“Operation Deep Sea”: How Nate Paul pulled the strings in the attorney general’s office to investigate his enemies

Attorney Brandon Cammack and real estate investor Nate Paul.
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Everything was going according to plan.

In September 2020, subpoenas were served to executives at four Texas banks who Austin real estate investor Nate Paul — a friend of Attorney General Ken Paxton — believed had information about an illegal scheme to defraud him.

The subpoenas were signed by Brandon Cammack, who identified himself as a special prosecutor with the Texas Attorney General’s office. But they were written by Paul.

Earlier, Paul had sent a list of targets to Cammack, via his lawyer, who he wanted to see investigated and subpoenaed in what he called “Operation Deep Sea.” He alleged he was the target of two massive yet separate conspiracies perpetrated by business rivals, judges and several law enforcement agencies, including agents that participated in an FBI-led raid on his home and business a year earlier.

Cammack persuaded a judge to approve 25 additional subpoenas, which sought email or phone records of prosecutors investigating Paul, federal court staff, police officers, the head of a charity who sued him, a court-appointed lawyer in that lawsuit and the lawyer’s wife.

All of those targets were on Paul’s list. And the investigation would never have happened without the support of Paxton.

The hiring of Cammack is a key charge in the Texas House’s impeachment case against Paxton, a third-term Republican, who is accused of misusing his office to help Paul in return for free home renovations and the investor’s help covering up the attorney general’s extramarital affair.

The Senate trial to determine if he will permanently be removed from office begins Sept. 5. The impeachment managers allege Paxton hired Cammack to carry out Paul’s bidding — allowing him to use the attorney general’s office as his “concierge law firm,” and harness its investigative powers to harass business rivals and other perceived enemies.

Emails, meeting transcripts, invoices and court records obtained by The Texas Tribune or released by the House impeachment managers shed new light on just how closely Paul and his attorney worked with Cammack to direct the investigation. For example, at one point Cammack drafted a search warrant affidavit that was nearly verbatim from a document Paul wrote.

Records also show that Cammack, who was handpicked by Paul, was working in secret, without the knowledge of Paxton’s top deputies. Those deputies advised him to distance himself from Paul, whom they regarded as a liar and a criminal.

“The whole idea to me was so outrageous that we would ever get involved in anything like that,” Blake Brickman, former deputy attorney general for policy and strategic initiatives, told House investigators. “… None of us wanted Paxton to actually go hire someone to do this.”

The discovery that Cammack had been working without their knowledge, he said, was what convinced eight senior officials in the office to report Paxton’s behavior to the FBI in 2020.

Paul was federally indicted in June on eight felony counts, accused of lying on financial statements in order to obtain loans. One of the lenders he allegedly deceived had received a subpoena from Cammack.

Lawyers for Paxton and Cammack declined to make them available for comment, citing the impeachment trial gag order. Paul did not respond.

Paul’s heavy hand in the investigation into his own complaint is unusual. While alleged crime victims often provide prosecutors valuable information and evidence, they should not be permitted to direct how an investigation is conducted, said Tom Berg, a former assistant Harris County district attorney.

“The prosecutor is supposed to do an independent evaluation of the merits of the case before he brings it,” Berg said.

He added that Paxton should have recused himself from overseeing the investigation because of his personal relationship with Paul.

Seeking help for a friend

The origin of the friendship between Paul, a hotshot real estate player, and Paxton, a buttoned-up lawyer 24 years older, remains unclear, save for a $25,000 campaign contribution the investor gave the politician in October 2018.

But by the end of 2019, court records show that many of Paul’s businesses were in severe financial trouble. Though Paul had once boasted of a portfolio worth $1.2 billion, in the preceding 18 months his businesses had defaulted on five loans or settlements, been sued by three creditors or investors and filed five bankruptcies, a Tribune analysis found.

Paul claimed he had been harassed by state and federal law enforcement officers in a raid of his home and business headquarters in August 2019. He also alleged they had altered the search warrants after they had been approved by a judge.

