“We are not going away”: Paxton whistleblowers vow to continue legal fight in court

Ryan Vassar, Mark Penley and Blake Brickman, whistleblowers in the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, speak at a press conference in the state Capitol on Sept. 25, 2023. Credit: John Jordan/The Texas Tribune

Four whistleblowers who were fired after reporting Attorney General Ken Paxton to the FBI vowed Monday to continue their legal fight with their former boss, promising to expose his alleged wrongdoing by forcing him and others to publicly testify.

“We are not going away,” Blake Brickman, who served as deputy attorney general for policy and strategy under Paxton, said at a Monday news conference. “For us this case has always been about more than money. It’s about truth. It’s about justice.”

The whistleblowers — Brickman, David Maxwell, Mark Penley and Ryan Vassar — were among a small group of top Paxton deputies who had first-hand knowledge of his relationship with real estate investor Nate Paul. At Paxton’s impeachment trial they each testified about their growing concerns in 2020 that Paxton was illegally using his office to help Paul, a friend and political donor, as the real estate investor’s faltering business empire faced an FBI investigation, looming bankruptcies and a litany of related lawsuits.

The Texas Senate acquitted Paxton on 16 articles of impeachment this month.

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In late September 2020, the whistleblowers reported Paxton to the FBI for bribery and, after they were fired, sued for wrongful termination and retaliation. The suit was nearly settled for $3.3 million last year — until Texas House investigators, concerned by Paxton’s request that the Legislature allocate taxpayer money to cover the settlement, began looking into the lawsuit’s claims and eventually recommended Paxton’s impeachment.

In a Monday filing to the Texas Supreme Court, the whistleblowers argued that Paxton has failed to uphold key parts of the settlement agreement, including the $3.3 million payment and a promise to apologize for calling them “rogue employees” after they were fired. Thus, they argued, the court should lift an abatement that was put in place during mediation, and return the case to the court’s active docket.

Brickman acknowledged it is still possible that the House could authorize the settlement, but he said the whistleblowers “have been given zero indication that that’s likely to happen” and therefore want to return to the trial court. Doing so, Brickman added, would allow them to do what the House impeachment managers could not — including examining financial documents and putting Paxton, Paul, Paxton’s girlfriend Laura Olson and Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton under oath.

And they vowed that their trial would be free of the political influence that they said affected the outcome of Paxton’s trial in the Texas Senate. In a shot at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Brickman said their lawsuit wouldn’t feature a judge who received $3 million from a pro-Paxton group ahead of the trial.

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Asked for comment on the news conference, Paxton’s office said it would reply to the whistleblowers in court.

“The Office of the Attorney General will respond to the so-called whistleblower plaintiffs’ comments in a written response to be filed with the Texas Supreme Court—consistent with that Court’s procedures—as opposed to staging a press event in the state Capitol,” an office spokesperson, Paige Willey, said in a statement.

Patrick, Paul and Angela Paxton could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday.

The news conference marked the first time the whistleblowers have spoken out publicly since the verdict. Brickman was joined at the news conference by Vassar and Penley, and while Maxwell could not make it, Brickman said all four agreed on the statement he read to begin the event.

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“Although political pressure may have thwarted justice this month, we will continue our fight,” Brickman said.

Brickman also called Paxton’s claim that he was the victim of a political witch hunt “ludicrous,” noting that he was reported by sterling conservatives to the FBI while it was under former President Donald Trump. The whistleblowers also denied claims that they, rather than Paxton, were the ones who sought to settle the lawsuit last year.

In a Monday letter that was sent to Texas senators and provided to reporters, a lawyer for one of the whistleblowers also pushed back on those claims and provided a timeline that he said directly refutes “misinformation” from Patrick and others about who initiated the settlement talks.

“The fact is that [the Office of the Attorney General] initiated discussions that led to the abatement and the Attorney General’s request for funding, “ wrote Joseph Knight, who represents Vassar.

Monday’s news conference is the latest fallout in the wake of Paxton’s impeachment trial, and comes as experts warn that Paxton’s acquittal could have a chilling effect on state employees who witness potential wrongdoing.

Brickman agreed with those concerns.

“I think those 16 Republican senators really need to think long and hard about … why would any public employee ever report their boss for wrongdoing based on how we’ve been treated for three years?” he said.

Politically, Paxton’s acquittal has proven no less than an earthquake, further deepening schisms between the Texas GOP’s far-right and more moderate, but still deeply conservative, flanks. Patrick especially inflamed tensions by ending the trial with a speech excoriating the House for how it handled the impeachment process.

“I have never seen anything like that,” Brickman said. “It was shocking.”

On Saturday, the State Republican Executive Committee, the governing body of the Texas GOP, almost unanimously approved a resolution calling for House Speaker Dade Phelan to resign. The same day, at the Texas Tribune Festival in downtown Austin, House impeachment managers and prosecutors accused Patrick of gaming Paxton’s impeachment trial to affect the outcome.

Patrick has denied doing so, and gave a lengthy interview last week in which he defended himself and made the comments about the lawsuit settlement that prompted the Monday backlash from whistleblowers.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.