DALLAS — At the Texas Attorney General’s Office, they are some of Ken Paxton’s staunchest defenders: His solicitor general Judd Stone and general litigation chief Chris Hilton.
Both played key roles in fighting back against a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former high-ranking members of the AG’s office who allege Paxton used his office to systemically benefit a friend and campaign donor.
Hilton led the charge at a press conference in May defending Paxton as the House moved toward impeaching his boss. He called the allegations lodged by the House “completely meritless.”
In late May, once the Republican-led House impeached Paxton, Hilton and Stone left the AG’s office to join the defense team for their former boss, the now-suspended attorney general.
But they didn’t quit their old jobs – jobs Texans pay for. Instead, they took a temporary leave of absence. Four other attorneys and an executive assistant also took temporary leave.
Normally, it would be against internal ethics rules for a lawyer employed by the Office of the Attorney General to represent someone other than the state of Texas.
But First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster waived those rules. In a May 31 letter, Webster wrote, “By this letter, I authorize you to present Attorney General Paxton in your individual capacity in all matters related to impeachment proceedings.”
“How do you waive an ethics rule?” Will Pryor, who served as first assistant attorney general under Dan Morales, told WFAA when asked about the arrangement. “Something’s either a violation of an ethics rule or it’s not.”
Jim McCormack, the state bar’s former chief disciplinary counsel, said, “I’m really struggling to figure out why this seems like such a workable arraignment for these lawyers, given their role day in and day out representing the state of Texas and its taxpayers.”
While they’ve been on leave, Texas taxpayers have still been paying them.
In June and July, Texas taxpayers collectively paid almost $120,000 in accrued state leave to Hilton, Stone and the others, according to the Texas Comptroller’s office. Again, that’s after they stopped doing their jobs at the Attorney General’s office and began defending Paxton as private lawyers.
“It seems to me that they're certainly at liberty to defend him and to be compensated by private sources for defending him, but not on the public payroll,” said Chase Untermeyer, a former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission.
All seven employees have now exhausted their leave balances.
“I would encourage them to just resign,” Pryor said. “I don’t know why they handled it this way.”
So how did we get here?
On May 27, the Texas House impeached Paxton. Three days later, on May 30, Stone, Hilton and four other attorneys sent emails requesting to take a leave of absence to work on Paxton’s legal defense.
“This is approved,” Webster wrote.
The AG’s policies and procedures manual states that generally “employees may not provide legal advice, perform legal services or accept any employment for legal representation that is in addition to their official position with the agency.”
The manual lists the “only” times that a lawyer can take on outside legal matters. They include:
A lawyer may represent themselves “in very rare situations” but only with the approval their division chief and the agency’s ethics advisor.
A lawyer may participate on a temporary basis in “certain pro bono activities” with the approval of the AG or the First Assistant. They may also provide legal representation to “persons of limited means” through Volunteer Legal Services of Texas or other organizations approved by the First Assistant.
A lawyer may do unpaid legal work for a friend or family member if approved by their division chief and the ethics advisor.
Newly hired attorneys can spend the “minimal time needed to conclude” matters pending prior to their hiring.
The policy also says employees “shall not participate in any outside legal activities in which the employee is not a party and that could constitute a conflict of interest.” Those include matters in which the State of Texas has a “direct or substantial interest.”
“It does have state consequences, certainly, because he's elected official, although suspended,” McCormack said. “And you're essentially adverse to the Texas House of Representatives that brought these articles of impeachment against him.”
The policy also contains a general ban on the acceptance of outside fees.
But Webster wrote in a May 31 memo that he’d concluded their “outside legal representation in this matter poses no conflict.” He also wrote that they were not “precluded from accepting monetary compensation” from outside sources.
The same day Webster wrote that memo, Stone and Hilton started their own law firm called Stone Hilton. That firm employs the other attorneys who took leave.
WFAA reached out to Stone, Hilton and the other lawyers for comment. They didn’t respond to our questions including whether they had accepted outside money for Paxton’s defense.
McCormack said it’s a legitimate question to ask if they are being funded by outside sources, and if so, who are those sources?
The revolving door statute also prohibits former employees from “representing … or receiving compensation” on matters they participated in while working for the state.
Before they went on leave, both Stone and Hilton helped defend Paxton against the claims that led to the impending impeachment trial. But experts say there’s a loophole in the law. The law applies to former employees, and right now Hilton and Stone aren’t former employees. They’re current employees on leave defending Paxton.
“They need to be one thing or the other,” Untermeyer said. “Either they are employees of the Attorney General’s Office … or they are not employees of the Attorney General.”