AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Office of the Attorney General has denied every allegation made in a November whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former high-ranking employees of the office who alleged they were retaliated against and wrongfully terminated after reporting the agency’s elected leader, Attorney General Ken Paxton, broke the law and abused his office, according to an original answer obtained Monday by KXAN.
The four whistleblowers, along with three other AG lawyers, reported to law enforcement on Oct. 1 what they believed to be illegal conduct by Paxton. The whistleblowers’ allegations centered on Paxton’s use of his office to intervene in legal matters involving his friend and political donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor, according to the lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs’ claims are barred because any action Plaintiffs allege to be an adverse employment action was the result of each Plaintiff’s own misconduct, lack of competence, and/or disloyalty to the Office,” Paxton’s office said in its answer. “No Plaintiff suffered any adverse personnel action as a result of any report of an alleged violation of law that any Plaintiff made or claims to have made.”
Paxton’s office says the plaintiffs must prove every point “by a preponderance of the evidence,” that the AG’s state government office is protected by sovereign immunity, and the plaintiffs “failed to satisfy all conditions precedent required under the Texas Whistleblower Act,” according to the court filing.
Two Houston attorneys with national law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP submitted the AG’s answer.
Reaction to Paxton’s response
TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt, both attorneys for whistleblower plaintiff Blake Brickman, called the AG’s answer an “underwhelming, frivolous pleading.”
“The answer cites no facts. His claim that the whistleblowers were not fired because of their reports to law enforcement is laughable and completely unsupported. Texas law presumes the whistleblowers were retaliated against because they were fired so quickly after making their report,” Turner and Nesbitt said in an emailed statement. “Calling the whistleblowers disloyal reveals Ken Paxton’s perverted sense of what it means to be a public servant. The whistleblowers acted with loyalty to the rule of law, not to Ken Paxton personally, and he punished them for it.”
Brickman, a former deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives, was terminated Oct. 20. The other plaintiffs in the whistleblower lawsuit include David Maxwell, former director of the AG’s law enforcement division who was terminated Nov. 2, Mark Penley, a deputy attorney general for criminal justice who was also terminated Nov. 2, and Ryan Vassar, the deputy attorney general for legal counsel who was placed on leave and “constructively discharged” by Nov. 2, according to the original complaint.
The original lawsuit says all the other whistleblowers have resigned or been terminated.
Aside from the AG’s answer, Paxton has denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with Paul.
Paul, who heads World Class Holdings and its many associated real estate companies, had his home and offices searched by federal investigators in August 2019. Paul has not been accused or charged with any crime, and it is not clear why the investigators executed those searches.
Paxton’s office and the attorneys noted in the answer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.