AUSTIN, Texas — The Travis County District Attorney's Office gave Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton an ultimatum Thursday – turn over his records or face the consequences. As of Friday, over a week later, he remains in defiance.
According to a report from The Texas Tribune, Paxton claims his office has fulfilled its obligations required by law and that the district attorney's office's claims are "meritless."
The Tribune reported on Friday, Jan. 21, that a lawyer for Paxton's office dismissed the district attorney's findings, saying that office had provided no provisions under the state's open records law that had been violated.
"In each instance, complainants' allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA [Public Information Act] and its requirements," wrote the lawyer, Austin Kinghorn. "Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following 'numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,' complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office's authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants' media outlets."
On Jan. 13, District Attorney Jose Garza issued a letter to Paxton's office giving him four days to cure his alleged violations of withholding information, including his connections to a President Donald Trump rally just prior to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, otherwise Garza's office must file suit in civil court.
According to the letter, Garza's office received a complaint on Jan. 4, 2022 that Paxton and his office failed to comply with the Texas Public Information Act in regard to public records from Paxton's personal electronic device, among other requests.
Garza's office outlined three allegations in regard to the potential violations:
Allegation No. 1: Paxton is improperly withholding communications as attorney-client documents
The letter claims that a reporter with the Houston Chronicle requested "work-related emails and electronic messages sent to or from accounts or messaging apps belonging to Attorney General Ken Paxton" from Jan. 5 to Jan. 13, 2021.
A similar request was on Jan. 29 for communications belonging to Brent Webster, the first assistant attorney general. On Feb. 1, the reporter limited his request to documents from Jan. 5 to Jan. 13 as well.
In response to the requests, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Taylor wrote on April 9 that he had reviewed the records in question for Paxton and determined the requested documents were exempted under attorney-client privilege.
Allegation No. 2: Paxton is failing to retain and turn over communications related to official business exchanged on personal devices
The letter said a reporter with The Dallas Morning News texted Paxton at his personal cell phone asking how his trip to Washington, D.C., was funded when he traveled for the Jan. 6 rally and why his trip wasn't covered, but Webster's was when they attended meetings together on what appeared to be state business.
That text was sent on Feb. 22, 2021. The following day, another Dallas Morning News reporter requested "any and all communications, including text messages" that Paxton received at a specific phone number on Feb. 12 that was related to state business.
Then, on Feb. 26, a representative with the AG's office said it had "no information responsive" to the request made. When asked about the office's failure to produce "the known text message," the office's communication director said that "unsolicited and unwelcome text messages to personal phones do not fall under the records retention law.”
Allegation No. 3: Paxton is turning over communications from others as his own in response to public record requests
The Dallas Morning News on March 3, 2021, requested "records of any text messages from Feb. 19, 2021, exchanged between AG Paxton and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes related to official business, including, but not limited to, visiting a live law enforcement scenario simulators," per the letter.
A representative from the AG's office then sent what were thought to be the requested documents, but the complainants said the documents sent from the AG's office were identical to the documents released by Utah's OAG, according to the letter.
A reporter followed up, asking for an explanation as to why they had received documents from the Utah AG's phone and not Paxton's and how they got the messages. A public information coordinator with the Texas AG's office responded, saying that Paxton was the one who had provided the messages.
All three allegations were determined to be in violation of Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, which sets the rules regarding public information. Garza said that Paxton and his office have four days to cure the violations, or the Travis County District Attorney's Office will file a suit in civil court.
Read the full letter here.
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