State of Texas: ‘This is about truth,’ Whistleblower case against Paxton cleared to move forward

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Two weeks after Attorney General Ken Paxton’s acquittal in his impeachment trial, the Texas Supreme Court announced on Friday that the whistleblowers’ lawsuit against Paxton can move forward.

The lawsuit was filed by former top deputies at the Office of Attorney General who claim they were wrongfully fired by Paxton. The former employees say the firings came after making “good faith” reports to the FBI about alleged actions taken by Paxton for the benefit of Austin-area real estate developer Nate Paul.

The ruling from the Texas Supreme Court clears the way for the lawsuit to return to a Travis County trial court. The lawsuit had been on hold after a $3.3 million dollar settlement with the whistleblowers was proposed. Concerns over using taxpayer funds to pay the settlement helped lead to the Texas House investigation of Paxton and subsequent impeachment trial.

Nexstar spoke with Blake Brickman, one of the whistleblowers involved in the impeachment trial and lawsuit. While Brickman has publicly expressed his disappointment and shock over the outcome and various elements of the impeachment trial, he says he looks forward for what’s to come with the whistleblower lawsuit.

“We can actually put Ken Paxton under oath and depose him, which did not happen in the impeachment trial,” Brickman said. “He’s either going to have to testify or invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.”

The Attorney General did not take the stand during his impeachment trial, after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ruled that Paxton could not be compelled to testify. However, for the whistleblower trial in Travis County, the judge could compel Paxton to testify.

When asked what questions he would want to Paxton to testify to, Brickman responded that he would ask questions regarding Paxton’s involvement with Paul.

“Why did you turn your entire office over to an Austin businessman that’s under federal indictment,” said Brickman as a question he would want asked. “Why were you so obsessed with anything related to Nate Paul at the expense of all the important work we were doing?”

Brickman emphasized that this case shouldn’t be political, but rather what is “right and wrong.” However, in regards to the impeachment trial, Brickman felt that it was in fact political.

Following the Senate’s vote to acquit Paxton on 16 articles of impeachment and toss the remaining four related to his ongoing securities fraud indictment, Patrick gave a blistering speech, slamming Speaker Dade Phelan and the House for what he believes was a rushed process.

“When Lieutenant Governor Patrick made his speech immediately after the trial was very clear to me, that, you know, this is how it was gonna be,” said Brickman.

“I’m concerned with the precedent that 16 Republican senators set saying, basically, Ken Paxton, his behavior was okay,” said Brickman, in reference to the senators who voted to acquit Paxton in the Impeachment Trial.

“My fight will continue as long as it takes to expose this,” Brickman said. “I cannot stand by and allow corruption to happen in this state.”

‘It’s hogwash,’ Senator refutes claims that political pressure influenced Paxton decision

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, is one of the six members who voted to throw all the charges out before the trial started. He’s heard the accusations that political pressure influenced the Senate’s decision to acquit Paxton, and he’s ready to respond to critics.

“It’s hogwash. It never happened. It’s propaganda. It’s not real,” said Bettencourt, pushing back against the criticism.

He and other Republicans who voted to acquit have said reports that Patrick put pressure on Senators are false.

“(Patrick) firewalled himself off. He said, ‘you can’t talk to me, you know, weeks in advance.’” Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt sounded a similar tone to Patrick, faulting House members for rushing to impeach Paxton. He emphasized that a majority of Senators did not believe impeachment attorneys proved their case.

“And that’s why the verdict came out because it just doesn’t meet beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt is now calling for amendments to the Texas constitution to change the way future impeachments are conducted. His proposals include minimum time standards to allow for reviewing evidence and requiring the House to cross examine witnesses.

County Attorney: Spike in DPS arrests contributes to court backlog 

An email from the Travis County Attorney to city staff about concerns with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) partnership in Austin led KXAN to discover her courts have had to process nearly triple the amount of misdemeanor arrests from the agency than it did last year.

County Attorney Delia Garza sent the email in June, days before troopers were set to resume their beefed up Austin patrols following a hiatus when more resources were needed on the border. KXAN obtained the email as part of a public information request about DPS’ patrols in Austin.

In that email, Garza addressed stretched resources in her court system, as well as a backlog.

