girlfriend a job. Those reports led to an FBI investigation. No federal charges have been filed. All eight of the employees were either fired or resigned from the attorney general’s office after making the complaint.

In November 2020, four of those former employees filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton saying they had been fired in retaliation. They sought reinstatement and compensation for lost wages, as well as pay for future lost earnings and damages for emotional pain and suffering.

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee and that he fired them not in retaliation for their complaint, but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. But last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The joint filing by Paxton’s lawyers and the three plaintiffs says the court should defer its review of the case until Feb. 9 to give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brickman’s lawyers, Thomas Nesbitt and William T. Palmer, said in their filing that Paxton’s team has been delaying the case for two years and “there is no reason for abating this case.” They argued that the other plaintiffs sought the pause only because they intended to settle the case, but since Brickman was not involved in those negotiations, his claims still needed a quick resolution.

“Brickman respectfully requests that this Court deny the request for abatement,” they wrote. “It imposes further needless delay of the adjudication of Brickman’s claim.”

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveils committee assignments with one Democratic chair

Jan. 23, 2023

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday announced Senate committee assignments, keeping his key lieutenants in leadership positions. And despite pressure from conservative GOP activists to ban members of the minority party from leading committees, Patrick reappointed Democrat John Whitmire to chair the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

In a statement, Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said the committee assignments would “ensure we succeed in addressing the priorities of the people of Texas.” In an acknowledgement of the debate over appointing Democratic lawmakers to positions of power, Patrick said: “The overwhelming majority of bills voted on by the chamber will have bipartisan support. But make no mistake, the priority bills will address the concerns of the conservative majority in Texas.”

A small but vocal group of hardline conservative activists have pushed for legislative leaders like Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan to refrain from giving leadership positions to Democrats, arguing that they would hold up the passage of conservative legislation. Earlier this month, hundreds of activists streamed into the House and Senate galleries wearing bright red shirts that read, “Ban Democrat Chairs.”

The push also has garnered support from Texas Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi, a former state representative. Banning Democratic committee chairs is among the party’s eight legislative priorities.

The debate has largely been focused on the House, which has a long-standing tradition of appointing committee chairs from the minority party. Phelan, like speakers before him, has argued that it contributes to a sense of unity in the chamber and sets the Texas Legislature apart from Congress’ rank divisions. He has pushed back on claims that Democrats tank GOP legislation by saying conservative priorities that have the support of a majority of the chamber have been enacted into law.

But the issue has been less contentious in the Senate. Patrick’s governing philosophy is that the majority party should control leadership positions. Under his tenure as the Senate boss, Democrats in leadership positions have dwindled. And Patrick has said publicly that once Whitmire, of Houston, leaves the Senate, he will no longer appoint any Democrats to lead committees.

Whitmire, who has served in the Senate since 1983 and long led the panel that oversees criminal justice legislation, is running for Houston mayor in November.

Rinaldi seemed to approve of Patrick’s committee assignments and called on Phelan to “announce a similar plan to reduce and eventually eliminate Democrat chairmen in the House, rather than continuing to defend the practice.”

“The Lieutenant Governor’s committee appointments position the Senate well to pass every Republican legislative priority this session,” Rinaldi said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “We are also grateful for the Lt. Gov. being responsive to the party’s concerns regarding Democrat chairmen and reducing the number from 32% of committees before he took office to one during his tenure.”

Fourteen of the 15 standing Senate committees announced Monday will be led by Republican lawmakers. A sixteenth special committee on redistricting also will be run by a Republican.

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican from Houston, will chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee and the chamber’s special committee on redistricting. Huffman, a Patrick ally, took over the powerful finance committee last year after longtime Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, who had chaired the budget-writing committee since 2014, announced she would not seek reelection. Nelson was appointed Texas secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month.

Huffman has spent months already working on the budget and last week released the Senate’s first draft of the budget. She will also lead the redistricting committee, which is expected to do minimal work on the Senate’s political maps to appease doubts over the legality of last session’s redistricting process.

Sen. Bryan Hughes of Mineola, another Patrick ally, will also chair two committees: state affairs and jurisprudence. In the last legislative session, the Republican ran the powerful state affairs committee, from which he passed a law banning abortions in the state after six weeks, one of the most restrictive bills in the country at the time. (The U.S. Supreme Court reversed federal protections for abortions in 2022, effectively outlawing abortion in Texas almost entirely). Hughes also will take over the jurisprudence panel from Huffman.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican, maintained control of the Education Committee, which will now oversee higher education legislation in addition to bills that impact K-12 learning. He also will also chair a new subcommittee on higher education.

