Paul Anderson’s red-brick law office faces North Street in Nacogdoches and fits right in with the rest of the offices and cafes along the small city’s main street. The interior reflects Anderson’s flamboyant personality: It’s painted scarlet and features abstract paintings by his law partner along with swords from his days competing internationally as a black belt in kendo, a Japanese martial art. For years, Anderson lived in Houston, where as a citizen he battled developers who had built homes atop toxic waste buried in his neighborhood. He owned a kendo studio and often bested sparring partners in competitions where opponents often leveled bamboo sticks at his throat. But then he went to law school and moved to the sleepy East Texas college town of Nacogdoches, where he expected a quieter life as a “country lawyer.”
That changed in 2020 when Anderson heard a bizarre rumor about Andrew Jones, a local prosecutor running to be the next district attorney. Jones, according to rumor, had practiced law without a license and illegally prosecuted dozens of people. Anderson feared local residents’ civil rights had been violated; he wanted the rumors investigated and Jones held accountable if they proved true. “I love the place. I love the people,” Anderson says. “But there’s corruption here that is protected by the East Texas piney curtain.”
He unearthed public records that revealed that in 2013, Jones, then a recent law school graduate, was hired by the Nacogdoches district attorney’s office as an assistant district attorney, despite the fact that he had a pending charge from November 2012 for driving under the influence in Bexar County. The State Bar of Texas listed him as ineligible to practice on November 4, 2013, around the time Jones passed the bar exam. Based on bar rules, which require background checks and evidence of good moral character for all prospective lawyers, Anderson argues in his complaint that the pending DWI charge, Jones’ second in Texas, is the most likely reason Jones was found ineligible. Somehow, instead of losing his job, Jones kept prosecuting people in Nacogdoches. Anderson claims that Jones signed charging documents and felony plea deals for at least 30 people between December 2013, when he was ineligible, and September 2014, when he was granted his law license. Jones pleaded no contest to DWI in June 2014, court records show, and also prosecuted people during his one-year probation under a deferred adjudication plea deal.
In the fall of 2020, Anderson contacted the Texas Rangers—the lead law enforcement agency for public integrity and public corruption investigations. His first request went unanswered; then he sent another, and another, and another. “Given the serious allegations and apparent disregard for the evidence available to the Texas Rangers,” Anderson wrote in one of the many emails he sent, “a formal response from [Department of Public Safety] would be appreciated.” Anderson got an email confirming that one Ranger had called the bar about Jones. But he later learned via other emails that his allegations were not investigated further because supervisors at the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which oversees the Rangers, had rejected a formal probe.
Since 2015, the Texas Rangers have taken the lead in public integrity cases involving illegal behavior by elected state government officials or employees in Texas, but those investigations require approval from DPS supervisors and, in most cases, from local district attorneys, a system that essentially allows DAs to block Rangers’ investigations. Statewide, Rangers conducted 600 preliminary probes, but only 55 became formal public integrity investigations, DPS said via email. In 2021, Andrew Jones was sworn in as Nacogdoches County DA, giving him the authority to approve such investigations.
Between 2015 and 2021, the Texas Rangers completed investigations into more than 560 public integrity and corruption complaints, including allegations of theft, bribery, abuse of office, sexual harassment, and many other crimes. However, according to public records analyzed by the Observer, roughly 88 percent of those probes ended without any action at all. In the past five years, only 67 resulted in Texas prosecutions, and in most cases charges were ultimately pleaded down to misdemeanors or dropped, though many included allegations of corruption and large thefts of public funds.
Local DAs can block public integrity and corruption investigations in Texas, though no figures were available. That’s what happened in Archer County in North Texas in 2020 when the local leader of a citizens group suspected that a city official may have taken money from their small city’s coffers. She provided public records and an audit to the DPS and the county sheriff in 2020 but was told by the Rangers that they could not investigate because the local DA said no.