Paxton believed this account, his former deputies later told investigators, and wanted someone to investigate if any of those officials broke the law.

“This is terrible,” Mark Penley, then-deputy attorney general for criminal justice, recalled Paxton saying in December 2019. “It sounds like the FBI is doing really bad things.”

But for months he struggled to find anyone who would take Paul’s claims seriously.

Paxton first arranged a lunch meeting in May 2020 with Paul, his lawyer Michael Wynne and two senior officials with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Mindy Montford, the district attorney’s first assistant, said later in an interview with investigators that she found Paul’s story “very incredulous.” But since the office wanted to maintain a good relationship with Paxton, Montford said, prosecutors agreed to invite Paul to make his complaint in writing and then refer it to the attorney general’s office. This gave Paxton jurisdiction to open an investigation of his own.

At Paxton’s request, then-Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice David Maxwell met with Paul three times in July and August that year. Penley joined for two of them.

Paul and his lawyer repeated the allegations, this time with the help of a PowerPoint presentation they named “Operation Longhorn.” They said the metadata in digital search warrants proved they had been altered. Their theory was that originally agents got permission to search for drugs but after finding none, illegally changed the warrants to search for evidence of financial crimes.

Penley, a former 16-year federal prosecutor, told House investigators the allegation “sounded absolutely crazy.” Maxwell, who served 24 years as a Texas Ranger, said he told Paul he’d never seen an instance where multiple agencies colluded to doctor a search warrant. The agency’s forensic examiners said the metadata could have changed for many reasons, including encryption that is a routine practice of the Department of Justice.

Paxton was frustrated. In an interview the attorney general later gave to law enforcement officials, he lamented how his deputies weren’t taking Paul’s allegations seriously.

“I just realized my office wasn’t getting it done,” Paxton said.

The acrimony was mutual. The attorney general’s senior officers wondered why, when the office was under tremendous pressure to help state and local officials understand their authority to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, Paxton was devoting so many resources to a single person.

“We were spending an increasingly large share of our calendar time focused on Nate Paul,” Paxton’s personal aide, Drew Wicker, later told House investigators.

A willing investigator

Unlike the top deputies at the attorney general’s office, Cammack had never been a prosecutor or police officer. He did not, as they did, have decades of experience as an attorney. He did, however, possess a trait they lacked: the willingness to take direction from Paul and his attorney.

Cammack, who graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 2015, knew Wynne through professional circles in Houston. It was Wynne who connected him to Paxton, who in early September 2020 hired Cammack as an outside counsel to investigate Paul’s complaint.

Once hired, Cammack worked closely with Paul and Wynne. While Penley and Maxwell had pushed back against Paul’s claims, the investigation by Cammack proceeded as if Paul were running it.

Cammack on Sept. 3 met with Wynne and Paul for more than three hours and had a 15-minute call with Paxton about the investigation on Sept. 6, according to his billing records. Four days later, Wynne sent Cammack the document created by Paul called “Operation Deep Sea.”

It contained suggested targets for subpoenas and search warrants, to be served immediately, as well as an investigative roadmap that outlined the tasks to be completed such as “announced or unannounced visits in person” at the U.S. attorney’s office, Department of Public Safety, FBI and other law enforcement offices. The plan detailed what communications to seek and tools to get the information such as “grand jury subpoenas” and “search teams.”

A document Nate Paul's attorney sent Brandon Cammack titled "Operation Deep Sea," to direct how Paul wanted the investigation into his enemies to proceed.
A document Nate Paul's attorney sent Brandon Cammack titled "Operation Deep Sea," to direct how Paul wanted the investigation into his enemies to proceed.

A Sept. 25 email from Wynne to Cammack and Paul about reaching targets by phone underscored the sense of urgency.

“They don’t talk, we are at their residences tomorrow,” Wynne wrote.