Conservative lawmakers have promised to make education a top focus, with leaders like Patrick targeting tenure in higher education and Creighton advocating for a “parental bill of rights” that would likely limit what educators can teach children about race, gender and sex in public schools.

“We’re gearing up to advance one of the most conservative sessions in Texas history, a forward-thinking agenda this nation has not seen,” Creighton said, during Abbott’s inauguration last week.

Touting the strength of the new freshman class, of which several members had served multiple terms in the Texas House before being elected to the Senate, Patrick appointed three first-term senators as vice chairs of committees.

Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who had previously served 24 years in the House, will be the vice chair of the business and commerce committee; Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, who served 16 years in the House, will be vice chair of the veteran affairs committee; and Sen. Kevin Sparks, a Midland Republican who is Patrick’s conservative ally, will be vice chair of the nominations committee.

Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, who had served four years in the House before being elected to the Senate, will be vice chair of the subcommittee on higher education.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at

The Texas Legislative session begins today. Here are 6 things we’re watching.

Jan. 10, 2023

Lawmakers returned to Austin today for their biennial assembly to pass new laws and decide how to spend the state’s money for the next two years.

Republicans maintained their nearly 30-year dominance over Texas politics in last November’s midterm elections, growing their majorities in both legislative chambers and keeping their grasp on every statewide elected office. That means Texans can expect the Legislature to continue to swing conservative on both fiscal and social matters.

Just how conservative they go will be the main question, as the battle between far-right, socially conservative Republicans and business-oriented GOP legislators, who have tried to move away from fights over social issues, continues within the party.

Democrats, who have been in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature for 20 years, will have limited tools to fend off Republican advances and will have to choose their battles wisely.

With a record-breaking budget surplus, lawmakers will be putting out their hands for funding for their pet projects across the state, and top leaders will no longer have the ready excuse of limited means. But with rising costs due to inflation, lawmakers will also have to factor in how much more they’ll have to spend in the state budget to cover infrastructure and staffing costs that keep the state running.

Texas has seen major challenges since the last time lawmakers assembled in Austin in late 2021: a school shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, higher inflation hitting Texans in their pocketbooks, a record number of migrants attempting to cross the state’s southern border, the outlawing of abortion following a U.S. Supreme Court decision and parents who have grown increasingly agitated about what public schools are teaching their children about gender, sex and race.

With major issues at play in the Capitol, here are six things we are watching as Texas’ 88th legislative session kicks off.

How to spend the budget surplus

The biggest topic of conversation heading into today is how to spend the state’s $32.7 billion budget surplus, and everyone — including top legislative leadership — is chomping at the bit over how to use that cash.

“It’s always easiest to spend other people’s money, so everyone is going to try to get their pet projects done,” said Brian Smith, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

The surplus, or one-time money that was left over from the previous budget cycle, is historic in its enormousness. But not all of it is up for grabs. A share of it is reserved for highway funds, and some of it will flow into the state’s rainy day fund, also called the Economic Stabilization Fund.

Gov. Greg Abbott promised during his campaign to deliver “the largest property tax cut in the history of the state.” He said he wanted to use half of the budget surplus to deliver on that promise. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another property tax relief hawk, has introduced a note of caution, warning the Legislature could not spend half of the surplus without busting its self-imposed spending cap. (The Legislature can vote to spend beyond the cap.)

Patrick, whose railing against property taxes swept him into the Senate in 2007, has said he is committed to cutting property taxes but wants to move cautiously to ensure the state has enough money left over in its rainy day fund for emergency spending and for other state priorities.

In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has suggested allocating some of the surplus to one-time infrastructure spending. That plan carries the advantage of not having to reproduce that spending in the budget every two years, like with property tax relief, which is a recurring state cost.

But there are also other factors to consider. A property tax cut, for example, would more directly benefit homeowners rather than renters. And since a considerable chunk of the surplus comes from an increase in the revenue generated by sales tax, some lawmakers have raised the question about the fairness of rewarding only homeowners when that money has come from Texans across the board.

