Collin County lawmakers debated intervening in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal woes by pressuring county leaders to cut funding for the case, according to a series of private text messages exchanged last week.
Taxpayers in Paxton’s home county are on the hook to pay for his prosecution, which has dragged on for months as he has appealed three felony indictments on charges of violating state securities laws. Local Republican leaders have expressed concern about the case’s six-figure cost but have said the law leaves them no choice but to pay up.
But five Collin County lawmakers thought otherwise.
In a series of texts sent last week, which The Dallas Morning News obtained through open-records laws, they discuss how to persuade County Judge Keith Self to violate a court order requiring him to pay three special prosecutors.
Should they send a signed letter to the Commissioners Court? Should they get lawyers involved? Or should they simply pressure Self to refuse to pay the prosecutors, a decision for which he could be found in contempt of court?
“All of us agree (hopefully) on the end goal. Question is what can we do to move the ball toward that goal line,” Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach sent in a text on Oct. 10, to which Rep. Matt Shaheen responded, “I’ll ask Keith [Self] if they lowered the fees and discuss options to stop payment.”
“Perfect,” Leach texted back. “Let him know we are here to help — not hurt. If Keith got sent to jail for this — I’d be the first to bail him out.”
Self is a Republican and a Paxton supporter who has donated to Paxton’s campaign. He and the four other members of the Commissioners Court have the responsibility of approving the county’s budget, including the money paid to the three Houston attorneys chosen to prosecute Paxton’s case.
Months ago, when the prosecutors’ $300-an-hour fee was first approved, he was critical of the amount, calling it “exorbitant” and saying someone needed to take a “responsible look” at the rate.
Many Paxton supporters in Collin County echoed those concerns. One sued the county and the prosecutors, saying the fees violate county rules on legal cost caps, and a group of local taxpayers sent multiple letters to the Commissioners Court opposing their payment.
But soon after, Self received an order from the judge in Tarrant County presiding over Paxton’s case, saying the court is legally required to pay the fees. Since then, a majority of the five county commissioners has voted to approve the prosecutors’ budget.
Speaking to the News on Wednesday night, Self said the pressure he’s received from members of his own party surprised him.
“I’m happy to work with my delegation, but it is very unusual for the delegation to send us letters on fees to be paid by the county,” said Self, who said he hasn’t yet gotten a letter from the lawmakers and doesn’t know if one is coming. “The special prosecutors are basically our surrogate district attorneys, and our constitutional duty as a commissioners court is to provide adequate resources to our elected offices. That’s what we do.”
Self heard about the lawmakers’ intention to send a letter to him on the fees. So on Oct. 14, he emailed his supporters saying that despite his “personal opinions,” he was required to uphold “the law.”
Paxton’s criminal case began more than a year ago, when he was indicted on three felony charges of violating state securities laws. He is accused of duping people into investing in a North Texas tech startup without telling them he was compensated by the company. In April, the federal government levied civil charges against Paxton based on the same allegations.
Earlier this month, the civil charges were tossed out by a federal judge, who said the government couldn’t prove that Paxton violated any federal laws. In light of this win for Paxton, calls for Paxton’s state criminal charges to be dropped have increased in the last two weeks.
Self declined to say whether he thought it was inappropriate for state lawmakers to get involved. He would not comment on whether Paxton’s legal woes had become “a wedge issue” for Collin County Republicans.
In the texts, GOP state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg urged her colleagues to pump the brakes on calling out Self or the other commissioners.
“We clearly want to help Ken. However the press will spin things as more republican in fighting and not good right now,” Laubenberg texted. “None of us had thought about this until Doug Deason brought it up. I’m just asking what is best method. I am not going to start attacking fellow republicans until I have all the information.”
Laubenberg did not respond to requests for comment on this report. Deason, a major Republican donor who donated $10,000 to Paxton’s campaign in June, also did not respond to a call from the News.
Republican state Rep. Scott Sanford and Republican state Sen. Van Taylor were also included on the text stream but contributed little to the conversation.
On Thursday, Sanford said he hopes the Commissioners Court considers capping the fees.
State law says special prosecutors such as these must be paid the same as lawyers who represent poor clients who cannot afford counsel. Not every county caps these fees, but Collin County imposes a strict ceiling.
But the rules also give the judge discretion to augment the rate in unusual circumstances. An analysis of previous fees paid to special prosecutors in high-profile cases showed the $300 rate is not out of the ordinary.
“There is a fee schedule that delineates what these prosecutors should be paid,” Sanford said. “And I’m hopeful that the county will find that following that fee schedule is a legally defensible position because if this were to happen to a smaller county, it would absolutely bankrupt it.”
Self declined to say that he’d had a change of heart on whether the fees are too high. But he said he had to put the fees into context, referencing “just how much each side is spending on this.” So far, Collin County has paid upward of $254,000 to the prosecutors; Paxton, meanwhile, raised nearly $330,000 from friends and supporters to pay for his lawyers.
Brian Wice, one of three special prosecutors who took on the case, issued the following statement:
“Referring to the fact that a state senator and four state reps would even think about urging or encouraging another public official to violate Judge [George] Gallagher’s lawful court order, ‘For the first time in our 18-month tenure as special prosecutors, we’re speechless.’ ”
The News reached out to the five lawmakers mentioned in the texts as well as Paxton’s campaign and legal teams. Shaheen and Leach responded by the time the News published this report; Paxton did not.
“Ken Paxton has always proved himself to be a man of integrity to me, and it’s clear that the charges against him are politically motivated,” Shaheen said in a statement. “Any resources spent on this case are a waste of the government’s time and a drain of taxpayer money.”
Leach said: “There are substantive concerns and legitimate questions about the application of Texas law in this situation, and taxpayers deserve clear answers. Especially in light of the recent dismissal of the federal charges brought against General Paxton, I strongly believe that every avenue should be explored before Collin County citizens are forced to write a blank check to continue to fund this politically driven prosecution. I will never apologize for fighting for justice and for the taxpayers, as they expect, demand and deserve for me to be their voice.”