Nearly all of the Rangers’ 67 public integrity and corruption investigations since 2015 that did result in prosecutions targeted low-level officials—justices of the peace, police officers, DPS employees, or small-town and county leaders. The Rangers and prosecutors have revealed that they also investigated several legislators and statewide lawmakers between 2015 and 2020, but none of those probes resulted in any convictions in state courts, according to public records and interviews.
Even the prosecutions of lower-level public officials typically resulted in plea deals or probation. One county commissioner who allegedly strangled and threatened to kill his wife, according to the Rangers’ investigation, remained in office after avoiding a felony conviction and pleading to misdemeanor assault through a plea deal. He later resigned. The 2018 Ranger report reveals police learned of the incident only after his wife was unable to report to work as a nurse at a local jail. She’d been thrown against a wall, was covered in bruises, and feared her jaw was broken, the report alleges. In another case, the Rangers found that the former city manager of Freeport, Jeff Pynes, had stolen more than $200,000 in public funds, including proceeds of a concert and a Cheech and Chong comedy event. Pynes was convicted of felony theft and sentenced to 10 years, but he received probation in 2020 from a judge after spending only a few months in prison. It’s unclear whether he has ever repaid what he stole.
The records obtained from the Rangers showed that female public servants prompted fewer corruption charges than men, but women were convicted more often and received deferred adjudication deals less often.
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The Rangers are divided into six companies that serve different regions. There are two investigators dedicated to public integrity at the headquarters in Austin, but most of the probes into public corruption are handled by Rangers juggling other duties. Some regions handled far fewer investigations than others. For example, Ranger Company E, based in El Paso and serving a swath of West Texas stretching from the border north just beyond Midland and Odessa, conducted 32 investigations in the past five years, which led to the prosecution of just four people. Three of their targets were women of color. One was a DPS employee in El Paso; another was a former jail inmate who’d tried to blow the whistle on a DPS agent but was jailed again after the Rangers determined she’d lied; the third was Betty Velez, a longtime justice of the peace based in Van Horn. Among other things, Velez failed to process hundreds of cases and fines involving state troopers for years, the Rangers’ report shows. When arrested, Rangers found her home was strewn with court documents. She eventually agreed to resign from office after being accused by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct of running a pyramid scheme.
Anderson says that while his experience with the Rangers has been profoundly disillusioning, it raises a deeper question: Are Texas authorities able, or willing, to root out corruption? When allegations implicate a local DA, who watches the watchdog?
“This is not about the blatant public corruption of bribes, extortion, and theft,” he says. “This is about the corruption of looking the other way.”
For nearly 40 years, Texas had an elite, centralized public integrity unit of prosecutors and investigators based in Austin. Created in the 1970s in the aftermath of a statewide corruption scandal, the unit was funded in part by the Legislature and overseen for decades by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who developed a reputation as someone unafraid to indict the rich and the powerful. In 2009, a longtime prosecutor, Rosemary Lehmberg, replaced Earle as DA. Soon, Governor Rick Perry began feuding with Lehmberg. In 2013, he vetoed the $7.5 million funding for the public integrity unit. A grand jury later indicted the governor over the veto, calling it an illegal abuse of authority. But Perry called the prosecution a “baseless political attack.” The charges were later dropped.
As debate over the unit’s role continued in 2015, legislators argued that the Texas Rangers should be assigned to conduct public integrity probes and take their findings to local prosecutors. The Rangers, a 166-person outfit known for their oversize white cowboy hats, are responsible for border security, serial killer investigations, cold cases, in-custody deaths, and general corruption. But most had little to no experience investigating statewide elected officials.
Gregg Cox, the onetime head of the Travis County public integrity unit, testified in favor of establishing a unit with the Rangers to expand those investigations. But Cox argued against ending the statewide authority of Travis County prosecutors. He warned legislators that forcing local prosecutors to handle all public integrity cases—especially without additional funding or training—could be a disaster.