“With an increase in arrests that are low level, nonviolent types of arrests, it pulls our prosecutors away from doing work on more violent types of crimes,” said Garza in a sit-down interview with KXAN last week. “In terms of violent crime, we really do believe our prosecutors should be concentrating and working on our family violence cases that we have, our DWI cases that we have.”

Garza said the additional workload slows down the process for all cases.

According to arrest data from her office, DPS issued 563 misdemeanor charges in 2022. So far this year, that number is at 1,663.

This year, DPS issued the most charges for DWI with 388 total, according to a report from the County Attorney’s Office. The next highest charge was possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, with 300 charges issued. Last year, those numbers were at 82 and 94, respectively.

“Triple the amount of last year’s total, and we’re not even at the end.”

County Attorney Delia Garza

Records show 647 DPS cases still pending in Garza’s office this year. Prosecutors also spent time reviewing — and ultimately declining — 308 other cases.

The below chart shows a full breakdown of case statuses in the County Attorney’s Office from the start of the year to mid-September. This total — 1,024 — is different from the aforementioned 1,663 charges because the office said some cases involve multiple arrests and others were misdemeanors from other counties.

Many arrests, Garza said, stemmed from traffic stops involving non-moving traffic violations.

“It was stops for expired registrations, not wearing a seatbelt, those types of things,” she said. “I just don’t understand the need to bring additional law enforcement to our community to be stopping people for nonviolent, non-moving traffic violations.”

DPS said its heavier presence in Austin — which resulted from a critical staffing shortage within the Austin Police Department — “is reducing violent crime, as well as decreasing traffic fatalities and improving the public’s safety across the city.”

Susana Almanza, a community activist, has long raised concerns about DPS’ presence in Austin, saying the initiative unfairly impacts communities of color.

Those concerns grew when a trooper pulled her over in early September.

Almanza sitting in car
Susana Almanza says a DPS trooper pulled her over in September for expired registration, but her registration wasn’t expired. (KXAN Photo/Brianna Hollis)

“I’ve seen all my friends and neighbors being stopped and then finally it happened to me,” she said. “The fear — the fear that people have felt. All of those kind of feelings came to the forefront.”

While her traffic stop didn’t result in an arrest, she’s worried about her neighbors.

“This is a low income community. Any time you have to pay a tremendous fine, it really impacts the whole family,” she said, referring to the Montopolis and Riverside communities.

According to a DPS activity log on the Austin Violent Crimes Task Force, the name of the initiative that now involves 110 additional troopers patrolling in Austin, DPS had made 51,800 traffic stops since the partnership began on March 30. That number is as of Sept. 15. DPS also halted its patrols in Austin to help at the border from mid-May to early July.

Defense attorney in office.
Defense attorney Ben Gergen said his office got a spike in calls after DPS began patrolling more heavily in Austin. (KXAN Photo/Brianna Hollis)

Between those traffic stops and DPS special operations, the agency issued 1,451 felony charges and 1,673 misdemeanor charges in that time frame.

Austin defense attorney Ben Gergen said the spike in arrests has kept his office busier than ever with “extra cases filed that have not been filed in the last three years,” like certain arrests for low-level drug possession.

“For some people, that stress can send people in the right direction — it can motivate them to make those positive changes in their life,” he said, specifically referencing a client who told him they wouldn’t have gotten themselves to rehab if DPS hadn’t arrested them. “But for a lot of people, they don’t have the money to hire an attorney.”

County Attorney Garza said while her prosecutors all have additional workloads, “we’ve been able to handle it, but we have no idea when their presence here will end.”

“There’s been discussion of an additional docket in on of our [Justice of the Peace (JP)] courts because of the increase, which would mean more staffing, more resources,” she said. “We didn’t account for that in this last budget cycle, so this could potentially result in us going to the Commissioners Court to ask for funding to make sure we’re staffing those dockets right.”

The exact amount of funding needed for that is unclear because the County Attorney’s Office has not made an official plan to request this yet, but the county tells us JP courts as a whole currently cost $1.63 million to $2.93 million annually to operate.

DPS began its operation in Austin at the end of March to help amid a police staffing shortage. It included 80 troopers to patrol the streets and 20 agents to work on special operations.

