Whistleblowers say Texas AG’s workplace retaliated towards them — putting an armed guard within the workplace — after they reported Ken Paxton

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At a senior employees assembly one Thursday morning in Might, with a lot of the Texas legal professional basic’s workplace working from residence and morale seeming low, Texas Lawyer Basic Ken Paxton arrived on the Worth Daniel Sr. State Workplace Constructing in downtown Austin with a shock honor for a prime deputy: a replica of “Scalia Speaks,” the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court docket justice’s ebook.

Paxton had inscribed it with a congratulatory be aware for Blake Brickman, and offered it personally on the assembly of about 20 folks.

“Blake, I’m so grateful you joined our staff on the Texas AG’s workplace,” Paxton wrote in blue ink, honoring the highest deputy in a brand new, if short-lived, custom, in response to two individuals who attended the conferences. “I’m assured that you’ll proceed to make a distinction for our workplace and all of Texas.”

A note from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to former aide Blake Brickman.

Lacey Mase and Ryan Bangert, two different senior aides, would quickly win related accolades. However by October, Paxton had publicly disparaged Brickman, Mase, Bangert and several other of his different most senior aides as “rogue staff” — and by the primary week of November, Paxton had fired Brickman, Mase and two different prime aides.

The week earlier than his termination, Brickman had advised the company’s human assets division, in a proper grievance obtained by The Texas Tribune, that he was being blocked from conferences and prevented from seeing important paperwork; that he believed his laptop was being monitored; and {that a} superior had introduced an armed “sergeant” to a employees assembly. His allegations echo formal complaints filed by 5 different whistleblowers.

The abrupt change, interviews and inside company paperwork present, got here after seven senior aides and whistleblowers within the legal professional basic’s workplace— Brickman, Bangert and Mase amongst them — reported Paxton to regulation enforcement on Sept. 30, alleging legal violations. An eighth senior aide made an analogous report back to authorities on Oct. 1.

The aides allege that Paxton used his workplace to serve the pursuits of a political donor, Austin actual property investor Nate Paul. Paperwork obtained by The Texas Tribune and media studies within the Tribune and different retailers present 4 situations by which Paxton intervened on Paul’s behalf in authorized issues. Paxton has referred to as the allegations false.

In simply over one month, 4 aides have been fired: Brickman, Mase, David Maxwell, the company’s former director of regulation enforcement, and Mark Penley, the previous deputy legal professional basic for legal justice. Ryan Vassar, one other senior aide, was placed on go away, and three extra — Darren McCarty, Jeff Mateer and Bangert — have resigned.

Whereas the legal professional basic’s workplace didn’t reply questions in regards to the allegations made within the whistleblowers’ complaints, a political spokesperson for Paxton accused the 4 who have been terminated of coverage violations.

Ian Prior, the spokesperson, didn’t handle the whistleblowers’ particular person claims. However he dismissed them as “the product of determined former staff making an attempt to spin a false narrative to disrupt and hinder the operation of the Lawyer Basic’s workplace.”

He added that the whistleblowers are being investigated for “making false representations to the courtroom, illegally leaking grand jury supplies and violating quite a few company insurance policies.” He declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing investigation.

The 4 whistleblowers who have been fired have both not responded to requests from The Texas Tribune or declined to touch upon the precise allegations made towards them.

However detailed personnel recordsdata saved by the company, in addition to interviews with former senior officers, present that earlier than the whistleblowers have been fired — and publicly criticized — they have been acknowledged by their supervisors as prime performers. Their work historical past with the legal professional basic’s workplace would offer important particulars in what may grow to be a whistleblower lawsuit towards Paxton and the company.

Evenly redacted personnel data launched by the company present no disciplinary historical past for 3 of the 4 aides who have been fired: Brickman, Mase or Penley. The Texas Tribune has requested, however not but obtained, Maxwell’s personnel file.

Mase, who began on the company in 2011, obtained a half-dozen promotions since 2017 and quadrupled her wage to over $200,000 during the last seven years. Brickman and Penley, who had shorter tenures on the company, had already confirmed themselves helpful, and Maxwell was well-respected, mentioned Mateer, the previous first assistant legal professional basic who led the company for years.

Mateer, one of many whistleblowers, labored carefully with the others earlier than he resigned Oct. 2, shortly after becoming a member of the group in making the report back to regulation enforcement. He described all of them as superlative staff and colleagues.

“I do know no foundation for his or her termination apart from they blew the whistle,” Mateer mentioned in an interview this week.

A “hostile” work atmosphere

Seven of the senior aides — Brickman, Mateer, Mase, Bangert, Vassar, Penley and McCarty — reported Paxton to regulation enforcement Sept. 30 and notified the company’s human assets director, and Paxton himself, that they’d accomplished so.

Maxwell reported Paxton to authorities on Oct. 1, new paperwork present — a separate whistleblower report — that he advised the company ought to entitle him to authorized protections below state regulation.

Later in October, data launched by the company present, six of the whistleblowers filed complaints with the company’s human assets division.

Of their complaints, a number of of the whistleblowers allege that Paxton and First Assistant Lawyer Basic Brent Webster, who Paxton employed to switch Mateer Oct. 5, created a “hostile atmosphere” after they reported Paxton to regulation enforcement.

On Oct. 5, Webster’s first day on the company, an armed guard was posted on the eighth ground of the Worth Daniel Sr. constructing, the place the company’s govt staff works, in response to the complaints.

