Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton addresses reporters on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after the court took up a major abortion case focusing on whether a Texas law that imposes strict regulations on abortion doctors and clinic buildings interferes with the constitutional right of a woman to end her pregnancy in Washington March 2, 2016. At right is Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller.

Attorney General Ken Paxton addressed reporters on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has sidelined four of the seven senior aides who weeks ago told law enforcement they believed Paxton had committed bribery and abuse of office — firing two and placing two more on leave — in what employment attorneys say looks like a clear act of retaliation against legally protected whistleblowers.

The aides, who represented a large share of the agency’s most senior staff, alerted law enforcement and then agency human resources that they believed Paxton was using the power of his office to serve a political donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul. The agency had taken the unusual step of weighing in on a lawsuit that involved Paul, and Paxton personally hired an outside investigator — in a process aides called highly suspect — to vet the donor’s complaints

Ian Prior, a spokesperson for Paxton’s campaign, denied Friday that the personnel decisions had anything to do with their accusations against Paxton.

“Any suggestion that this has to do with the whistleblower claims is false and demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the facts,” Prior said. “There are a number of reasons for these separations that we cannot discuss at this time.”

Now, two of the whistleblowers, Blake Brickman and Lacey Mase, have been fired, and two more placed on paid “investigative leave.”

Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, was put on leave Monday, according to a former senior official with the agency who had knowledge about the leave but did not want to be named for fear of repercussions.

Mark Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, was put on leave weeks ago, shortly after reporting Paxton to law enforcement, top aides have said. And Jeff Mateer, who worked for years as Paxton’s top deputy, resigned earlier this month after accusing his boss of running afoul of the law.

A sixth employee, Director of Law Enforcement David Maxwell, was also placed on leave earlier this month. Maxwell did not sign on to the whistleblowers’ Oct. 1 letter to human resources, which stated they had “a good faith belief that the Attorney General is violating federal and/or state law.” But he was involved in the investigation that sparked the mutiny against Paxton — and Paxton has slammed Maxwell for his work on the case.

Maxwell has not responded to requests for comment.

The Texas attorney general’s office has failed to respond to repeated requests to confirm the employment status of the whistleblowers, and has not provided any explanation for why Mase and Brickman were fired.

Prior said Friday that “one of the reasons that Lacey Mase was separated from the agency was for violating office policy, specifically mistreatment of subordinates,” and Brickman “was insubordinate and violated other policies.”

Prior confirmed Vassar had been placed on leave and said he could not comment further on why.

Mase and Vassar did not immediately return requests for comment. Brickman declined to comment on Prior’s claims.

Mase’s 110-page personnel file — obtained through a public records request by The Texas Tribune last week before Mase was fired — shows she earned frequent promotions at the agency, more than doubling her salary over a period of just a few years. Performance reviews praised her competence. There is no evidence, in the partially redacted document released by the agency, of disciplinary history.

“Ms. Mase has consistently exceeded standards as chief of the Law Enforcement Defense Division and in all positions she has held at the OAG,” a recent performance evaluation says.

Brickman’s personnel file, which also has minor redactions, also shows no disciplinary history. He was hired in February.

Paxton has dismissed the whistleblowers as “rogue employees” wielding “false allegations.” In a statement earlier this month, the agency’s press office signaled that the whistleblowers would be investigated, saying “making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

It’s not immediately clear whether the two other whistleblowers, Ryan Bangert or Darren McCarty, have been hit with adverse action.

Mase, reached on Tuesday, said her termination “was not voluntary” but declined to comment further.

Vassar was hired in 2015 and earns $205,000 as a senior official at the agency, public records show.

He was involved in the hiring of Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney who at Paxton’s personal behest took up the unusual investigation into complaints by Paul, the donor.

Vassar exchanged emails with Cammack in early September, asking the young attorney to confirm he had no conflicts of interest on the case before signing his contract for $300 per hour.

Under Texas law, an employer who fires a whistleblower within 90 days of that whistleblower’s report is “presumed” to be retaliating against the employee because of the report. The actions against Penley, Maxwell, Brickman, Mase and Vassar all occurred squarely within that three-month window.

Employment attorneys said placing a whistleblower on leave could qualify as an “adverse personnel action” under the law depending on the circumstances.

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