It’s also unclear how much homeowners would even notice a property tax cut in the form of a homestead exemption. In 2021, lawmakers increased the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, which would save the average homeowner of a $300,000 home about $175 a year.

Lawmakers will also have to weigh additional costs to running the state. Because of inflation, the costs for state services will be more expensive, and state employees will be lagging behind without a cost-of-living adjustment in their salaries.

“Spending is not keeping up with inflation. So we need to do something about what we pay state workers and how we deal with the agencies,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst at Every Texan, a liberal think tank.

“Parental rights”

Republican leaders and lawmakers have targeted “parental rights” at the center of their agendas this session. They want to give parents more say in their children’s education, whether it be the school they attend or the books they read.

How exactly that goal manifests itself in the session remains to be seen. Abbott campaigned for reelection on a “parental bill of rights” that, among other things, seeks to increase the transparency of school curricula and crack down on what he’s called “pornographic” materials in books available to schoolchildren. In some ways, it is a continuation of GOP efforts from 2021 that led to restrictions on how teachers talk about race and gender in classrooms in an effort to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools.

A more divisive concept inside the GOP could be the revival of an effort for school vouchers, or redirecting tax dollars to let parents take their kids out of public schools and send them to other kinds of schools. Abbott voiced his clearest support yet for the idea during his campaign, but it has historically run into opposition from rural Republicans in the House.

Patrick, who oversees the Senate and has considerable power over legislation, has long supported the concept. In a podcast interview posted Sunday, he said he sees it as part of this session’s focus on “parental freedom.”

“Those who oppose school choice, [they say], ‘Oh, vouchers are terrible!’ No, parents deserve the freedom to decide where their kids go to school,” Patrick said.

But in a sign that voucher supporters know they need to try a different tactic this session, Patrick has pitched “bracketing out” rural Texas in any proposal, hoping to appeal to GOP lawmakers in those areas who are fiercely protective of their public schools.

LGBTQ issues and women’s health

Social conservatives are also attempting to crack down on LGBTQ rights this session. Around three dozen bills targeting LGBTQ people had been filed as of last week.

These bills vary from putting restrictions on drag shows to restricting gender-affirming care for transgender children and even criminalizing it. Such care is recommended by major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, but socially conservative legislators have decried gender-affirming care as “genital mutilation” and “child abuse.”

Still, major leaders like Abbott have supported the push by conservatives to launch child-abuse investigations of parents who provide such care to their children.

Backlash against drag shows has also grown, with far-right groups targeting the shows and accusing performers of “grooming children” — a trope that has historically been used against LGBTQ people.

Lawmakers will also have to figure out how to tackle access to abortion in the state after the procedure was outlawed in Texas law following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case last summer.

Before the November elections, some Republican candidates and lawmakers had expressed an openness to creating exceptions to the state’s abortion ban in cases of rape or incest. But after Republicans maintained their dominance in state politics on Election Day, Smith said he does not see a political motivation for GOP leaders to revisit the issue.

Patrick has been noncommittal about revisiting the restrictions but has suggested he does not see a “groundswell” to do so among Republicans.

“We may see them be proposed and discussed, but they won’t be moving,” Smith said. “And I think the same is true about guns.”

Border security

Last session, the Legislature allocated a record $3 billion toward border security efforts, including Abbott’s highly touted border mission, Operation Lone Star, which has sent thousands of state troopers and National Guard service members to the Texas-Mexico border. Some of that money has also been used to build a border wall, the first in the country funded by state coffers.

But with a record number of migrants trying to cross into the country — U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded 2.4 million attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022 — the funding could not keep up with the large number of resources sent to slow the crossing of migrants.

State lawmakers had to transfer another $1 billion to keep Abbott’s border mission going through 2022, often taking money from underfunded state agencies like the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. More money — ranging from hundreds of millions of dollars to another billion — is expected from the state to continue the effort until the end of the fiscal year in August, DeLuna Castro said.

Still, the number of migrants crossing the southwest border has remained stubbornly high, and state lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to continue spending multiple billions of dollars on an effort that has failed to produce a resounding success.

Patrick has answered in the affirmative, saying the state must continue its spending on border security because Democrats in Washington have abandoned their responsibility on the issue.