It began as a partnership, but the city ended it in July after a traffic stop that concerned the mayor’s office.

The same day the city announced the end of the partnership, Gov. Greg Abbott directed troopers to stay in Austin. He also doubled down, adding an additional 30 troopers to patrol the streets, bringing the total number of patrol troopers up to 110.

“When we’re deploying law enforcement resources, we need to make sure there’s precision in how we’re doing that. Because we don’t want people to lose trust in the criminal justice process,” Garza said. “The majority of misdemeanors are low level crimes, and if the objective is to address any type of violent crime, I’m not sure how the practices we’re seeing right now are meeting that objective.”

When KXAN brought those concerns to DPS, the agency pointed to several Austin Police Department (APD) briefings that addressed the reduction in violent crime as more troopers patrolled the streets.

According to the Austin Violent Crimes Task Force report as of Sept. 15, the agency also:

  • Seized 7.72 lbs. of heroin
  • Seized 615.57 lbs. of cocaine
  • Recovered 220 stolen vehicles
  • Seized 209 firearms
  • Worked 359 crash investigations

The state has not indicated how long patrols will stay in Austin, and the city said it will take “years” to fill the roughly 300 vacant APD positions.

Gov. Abbott takes border policy message to New York City

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to the city that Texas has sent the largest number of migrants to as part of his signature policy, which he said helps border communities deal with illegal immigration.

Abbott visited New York City to speak about the ongoing border crisis in a fireside chat with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, on Wednesday. More buses arrived from the state during Abbott’s visit, according to a source familiar with the matters in the governor’s office.

“What you’re dealing with in New York, what you are seeing and witnessing in the state is a tiny fraction of what is happening every single day in the state of Texas,” he said.

Since starting the busing initiative in April 2022, Texas has sent more than 15,800 immigrants to New York City — and sending more than 25,000 immigrants to Washington D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles in total.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has criticized Abbott for the initiative, calling him a “mad man” for sending buses while his city grapples with the crisis. The city has declared a state of emergency, as Manhattan is now having to turn away asylum seekers with overwhelmed shelter systems. Images and videos of immigrants sleeping on the sidewalk have circulated around the internet, as Adams says the city is reaching a breaking point.

“New York should not be experiencing this and we’re going to continue to push for the right funding, calling for a state of emergency,” Adams told Nexstar affiliate WPIX. “This is not a utopia. New York City cannot manage 10,000 people a month with no end in sight. That can’t happen, and that is going to undermine this entire city.”

Texas’ share of busloads only represents a small fraction of immigrants coming to New York. As of last week, 116,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the Big Apple since April 2022 according to Adams’ office.

Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said asylum seekers are likely to head to New York for a variety of reasons — namely because of the city’s “right to shelter” mandate. Chishti said Abbott’s busing initiative has been effective in the sense that non-border states and cities can see the issues firsthand, but questioned its efficacy beyond that.

“We have never seen a response to migration issue in New York or in D.C. or in Philadelphia, Chicago as we have seen, so he’s made his point,” Chishti said. “But that does not make him right. I mean, just because he has made a point is, is sort of taking away from the real problem that this is not a red state versus blue state problem. It is a national crisis. And you don’t solve national crisis by making [a] political stance.”

Adams and Abbott may have some common ground, as the New York mayor said he thinks there should be a “staying in Mexico or any of the bordering localities” policy. Abbott is a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump’s keynote “remain in Mexico” policy, which ended in 2022. It required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were pending.

New York City could be spending upward of $12 billion dealing with the influx of asylum seekers, Adams said in early August. On Wednesday, Abbott said that these mayors should be pressing the Biden administration harder on addressing the humanitarian crisis through policy change, not funding.

“New York and other states are going to continue to deal with this. They must prevail upon their president for more than just money. They need a change in policy,” Abbott said.

Chishti said these serious issues will continue as long as the federal government puts off making reforms to the immigration system, specifically how the U.S. processes asylum seekers.

“No one is looking at the problem holistically,” he said.

According to an August 2023 poll from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, voters are just about split on the issue. Forty-eight percent of Texans polled said they support Abbott’s policy of sending migrants awaiting asylum hearings to other parts of the country, whereas 41% oppose the measure and 11% said they don’t have an opinion.

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