Paxton fought $300 hourly rate for attorneys prosecuting him, but OKs it for “rookie” lawyer in donor’s case

Special prosecutors Brian Wice, left, and Kent Schaffer enter the Collin County Courthouse during a pre-trial motion hearing for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in McKinney. Credit: Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News

By Emma Platoff, Texas Tribune

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued that $300 an hour is too much to pay the two special prosecutors appointed to take him to trial in a long-running felony securities fraud case — but that’s the rate his agency is paying the inexperienced attorney Paxton hired last month to investigate a complaint by a political donor.

Paxton was indicted in 2015 on allegations that he solicited investors without disclosing that he stood to be compensated, but has maintained his innocence and never gone to trial as his attorneys bicker with prosecutors over issues of venue and how much the prosecutors should be paid.

That second issue — still being disputed at a trial court in Harris County — came back to haunt Paxton this past week following revelations that he had hired Brandon Cammack, an inexperienced defense attorney, to investigate a complaint made by one of his political donors. Paxton personally signed off on paying Cammack $300 an hour — exactly the rate promised to the two attorneys appointed to take Paxton to trial, who have not been paid since 2016 as Paxton’s political allies and defense attorneys call that figure exorbitant.

The prosecutors, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, pointed out that irony in a spirited filing Friday before Harris County District Judge Jason Luong, asking that they be compensated at the same rate as Cammack, whom they dismissed as “an untested and unqualified rookie.”

“If this hourly rate sounds familiar, it should: it is the very rate the Pro Tems were promised when they were appointed,” they wrote in a Friday filing. “If the defendant’s choice to pay Cammack $300 an hour appears to be disingenuous, it is only because it is: in successfully derailing this prosecution by spearheading a concerted effort to defund it, the defendant has repeatedly referred to the Pro Tem’s $300 hourly rate in his filings as unreasonable and unwarranted.”

Wice and Schaffer, who told the court that between them, they have 80 years of experience in the criminal justice system, questioned why they should not be entitled to the same sum as Cammack, “whose own experience, training and expertise, compared to the Pro Tems, is virtually microscopic.”

Paxton can “run but not hide” from his “concession that $300 an hour is reasonable,” Wice and Schaffer argued.

Paxton hired Cammack to perform a Herculean task many more experienced attorneys called bizarre and unprecedented: Investigating claims of wrongdoing by state and federal law enforcement agencies — claims that had been made by a Paxton donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.

Paxton’s most senior aides said that his hiring of Cammack broke all agency protocols and amounted to Paxton subverting the power of the agency to serve the financial interests of a political donor.

Paxton has dismissed those allegations from his top staff as “false” accusations from “rogue employees.”

Citing their policy, federal authorities have declined to confirm whether they are investigating Paxton.

The issue of prosecutor pay in the securities fraud case against Paxton was raised by a Paxton donor, Jeff Blackard, in December 2015, when he sued, calling the fees exorbitant. Since then, the issue has dragged through the courts for years, bouncing all the way up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters.

Meanwhile, Wice and Schaffer have not been paid in years, and the Collin County Commissioners Court, where Paxton has friends, has tried to claw back the first installment paid to them years ago.

Defense attorneys for Paxton did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.