“People say, ‘Well, they’re still crossing.’ Yes, they’re still crossing because of President Biden,” Patrick said at a news conference unveiling his legislative priorities. “Without our DPS, without our National Guard, without the state doing what we’re doing, the situation would be far worse ... so we have to keep that up until we get a new president in the White House who hopefully will make border security No. 1 in 2024.”

The issue was also central to Abbott’s governing strategy and his reelection campaign, so he’s expected to also support continued spending on border security.

But there could also be other ramifications and questions lawmakers will attempt to respond to legislatively. As Abbott ramped up the mission to deploy 10,000 service members to the border in the fall of 2021, troops began complaining about poor living conditions, a lack of pay and no sense of mission. The mission has also seen the deaths of 10 troops tied to Operation Lone Star, including five suspected suicides and the death of Bishop Evans, a servicemember who died in the Rio Grande while trying to rescue drowning migrants. The migrants survived.

“Who signs up for the Texas State Guard if you think you’re going to get sent [away for a long time] and not come home?” DeLuna Castro said. “Who signs up for that?”

The “Big Three” dynamic

Sessions always hinge on the relationship among the Big Three — the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. This time around, there is ample cause for tension from the outset of the session.

The two chamber leaders do not like one another, especially after the marathon of sessions in 2021. Patrick repeatedly criticized Phelan’s management of the House after Democrats broke quorum over the GOP’s priority elections bill. And then Patrick wielded his clout with former President Donald Trump to try to gin up primary opposition to Phelan, who ultimately ran unopposed.

“We have to get along to do the business of the state,” Phelan said in September before dryly adding, “and I have to tell you, our staffs get along very well.”

Phelan, speaking at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin in September, added it had “been a while” since he talked to Patrick.

Abbott and Patrick are also a duo to watch. Like Phelan, Abbott saw Patrick meddle in his primary and took note. And more recently, they are especially at odds when it comes to the fallout from the 2021 power grid collapse.

After Abbott declared later that year that lawmakers had done all they needed to do to fix the grid, Patrick campaigned on improving the grid and has named it a top priority for this session. He wants to build more natural gas capacity, a topic on which Abbott has been silent.

Patrick has sought to downplay any leadership tensions on the issue.

The grid is “fixed for now, but we need to fix it forever,” Patrick told Spectrum News in December.

Democratic strategy

Democrats are returning to the Legislature with very similar numbers — 64 members in the House and 13 in the Senate. But in the House, they have a new caucus chair, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, who is known as more sharp-elbowed than his predecessor, Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie.

“Trey is a much different leader,” Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a recent interview. “I anticipate there’ll be a more aggressive nature when combating Republicans on the issues.”

House Democrats already showed a new willingness to fight in 2021 when they broke quorum for weeks in protest of new voting restrictions. Martinez Fischer has not ruled out doing that again as a last resort for trying to derail Republican legislation.

Democrats in the House are also watching to see how much of a seat at the table they get as Phelan faces pressure to do away with committee chairs from the minority party, a longtime tradition. Phelan is highly unlikely to give in, as he has defended the practice as one that sets the Legislature apart from the gridlock in Washington. But he could take other steps to reduce Democratic influence in the House.

If there is any floor fight over committee chairs, it would come on the second day of the session — Wednesday — when the lower chamber typically considers its rules for the session.

House Republicans have a new leader, too. On Monday, their caucus elected a new chair, Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, previously the treasurer of the caucus. The chair during the 2021 sessions, Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, did not seek reelection to the House.

Disclosure: Every Texan has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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Beto O’Rourke returned $1 million check from FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried

Nov. 29, 2022

Beto O’Rourke returned a $1 million donation from embattled cryptocurrency leader Sam Bankman-Fried four days before Election Day, his campaign told The Texas Tribune this week.

Bankman-Fried founded FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange that was valued at $32 billion before collapsing abruptly in a matter of days earlier this month, setting off an industrywide panic. Many customers of the popular crypto platform may lose all or part of the money they invested. O’Rourke’s team said they returned the million-dollar donation a week before FTX filed for bankruptcy and Bankman-Fried stepped down as its chief executive, but that the decision was made prior to Nov. 4 and took time to execute.

Chris Evans, a spokesperson for O’Rourke’s campaign, said the reimbursement of one of the largest checks to O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign was unrelated to the scandals linked to Bankman-Fried’s now flailing cryptocurrency exchange.

