In November of 2020, four whistleblowers who worked for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit alleging whistleblower retaliation after raising concerns of alleged misconduct in the office. David Maxwell, Mark Penley, Blake Brickman, and Ryan Vassar, all former employees of Paxton’s office, alleged “that they experienced whistleblower retaliation after reporting Paxton to law enforcement in early October 2020,” according to previous WNN reporting.
Now, Paxton has reached a tentative agreement which involves a settlement that pays the whistleblowers $3.3 million and an apology statement, according to an article in The Texas Tribune.
Mark Penley worked as the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, David Maxwell was the agency’s former director of law enforcement, Blake Brickman served as the deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives, and Ryan Vassar was the deputy attorney general for legal counsel. Brickman was fired in October 2020, Maxwell and Penley were fired in early November 2020, and Vassar was fired later in the same month.
The whistleblowers filed their lawsuit under the Texas Whistleblower Act and alleged that Paxton “had broken the law by using the agency to serve the interests of a political donor and friend, Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor,” an article from The Texas Tribune reported. The four individuals alleged that Paxton “conducted several favors for Paul” and in the lawsuit, they allege that Paxton “became less rational in his decision making and more unwilling to listen to reasonable objections to his instructions, and placed increasing, unusual priority on matters involving Paul,” the article states.The Associated Press reported on November 17, 2020, that the FBI was investigating Paxton’s actions.
On February 12, 2021, the whistleblowers amended their lawsuit and included new allegations about Paxton’s conduct. According to an article in the Austin-American Statesman, the whistleblowers claimed in the amended lawsuit that they possessed “information suggesting that Nate Paul, either personally or through a construction company he owns and controls,” had involvement “in a major renovation project in 2020 at Paxton’s million-dollar home.” The article reported: “These alleged actions serve as another example of claims that Paxton has engaged in misconduct and illegal treatment with Paul, who donated $25,000 to the Paxton campaign in October 2018.”
Paxton has consistently denied the whistleblowers’ allegations, at the time dubbing the whistleblowers “rogue employees” and the claims “false,” according to The Texas Tribune. In the past, “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,” according to The Texas Tribune.
In January, The Texas Tribune reported that three of the four whistleblowers were looking to negotiate a settlement. Paxton’s “legal team is in settlement negotiation talks” with the attorneys for Penley, Maxwell, and Vassar. In a joint filing, both parties “asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement,” according to the article.
A Tentative Agreement
Now, Paxton and the group of whistleblowers have come to a “tentative agreement,” and attorneys for both sides “asked the Texas Supreme Court to further defer consideration of the whistleblower case until the two sides can finalize the tentative agreement.” The Texas Tribune reports that “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 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,’” according to the February 10 article. The AG’s office “also agreed to delete a news release from its website” that referred to the whistleblowers as such. “The final agreement could include a statement that says neither side admits fault in the case,” the article states.
According to the article, “The settlement will be structured to pay 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.” Additionally, “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 Texas Tribune explains.
Concerns have already been raised about the settlement amount, which “would come out of state funds and has to be approved by the Legislature.” The article states: “After the tentative agreement was made public, state Rep. Jeff Leach, the Republican from Plano who oversees the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, said he was ‘troubled that hardworking taxpayers might be on the hook for this settlement between the Attorney General and former employees of his office.’”
According to the February 10 article, Paxton “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.”
Attorneys for Brickman, Maxwell, and Vassar said in a joint statement: “Our clients are honorable men who have spent more than two years fighting for what is right. We believe the terms of the settlement speak for themselves.” Penley’s attorney said in a statement “that the case was really important for ‘how government should function and what we expect out of our public officials,’” the article states.