Defending himself against criminal allegations, Ken Paxton gave his first interview to a website identified as part of a pay-for-play network

The Southeast Texas Record published an interview with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Oct. 13, 2020. Credit: Southeast Texas Record screenshot

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton decided to break his silence about accusations by his top aides that he had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office, he turned to a little-known legal outlet called the Southeast Texas Record.

In the exclusive interview, he trashed the aides and claimed that before his top deputy resigned, Paxton had planned to put him on leave anyway.

The website where that interview was posted has been identified as part of a national network of some 1,300 pay-for-play news websites that publish on-demand coverage for Republican political campaigns and public relations firms. According to The New York Times, those websites, whose names sound like ordinary local news outlets, have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups.

Ian Prior, who promoted the story for the Paxton campaign, denied to The Texas Tribune that the campaign had paid the outlet to run the story — “definitive no,” he said — saying he had merely reached out to set up an interview with an outlet that had already covered the story.

The Southeast Texas Record describes itself as a legal outlet focused on informing readers about the courts, with a weekly print edition published on Sundays.

After the interview was published, Prior shared it with reporters via email.

He declined to answer questions about why the campaign chose a little-known legal publication as opposed to a news outlet with wider readership, such as the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle or Austin American-Statesman, which had all been following the Paxton story closely.

“Appreciate the question but not going to get into [public relations] strategy/discussions,” Prior said in a text message Tuesday.

Meanwhile, even as it was flooded with interview requests and detailed questions from mainstream news outlets, the Attorney General’s Office’s press team has sent reporters the same brief, vague statements.

Paxton is often a guest on Fox News, but rarely sits for interviews with larger print media outlets.

Paxton shared the Southeast Texas Record story on Twitter on Oct. 14, one day after it was published. Several mainstream outlets, including the Tribune, quoted his comments in separate news stories.

In a New York Times investigation that described the network of pay-for-play sites masquerading as local news, Prior was identified as having turned to another news outlet in the network to promote unflattering coverage of Sara Gideon, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine. Prior told the Tribune Tuesday that he pitched the Maine story but did not pay for it.

In the Oct. 13 Paxton story, the Record foregrounds Paxton’s point of view in the ongoing scandal and elaborates less on the allegations against him, which remain murky, with federal authorities refusing to confirm whether there is an investigation into Paxton’s behavior at all. The author, David Yates, writes that Jeff Mateer — the top Paxton deputy who resigned after accusing his boss of criminal wrongdoing — did not return requests for comment.

It gives no indication that the author attempted to reach David Maxwell or Mark Penley, two top aides whose work is questioned in the story and who Paxton placed on leave from the agency.

And the story elides details that raise questions about Paxton’s role in the scandal. In an internal email that was obtained by the Tribune, top aides alleged Paxton was using the power of his office to help a donor, real estate investor Nate Paul, who accused federal authorities of wrongdoing after the FBI raided his home and office in 2019. Paxton has claimed his office was investigating Paul’s allegations merely because local authorities in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office referred the complaint to the agency. But Travis County DA Margaret Moore has disputed that timeline, telling reporters that Paxton sought a meeting with her office about the complaint before it was referred.

The Record story does not include those details, nor does it extensively detail the accounts of the seven senior aides who have leveled accusations against Paxton.

Yates, who authored the story, did not answer questions from the Tribune Oct. 13 after the story was published or Tuesday asking about the political bent of his news outlet or whether it was paid to publish the story.

Notably, the Record appeared to be the first publication to report over the summer that the attorney general’s office was “believed to be” investigating state and federal authorities in response to Paul’s complaint.

On its homepage Tuesday afternoon were a number of other legal stories from across the state, including the news that Paxton has joined the U.S. Department of Justice in suing Google over alleged antitrust violations.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not return a request for comment about the Record story.