He said the money, which was received on Oct. 11, was returned because the donation was unsolicited. Unlike other large donations, O’Rourke had not talked with Bankman-Fried prior to the donation, and the large sum took the campaign by surprise, Evans said.

“This contribution was unsolicited and the campaign’s upcoming [Texas Ethics Commission] report will show that it was returned back on November 4, prior to the news stories that would later come out about the donor,” he said.

FTX has been under scrutiny since September when Bloomberg reported how interconnected the company was with Alameda Research, a trading firm which Bankman-Fried also founded. On Nov. 2, two days before O’Rourke’s campaign said they gave the donation back, CoinDesk reported that much of Alameda’s assets were made up of a cryptocurrency token issued by FTX, its sister company. That report largely set off a run on FTX that culminated with its filing for bankruptcy on Nov. 11.

FTX is now being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice over whether it used billions of dollars in customer funds to prop up Alameda Research. The Texas State Securities Board is also looking into whether FTX illegally offered unregistered securities to Texans through its yield-bearing cryptocurrency accounts.

Nonetheless, his quiet return of the donation means O’Rourke has dodged the ethical headache bearing down on other candidates nationwide and in Texas who took money from the tech billionaire and his associates.

Bankman-Fried was O’Rourke’s top donor during the fundraising cycle spanning from July 1 to Sept. 29, but even without his donation O’Rourke was a formidable fundraiser, coming in at around $77 million for his entire campaign. O’Rourke had at least three other seven-figure donors, including the Democratic megadonor George Soros.

O’Rourke also received $100,000 from Nishad Singh, FTX’s director of engineering. O’Rourke’s campaign did not respond to a question about whether they also returned that donation.

Prior to FTX’s collapse, Bankman-Fried, 30, was seen as a cryptocurrency wunderkind and a positive influence on the industry who was anxious to shape its regulation. He and others tied to FTX were prolific political donors to both Democratic and Republican candidates. Bankman-Fried is one of President Joe Biden’s biggest donors, contributing more than $5 million to his campaign in 2020.

In total, Bankman-Fried donated $40 million to Democrats, according to Open Secrets, while another FTX executive, Ryan Salame, donated $23 million to Republicans.

Aside from O’Rourke, a number of Texas congressional candidates also received money from Bankman-Fried or his affiliates.

Jasmine Crockett, an incoming Democratic freshman to the U.S. House who’s currently a Dallas state representative, received $2,900 from Gabriel Bankman-Fried, Sam Bankman-Fried’s brother, according to federal campaign finance records.

Crockett, who was part of a competitive primary election to replace longtime Dallas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, also benefited from $1.4 million in spending from the Protect our Future super PAC, a political action committee that was mostly funded by Sam Bankman-Fried.

Crockett did not return a request for comment.

U.S. Rep.-elect Greg Casar, a Democrat and former Austin City Council member, received a total of $6,800 in donations from Singh and Gabriel Bankman-Fried, according to records.

Casar did not return a request for comment.

Donors tied to FTX also gave to Republican candidates. Salame donated to U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo; U.S. Rep.-elect Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen; and Cassy Garcia, who challenged longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar for his Laredo-based South Texas district.

Salame gave $12,900 to Jackson and $1,000 each to De La Cruz and Garcia. He also donated $5,000 to Texas Red, a political action committee affiliated with Jackson.

Representatives for De La Cruz, Garcia and Jackson did not return a request for comment.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who defeated O’Rourke earlier this month, has been critical of Bankman-Fried’s donations to the Democrat.

“This Madoff-Style evaporation of customer's money should be a crime,” he tweeted. “Candidates who received this tainted money should return it so that innocent customers of FTX can get some of their money back.”

Politicians across the country have struggled over what to do with funds they received from Bankman-Fried and others tied to FTX.

Major Democratic figures like U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have said they would give the donations they got from Bankman-Fried to charity. Durbin received $2,900 and Gillibrand received $16,600. Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, have also opted to donate their contributions to charity.

“What we’ve seen in the past with donations from people who’ve raised controversy in the news is generally politicians try to separate themselves from those people. They don’t want to be seen as beneficiaries of their largesse,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Here’s a guy who took a bunch of money and ‘We’re going to give his money back’ doesn’t always play that great. So we often see this kind of thing, an equal amount being donated to a charity that the candidate supports.”

As more politicians start giving the donations back, Libowitz said, it increases the pressure on those who haven’t opted to do so.