“I tried to explain to the Legislature why it was a dangerous thing,” he says. “Often the politician that might be under investigation helped get the DA elected in their home county. He’s usually going to be the most powerful political figure in that county, and you just can’t expect the prosecutor in that county to be willing to take that case on.”
His concerns came from experience. From 2006 to 2016, in his last decade as the head of Travis County public integrity unit, Cox had logged 1,600 convictions. But he struggled to prosecute people like Ismael “Kino” Flores, a powerful state legislator and chair of the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee who was accused by prosecutors of selling access to power. Most of the alleged illegal activities had occurred in Hidalgo County, Flores’ home county. If the Travis County unit had not existed, the prosecutor there likely wouldn’t have done anything about it because Flores was the most powerful person in that county, Cox says. Cox had pushed for jail time for Flores, whom he called “Mr. Ten Percent” because he allegedly demanded a 10 percent commission from state contractors, court records show. In 2010, Flores was convicted of perjury and of tampering with a public record after failing to properly disclose around $800,000 in income. He received probation and a $1,000 fine and did not seek reelection.
At first, Cox’s arguments seemed to win the day. But the legislators later sided with Perry. A new public integrity law required Rangers to coordinate with local prosecutors; under the law, local DAs could approve or block probes. But it was never clear how the system would work if local prosecutors—or the powerful state lawmakers with whom they were friendly—were themselves accused of criminal misconduct.
Right away, the system seemed to falter in its ability to address high-profile targets, according to Cox, who later left the DA’s office but kept in touch with investigators handling public integrity cases. “In my opinion, based on conversations I’ve had with people is [the Rangers] will put together very thorough investigations and then they just can’t get a very receptive audience in that person’s home county. The prosecutor is not going to be excited about that. The judges are not going to be excited.” And, he asks, “Can you even get a fair jury seated in that county where half the people there may have donated money to that candidate?”
Only one high-profile state official investigated by the Rangers’ public integrity unit is still being prosecuted: Attorney General Ken Paxton was charged in July 2015 with three counts of felony securities fraud in Collin County. But the local DA, Greg Willis, was not involved in that investigation—he recused himself because he had been Paxton’s business partner. The prosecution moved forward only after a private citizen—an attorney from another county—independently provided information to a grand jury about how Paxton, as a state senator, had peddled stocks without a required state license. Paxton has denied wrongdoing. Six years later, the charges are still pending.
“The way the whole process has been reconfigured is scary. It’s a process that has stopped accountability and protected the incumbents,” says Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, the watchdog group that filed the public integrity complaint that sparked Paxton’s prosecution.
Since 2015, the Rangers have not had any successful prosecution in any public integrity investigation that targeted either a state legislator or a statewide officeholder.
In April 2016, the Rangers investigated complaints filed by Progress Texas that alleged Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller misused about $3,000 in state travel money to get an experimental medical treatment in Oklahoma and to compete in a rodeo in Mississippi. No charges were ever filed, and no information has ever been released on what the Rangers found—or failed to find.
In August 2019, the Rangers investigated Dennis Bonnen, the then-speaker of the house, after a recorded conversation offered evidence that he’d conspired with a powerful PAC donor to oust his enemies from the Legislature. The case was overseen by the DA of Brazoria County, where Bonnen was a longtime political power broker and banker. She chose not to present the case to a grand jury, saying that Bonnen’s taped conversation, while “offensive and lacking character and integrity,” did not demonstrate that a crime had been committed. The Rangers’ report has never been released.
In yet another high-profile case, Dawnna Dukes, then a Democratic member of the Texas House, was investigated by the Rangers in 2016 after state employees complained that she had required them to work at a local nonprofit college and to supply regular nannying services. Their investigation found other issues with Dukes’ travel and expense records, and Dukes was indicted in January 2017 for tampering with a government record and for abuse of official capacity. But Dukes pleaded not guilty and negotiated with the Travis County DA; all charges were dropped.