The scope of the probe Paul envisioned was far broader than what he had unsuccessfully pitched to Penley and Maxwell. The targets included not only state and federal law enforcement, prosecutors and court clerks, but individuals with whom Paul was engaged in business disputes and the lawyers who represented them.

It also extended beyond Paul’s complaint of law enforcement mistreatment, which was Paxton’s official basis for hiring Cammack. This changed on Sept. 23, when the Travis County District Attorney's Office referred to Cammack a new complaint that Paul had just filed.

This complaint, which Paul code-named “Operation Tarrytown,” laid out a second, wide-ranging conspiracy, different from the first in all respects save for its contention that Paul was the victim. This time, Paul alleged that a group of Austin businessmen had conspired to acquire the loans on several of his properties, force them into foreclosure and then rig the public auctions at which they were sold. And to pull off the scam, the group had enlisted the help of a court-appointed lawyer and federal bankruptcy judge, who agreed to participate.

More than 80% of a draft search warrant affidavit Cammack wrote was copied from Paul’s complaint, a Tribune analysis found.

In one instance, Cammack appeared to forget to switch from Paul’s first-person perspective, referring to one of the investor’s creditors as “my lender.” Cammack never ended up filing the search warrant.

Cammack forwarded the complaint to a private email address belonging to Paxton on Sept. 25. Paxton also met with Cammack, Wynne and Paul at the investor’s Austin home in late September, two sources with knowledge of the meeting said.

By Sept. 28, Cammack had persuaded a judge to approve 29 subpoenas. Paul supplied all of the targets, the Tribune found by cross-referencing the court records with emails received by Cammack.

And in the case of four subpoenas to banks that had lent money to Paul’s businesses, Cammack was quick to follow Paul’s instructions.

Hours after Cammack received the targets and language to use, he replied to Wynne via email, “applications for GJ subpoenas to former lenders went out,” referring to the grand jury.

If the recipients complied with the orders, Paul would have gained access to private records of those investigating his criminal case, the charity he was fighting in a lawsuit and businessmen who had purchased loans his companies had defaulted on.

But the scheme started unraveling the next day when Cammack visited two banks with Wynne to serve the subpoenas and attempt to interview bank executives. In recordings of the encounters made by Cammack and later obtained by investigators, he is polite and disarming, assuring one bank president he wasn’t in any sort of trouble.

The banks, however, were spooked. A lawyer for Bancorp emailed Cammack asking him to provide proof he was, in fact, representing the attorney general’s office. Counsel for Amplify Credit Union called the office directly with the same question. The assistant attorney general who took the call grew concerned when she could not find Cammack in the office’s directory.

By Sept. 30, Paxton’s top deputies realized that Cammack had been working with Paul without their knowledge for four weeks. Horrified, Penley sent a letter to Cammack demanding that he stop work immediately. Cammack forwarded the email to Paxton an hour later with the subject line “URGENT.”

Penley on Oct. 1 asked a judge to throw out the subpoenas Cammack had obtained because he lacked the authority to issue them. There were 39.

When Paxton found out about the motion, he called Montford, the first assistant Travis County district attorney. He said his staff had lied, that Cammack’s appointment was legitimate, and that the court needed to know this information, Montford told investigators.

“I would like to be heard by the judge,” Paxton said to Montford.

But it was too late, she informed Paxton. The judge had already quashed the subpoenas.

Cammack ceased working as Penley instructed and sent an invoice for $14,025. The agency has yet to pay it.

Paxton on Oct. 2 placed Penley and Maxwell on investigative leave and fired both a month later.

Wynne wrote a letter to Paxton on Oct. 11 outlining a new complaint. The attorney general’s top deputies had inappropriately intervened to stop Cammack’s investigation, he said, and falsely stated that it lacked merit.

“The actions of employees of the OAG have severely harmed and disadvantaged a Texas citizen and his family of their constitutional rights,” Wynne wrote.

The victim, once again, was Paul.

Robert Downen, Joshua Fechter, Jolie McCullough, Kate McGee and Alejandro Serrano contributed research.

Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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