Jon Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said giving the money back is the smart political move.

“It will assuage your guilt and make you sleep better at night and it looks good to do so,” he said.

But he said it is also important for politicians to put distance between themselves and the controversial figure.

“You stiff-arm him and essentially say, ‘Yeah I got a contribution from him and I didn’t know him well and I’m not familiar with this cryptocurrency stuff and I’m really sorry for all the people who lost their money and I’m going to do my part with the small donation I got for my campaign,’” he said.

Disclosure: University of Texas at San Antonio has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at

Ken Paxton, Texas’ election denier-in-chief, closes in on third term

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

In the days leading up to the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged his followers on social media to “stand with President Trump” and “#StopTheSteal.”

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, he tweeted that “a lot of voters, as well as myself, believe something went wrong in this election.” And after the attack unfolded, he tweeted that he didn’t believe violence is the answer but was “sorely disappointed today in the certification of the election.” He made those claims even after Trump’s own U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr declared there had been no widespread vote fraud that could have affected the results of the presidential election.

Paxton, who is seeking his third term as attorney general, isn’t a run-of-the-mill election denier, casually casting false doubt on election security. He’s a loyal Trump ally, who tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in four states where President Joe Biden had won the election. The court rejected the suit within days, and Paxton was subsequently sued by the Texas state bar for professional misconduct related to the effort. Paxton’s attempt to dismiss the case is pending. He called the case against him a political attack.

That Paxton is so close to securing his reelection this November as the state's chief legal officer is raising alarms from election experts about the impact he could have on future close elections, particularly if Trump runs for president again in 2024. The attorney general in Texas does not administer elections, but the office is in charge of defending and enforcing the state’s election laws and of bringing lawsuits, such as ones that allege voter fraud.

“Paxton took among the most extreme positions of anyone in 2020 filing a brief that did not get traction at the Supreme Court that was advancing a radical theory that would have disenfranchised voters in numerous other states,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles and the director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project, which aims to ensure free and fair elections. “Unless he is actually put on trial and convicted or removed or loses his election, we can expect to see more of the same in 2024.”

Paxton is facing years-old securities fraud charges in Texas courts and is the subject of an FBI investigation after eight of his former top deputies accused him of abuse of office for doing political favors for a donor. He has denied all wrongdoing. But he remains the frontrunner, based on polls and fundraising, in the attorney general race against Democrat Rochelle Garza, a Brownsville attorney.

Garza has blasted Paxton for his legal problems and said he is a threat to election security because of his attempts to change how elections are administered. She cited his August legal opinion that said ballots should be made available for inspection to voters the same day they are cast — an opinion that goes against standing state and federal law that aims to safeguard ballots.

"Criminally-indicted Ken Paxton is a threat to our democracy. Paxton’s repeated attempts to change the outcome of elections is alarming,” Garza said in a statement. “I’m running for Texas Attorney General to stand up for the rule of law and protect the integrity of our electoral system.”

Paxton did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Paxton is among a large number of Republican candidates across the country who have cast doubt or flatly rejected the results of the 2020 presidential election, despite dozens of courts and extensive audits showing no signs of impropriety that would have impacted the results. As of October, more than half the country — 58% of the population living in 29 states — has a candidate running for governor, attorney general or secretary of state who has cast doubt on the 2020 elections, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for safe elections. (The group also deemed Gov. Greg Abbott an election denier for authorizing a “forensic audit” into the 2020 elections, but Abbott has not openly questioned the election results like Paxton has.)

“A single Election Denier winning a statewide office in a single state could throw our democracy into chaos,” Thania Sanchez, senior vice president of research and policy development at States United Action, said in an email. “The attorney generals we elect this year will be responsible for defending state voting laws and election results. Giving Election Deniers that power would be like putting arsonists in charge of the fire department.”

Nearly two years after the 2020 elections, Paxton still has not said whether he accepts the results of that presidential election, a question posed to his office in The Texas Tribune’s request for comment. His three opponents in the GOP primary earlier this year were asked that question in a debate, but Paxton skipped the event (two of those candidates, Eva Guzman and George P. Bush, said Biden had won the presidency, while U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert said he did not know).

Last week, Texas Secretary of State John Scott, who was appointed by Abbott and briefly represented Trump in a suit challenging the election results, stressed in an interview with Texas Monthly that Biden’s election was legitimate and “if he wins the next election, he’ll be president for the next four years.”

