The first hearing in a whistleblower lawsuit against the Texas attorney general's office mostly consisted of objections Monday. The agency's attorney William Helfand opposed the vast majority of questions that lawyers asked two former agency employees who testified in a hearing to consider whether two of the fired aides should get their jobs back.
Helfand repeatedly lobbed those protests after he unsuccessfully tried to get the judge in the case to dismiss the lawsuit accusing Attorney General Ken Paxton of abusing his position. He argued Travis County District Judge Amy Clark Meachum must rule on the motion to dismiss before allowing testimony over the aides’ possible reinstatement. At one point, Helfand filed an appeal to halt the testimony from happening.
But late Monday night, the Texas Third Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Helfand, granting a stay in the hearing while the court decides on the petition, postponing Tuesday’s hearing.
“It is not surprising that Ken Paxton would do everything he can to try to stop witnesses from testifying,” said TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt, attorneys for one of the plaintiffs, in a statement. “He is desperate to stop the truth from coming out and he should be. Sadly, the price for Ken Paxton's delays and hiding and obstruction will be borne by the taxpayers and by the brave public servants who stood up to Paxton's corruption and deserve their day in court.”
Meachum had said Monday she wasn't yet ready to determine whether the lawsuit should be dismissed, but she permitted testimony on a request for a temporary injunction that would allow two of the whistleblowers to have their jobs in Paxton's office back.
"It's starting to feel like you might be just elongating things for the purpose of elongating them rather than actually in good faith responding to arguments," Meachum told Helfand before she allowed the hearing to continue.
The lawsuit is being brought by four former aides fired from Paxton's office after they joined other agency employees last year in accusing the attorney general of abusing the use of office and bribery. Paxton did not attend the hearing.
Meachum's decision to allow witnesses to testify and evidence to be presented prompted push back from Helfend, who argued the judge was violating his client's due process rights. Paxton's office has repeatedly fought off efforts by the four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in the lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed the state's top attorney broke the law.
Lawyers representing the attorney general's office continued Monday to argue the suit should be dismissed on procedural grounds. They have argued that Paxton is "not a public employee," and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act. They also argued that the aides were not covered under that act because members of the executive branch, including the attorney general, have the power to hire and fire their own senior staff without legislative branch interference.
Lawyers representing the whistleblowers slowly tried to proceed through arguments to fend off a dismissal and take testimony from witnesses. That included testimony from Jeff Mateer, the former first assistant attorney general. Mateer resigned in October after reporting Paxton's alleged criminal behavior to law enforcement agencies along with seven other employees. Ryan Vassar, one of the whistleblowers asking for his job to be reinstated, also began to testify and is expected to continue his testimony Tuesday.
Mateer testified that the group of employees alleging criminal conduct had a "good faith belief" the attorney general had violated state law.