Bangert wrote that he requested Webster why the guard had been introduced there — since he had by no means noticed somebody stationed there earlier than — and that Webster mentioned the guard was there for Webster’s personal safety, as “he trusted nobody and was not about [to] ‘go away his flank uncovered.’”

“Different OAG employees complained to me that the presence of an armed officer in conferences was an unprecedented try by Mr. Webster to intimidate senior members of OAG employees on his first day as First Assistant,” Brickman wrote in his grievance.

On the identical day, Bangert wrote in his grievance, a big stack of empty cardboard containers was delivered to the eighth ground — which he thought of an unstated sign “that we have been to pack our private belongings in these cardboard containers and go away.”

Throughout a senior employees assembly on Oct. 8, per week after the group reported Paxton to regulation enforcement, McCarty requested Paxton and Webster whether or not the workplace would proceed to publicly disparage whistleblowers. The company had referred to as them “rogue” and advised reporters, with out offering proof, that it was investigating their habits. There was no reply to McCarty’s query, in response to a number of of the complaints.

The whistleblowers reported being excluded from conferences, sidelined from their routine job obligations and denied entry to paperwork they wanted to carry out their duties.

A number of additionally wrote that they believed superiors on the company have been monitoring them via their digital units.

“Lawyer Basic Paxton and Mr. Webster have positioned me below unusually in depth scrutiny searching for detailed info on massive initiatives I’m main… I even have purpose to consider that my OAG issued digital units are below surveillance,” McCarty wrote. “These actions have negatively affected my status within the office, tarnished my skilled status each internally and externally to the OAG, created a poisonous working atmosphere, and will have an effect on my means to acquire work exterior of the OAG.”

Each Maxwell and Penley, who have been positioned on paid go away earlier than being fired this week, mentioned they weren’t advised why they have been placed on go away.

Maxwell wrote in his grievance to the company’s human assets division that he warned Paxton on a number of events that “his affiliation with Nate Paul and the investigation that he was making an attempt to drive me to conduct was not correct and will get him indicted for Bribery.”

Maxwell had been concerned in investigating uncommon complaints made by Paul, the Paxton donor, that Paul had been mistreated by authorities throughout a 2019 raid on his residence and workplace. In an inside electronic mail obtained by The Texas Tribune, prime Paxton aides mentioned the complaints had been vetted and have been meritless.

However Paxton has mentioned he was not glad that his employees had sufficiently vetted the allegations, and he in the end employed an out of doors legal professional to take action — a step that pushed his prime deputies to mutiny.

“Basic Paxton was adamant that he wished to proceed the investigation,” Maxwell wrote.

“A fairly open and shut case of whistleblower retaliation”

Employment attorneys say the whistleblowers appear to have positioned themselves nicely for a lawsuit, although the aides haven’t introduced whether or not they are going to pursue one. Their inside complaints might be a precursor to a lawsuit, employment attorneys say, as a result of whistleblowers should exhaust their inside grievance processes earlier than they will file instances exterior the company.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — because the legal professional basic’s workplace’s personal web site explains — protects authorities staff who report their superiors to authorities for what they consider to be authorized violations. Below the regulation, whistleblowers are protected against retaliation, and if any adversarial actions are taken towards them inside 90 days of their report back to authorities, these actions are presumed to be retaliation.

“At first blush, with what I can see as an outsider, it appears to be like like a reasonably good case — a reasonably open and shut case of whistleblower retaliation,” mentioned Dustin Paschal, an employment legal professional in Dallas.

If the aides do file a lawsuit, and are profitable, the state might be on the hook for tons of of 1000’s of {dollars} in damages, together with misplaced wages and attorneys charges. Texas regulation caps damages at $250,000 for an company the dimensions of the legal professional basic’s workplace. The whistleblowers may additionally pursue a case below federal regulation.

Texas is an “at will” state the place employment legal guidelines give staff restricted safety from termination; staff might be fired for any purpose as long as it’s not an unlawful purpose.

However to keep away from large funds and a courtroom loss, labor attorneys say, the legal professional basic’s workplace must persuade a jury that it fired or took different adversarial motion towards the whistleblowers not due to their report back to regulation enforcement however for another believable purpose.

“They will provide you with something they need,” mentioned Eric Roberson, an legal professional in Dallas who has dealt with whistleblower instances. “However the extra ridiculous the rationale, the much less possible a jury of cheap residents will consider it. You’re speaking about extremely expert, extremely educated, very seasoned attorneys. As a basic rule these people don’t get fired for being two minutes late.”

It would assist the whistleblowers’ instances if their attorneys can persuade jurors that they have been exemplary staff, labor regulation specialists mentioned — for instance, by exhibiting they received private honors from Paxton as not too long ago as a couple of months in the past, and that they received frequent constructive efficiency opinions and promotions.

A latest efficiency assessment in Mase’s file mentioned she “constantly exceeded requirements” in her jobs on the company.

Prior, the Paxton spokesman, mentioned that Mase was fired for “violating workplace coverage, particularly mistreatment of subordinates”; Brickman was fired as a result of he was “insubordinate and violated different insurance policies”; Penley was fired as a result of he “omitted or misrepresented to a courtroom materials information, in addition to different coverage violations”; and Maxwell was fired for violating company insurance policies, together with making employment choices with out consulting the human assets division “which have resulted in allegations of discrimination.”

None of these 4 whistleblowers has particularly addressed these allegations in response to questions from The Texas Tribune.

Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting.



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