As recently as May 2022, the head of Paxton’s election integrity unit in the attorney general’s office was continuing to push the idea that the election had been stolen by screening a debunked film called “2000 Mules,” which falsely claims there was significant voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election.

“At this point, anyone who is repeating claims that the 2020 election is stolen has to know that there’s no evidence behind those at all,” said Jessica Marsden, a lawyer at the nonpartisan nonprofit organization Protect Democracy. “It’s not like it’s the middle of November 2020 anymore. All of these claims have been thoroughly investigated and debunked.”

Paxton has also directed his office to increasingly work on voter fraud cases, fanning the flames of conspiracy theorists who believe that election fraud is deciding elections despite ample evidence to the contrary. Such moves started under Abbott, who was Paxton’s predecessor, but has picked up attention over the last decade. Since 2005, the Texas attorney general’s website says the office has prosecuted 155 people for 534 election fraud offenses — about 0.0048% of the 11.1 million Texas votes cast in the 2020 presidential contest alone, and not even a rounding error’s worth of all votes cast in the state over the last 17 years.

In September, the state’s highest criminal court dealt a blow to Paxton’s attempts to prosecute more election fraud cases when it ruled the attorney general’s office could not try the cases without the approval of the local prosecutor’s office. Paxton has said he doesn’t find more fraud because he doesn’t have the resources to do so and because Democratic district attorneys refuse to pursue charges in their jurisdictions.

David Becker, the executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said having an attorney general casting doubt on the outcome of an election has a “disastrous effect” on the public’s trust in elections and government.

“A democracy cannot sustain itself if that’s the case,” he said. “It’s very concerning when a chief legal officer of the state is spreading lies that no court has upheld anywhere.”

Becker, a former voting rights attorney for the Justice Department who co-wrote the book “The Big Truth” about how claims about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election evaporate under scrutiny, said he fears the effect that such repeated claims can have on the public and on elections administrators. He said those election workers are leaving the field after seeing increased harassment from people who believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

This August, Paxton set the stage for new vote challenges in the midterm elections and beyond when he released an opinion that said anyone — an aggrieved voter, activist or out-of-state entity — can request access to ballots as soon as the day they are counted. That nonbinding legal opinion is at odds with state and federal law which requires ballots be kept secure for 22 months after an election to allow for recounts and challenges. Experts say Paxton’s opinion exposes election clerks to possible criminal charges and that such audit requests by voters have been used by activists all over the country to “audit” election results.

Chris Hollins was the Harris County clerk in 2020 and was in charge of administering the elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Paxton’s office made it difficult for him to try to increase access to the ballot for people of color and the elderly during a pandemic, and the attorney general’s office even tried to challenge the votes of more than 127,000 voters in Harris County who had cast their ballots through drive-thru voting, a pandemic measure by county officials which the state Legislature later banned. Paxton’s office argued that drive-thru voting and other measures taken by Harris County were not authorized by the state election code and therefore not allowed.

“Our toughest challenge in administering the 2020 election was not the pandemic, it was Ken Paxton,” said Hollins, who is now running for Houston mayor. “Four more years of Ken Paxton is going to do lasting damage to our state, to our communities and we should be fearful of what could happen in a contested 2024 election if he is at the helm in this critical position as chief legal officer of the state of Texas.”

In 2021, Paxton also tried to indict former Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir on a charge of unlawfully obstructing a poll watcher, a Class A misdemeanor that could result in up to a year in jail. A grand jury returned a no-bill in the matter, meaning it did not find probable cause for the charge.

Overall, Marsden said, Paxton has already done damage to the public’s trust in elections by using his significant status in state government to question the 2020 presidential election despite the claims being roundly debunked.

In a poll conducted by Ipsos and NPR this January, 65% of Americans said they accepted the outcome of the 2020 elections. But that number fell to less than half — 47% — when people who identify as Republicans were polled. Twenty-two percent of Americans said there was major fraudulent voting that changed the result of the elections, with the number going up to 45% when the question was posed to Republicans.

“If you think about the past couple of years as an experiment, I think we’ve seen that these kinds of comments from Attorney General Paxton and others do and have eroded faith in the system,” she said.

Disclosure: Texas Monthly and Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at