Receive our most important stories in your inbox every morning.
Poor Ken Paxton. His top staff has accused the Texas attorney general of taking a bribe. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, Paxton’s former top deputy, has called for his resignation. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, one of Paxton’s predecessors as attorney general, says he’s “troubled” by the “very serious” allegations.
And one of these years Paxton may have to go to trial on the felony charges that have been hanging over his head for more than five years.
It’s a wild story. Paxton’s current top deputy has quit in protest after joining six colleagues in asking law enforcement officials, presumably the FBI, to investigate their boss for possible abuse of his office and bribery.
The matter should interest the FBI. The allegation is that Paxton hired an outside counsel to investigate the FBI in connection with its raid last year on the home and offices of embattled Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who happens to have donated $25,000 to Paxton’s campaign in 2018.
What interests me most is the number 300. We’ll get to that.
Paxton said he took the case investigating possible criminal behavior by the FBI at the request of Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore. Under Texas law, the attorney general does not have a robust criminal portfolio. Under most circumstances he can undertake criminal investigations and prosecutions only at the request of a local district attorney.
Moore did refer the case to him, but it turns out she did so only after Paxton met with her staff – and brought developer Paul and his lawyer, Michael Wynne, with him. In other words, Moore had no interest in the case and referred it to Paxton at his and his campaign contributor’s request.
Paxton’s own professional staff looked at Paul’s complaints about the FBI and found “they lacked any good-faith factual basis.” So that’s when Paxton hired what he called both “an outside counsel” and “an outside prosecutor.”
If you were going to hire someone to investigate the FBI, you’d probably want to get a heavy hitter, someone with considerable experience, expertise, and reputation. That’s not who Paxton hired.
Paxton hired Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston criminal defense attorney just five years out of law school. Two years ago a judge in a manslaughter case decided Cammack was in so far over his head that the judge brought in a more seasoned attorney to assist him. Even with the help, the client was found guilty and sentenced to a stunning 50 years. The assisting attorney told the Texas Tribune that while some young attorneys do surprisingly well, Cammack would not “be the first name that popped into my mind” for Paxton’s assignment.
Cammack told a reporter that when the state’s top law enforcement official calls on you to do the job, you do it. A more appropriate response was probably, “Who? Me?”
Cammack’s own father said he wasn’t qualified. But then Cammack has sued his father for “belittling” and “assaulting” him at the courthouse. Dad admitted “shoving” his son, who he said had poached money and clients from his firm. The kid dropped the suit after two weeks.
So what was Paxton’s screening process for hiring Cammack? We can only guess. There are clues.
My suspicion is that Cammack was recommended by none other than Wynne, the attorney for developer Paul. The two are Facebook friends and have engaged in social activities together. Wynne chairs the Houston Bar Association’s criminal law and procedure section and Cammack is chairman-elect.
In addition, Wynne accompanied Cammack in serving at least one of at least 20 subpoenas. It’s rare for attorneys to serve subpoenas themselves, and very strange for an “independent prosecutor” to be accompanied by a partisan lawyer in the case. Cammack’s father offered an explanation: “Somebody probably had to tell him how to get a subpoena served. That’s how inexperienced this boy is.”
Here’s where we get to the $300. That, per hour, is what Paxton is paying Cammack. Where did Paxton come up with that figure? He hasn’t said, but I have a theory.
Back in 2015 after Paxton was sanctioned with a $1,000 fine by the Texas State Securities Board for soliciting investments without a license, a criminal investigation was initiated. He had talked associates, including a fellow member of the Texas House of Representatives, into investing in a North Texas technology firm. Paxton himself had 100,000 shares, but he allegedly didn’t disclose that the stock was his compensation for soliciting investments. Presumably that would spoil the aura of a friend letting you in on a good deal. (The company failed.)
A criminal investigation was begun and evidence presented to the Collin County district attorney. Citing his acquaintance with Paxton, the DA recused himself, and a local judge hired two Houston attorneys to pursue the case. It was they who would win felony indictments from a grand jury.
The two lawyers, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, are well-respected. Schaffer has been practicing 30 years and has served as president of both the Houston Bar Association and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. He has represented the likes of the late Mayor Fred Hofheinz and U.S. Rep. Craig Washington. Wice has practiced 40 years and received many awards, including the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers “attorney of the year” in 2016.
The judge who appointed them stipulated they would be paid – you guessed it – $300 an hour. It’s safe to say that if that is out of line with their usual compensation, it is on the south side.
But it’s quite possible that figure stuck in Paxton’s mind, not only because it is what what was authorized as payment to his two tormentors, but because it is also a figure that has helped him avoid trial for half a decade.
ln late 2015, Paxton campaign donor Jeff Blackard filed a lawsuit arguing the payment was too high. Paxton’s lawyers also filed suit seeking to limit the special prosecutors’ pay to $1,000, total. Paxton’s trial was put on hold until the matter of fees was decided. It took until August 2017 for the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas to side with Blackard and Paxton and invalidate an invoice that by that time had reached well into the six figures.
The prosecutors appealed, and several months later the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ supreme court for criminal matters, agreed to hear the case. It would be nearly a year before they released an opinion, two weeks after Paxton won his 2018 bid for re-election, gaining 50.6 percent of the vote. Wice and Schaffer asked for a rehearing and for some reason it took the high court six months to decide that it would not reconsider.
So that $300 was responsible for three years of Paxton avoiding a jury’s judgment, making it a very memorable figure. The two years since have been spent in legal squabbling over whether the trial will be held in Houston or up in Collin County.
You do have to wonder: If $300 was too much for taxpayers to pay prosecutors opposing Paxton, why is it the right amount for a neophyte hired apparently to help him bail out a contributor?