While other news organizations in Texas reported a press release from the state attorney general as is, AP reporters Paul J. Weber and Jake Bleiberg dug deeper and delivered a scoop showing that Ken Paxton’s pressure on health officials in Colorado benefited donors who bankrolled his political campaigns.
What turned into an exclusive started as a curiosity: Why was the top law enforcement official in Texas picking a fight with a remote county two states away in the middle of a pandemic?
On April 9, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced he’d sent a letter leaning on Gunnison County, Colorado, to end an order expelling non-residents as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. AP’s Weber, based in Austin, immediately wondered whether Paxton had donors there. Along with Dallas-based law enforcement reporter Bleiberg, the pair started combing campaign finance and property records.
Other news organizations took the AG’s press release at face value. Weber and Bleiberg started digging.
They quickly found that some of Paxton’s biggest donors have homes in the wealthy mountain town of Crested Butte, Colorado. Seeking to cement the connection, they filed a request under Colorado public records law to see if any of these big donors had applied for exemptions to remain in their homes. The county initially wanted $399 for the records. But even after negotiating the cost down to free, Weber and Bleiberg hit a wall: Gunnison officials said their request turned up nothing. Bleiberg then went back to sources he’d developed in Colorado and got the name of a Texan who locals believed to have connections to Paxton. Bleiberg filed another records request for records naming Robert McCarter.
The records came back showing that McCarter, a Dallas businessman, asked county officials twice for an exemption to stay in his mountain home. He received one less than three hours after Paxton announced his letter to Gunnison County. Weber then re-examined the campaign finance records and found McCarter gave Paxton $5,000 in 2013 – the day Paxton filed to run for attorney general. As they finalized their reporting and began writing, Weber and Bleiberg continued to research McCarter. They found that he and Paxton attended college together, even locating yearbooks that showed them together in club photos.
The persistent reporting and extensive public records work allowed AP to report that Paxton’s push against the Gunnison health order stood to benefit an exclusive group of Texans, including McCarter and other donors who, in total, gave the attorney general nearly $2 million. AP members including The Dallas Morning News ran the story in print, and the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and multiple TV and radio stations in Texas plus The Colorado Sun, a nonprofit newsroom, published it online. The Texas Tribune, which often comes up with its own exclusives, tweeted an AP link to the story, and The Texas Standard, a statewide public radio program, invited Weber to discuss the story.
For alertly connecting the dots between a puzzling press release and a conflict of interest in the attorney general's office, Weber and Bleiberg earn this week’s Best of the States award.