One of the special prosecutors in the Ken Paxton criminal case has been billing Collin County taxpayers for dozens of hours of work he reports performing while traveling to exotic locales around the world, from St. Tropez to the South Pacific, Ho Chi Minh City to Havana, Marrakesh to Myanmar.
Kent Schaffer, one of the three private attorneys appointed to prosecute Attorney General Ken Paxton under a $300-an-hour handshake deal — the legality of which is currently before the state Court of Criminal Appeals — has taken more than a half-dozen vacations abroad since his appointment in April 2015.
Schaffer has billed taxpayers for more than 30 hours of work he reported conducting during six vacations and a weekend getaway from the time of his appointment through the end of 2016.
The bill for those hours equals $9,150.
Schaffer has not yet submitted invoices for 2017. After the court-appointed attorneys in this case ran up legal bills of $575,000 through the end of 2016, the Collin County Commissioners Court sued, challenging the legality of their compensation agreement.
The state’s high criminal court is now reviewing the arguments in the case to determine how to interpret state law limiting the fees that may be paid to court-appointed attorneys.
“These reports of special prosecutors jet-setting around the globe on exotic vacations, while simultaneously billing Collin County taxpayers for legal work, are deeply troubling to me,” Commissioner Susan Fletcher said. “As a steward of our tax dollars, it is my fiduciary duty to question any expense that may appear inappropriate.
“There are literally dozens of instances where Collin County taxpayers appear to be inadvertently subsidizing these extravagant vacations, and I believe we deserve answers,” she added. “This simply doesn’t pass the smell test, and is exactly why limitations and fee schedules are important.”
Schaffer declined to comment, citing an order from a former judge in the case admonishing the attorneys not to try Paxton in the media.
A lawyer and stunning photographer
Aside from his day job as one of the best-regarded criminal defense attorneys in Houston, Schaffer is an avid photographer whose work — travel shots, mostly — has been exhibited in Houston galleries. The Kent Schaffer Photography page on Facebook has more than 150,000 followers, and Schaffer also posts his works-in-progress to his personal page, to much acclaim by his friends.
Those posts to social media also make it possible to tell when Schaffer is out of the country. Although he sometimes posts photos for weeks after his return to the states, he often marks his departures with a photo of all his photography gear and a caption about his next destination. His return date is usually clear as well, through a photo posted marking the departure, a reunion photo back home, or information in a caption.
In some cases, such as his submissions to the National Geographic website, Schaffer included the date a photo was taken. These sometimes differ from when he actually posted a photo to social media. For this tally, The Texas Monitor only examined dates when it was apparent that Schaffer was out of the country.
A few weeks after Schaffer was appointed to the Paxton case in April 2015, he flew to Myanmar to photograph Buddhist monks and temples. On May 4, he billed a quarter-hour for “correspondence,” which would cover something as simple as reading an email on his phone.
On June 28, 2015, Schaffer posted a photo of his cameras and gear to Instagram announcing that his “next stop” would be Morocco. He would be off to North Africa and France for the next couple weeks.
The timing was curious, as three days later in Collin County, Judge Chris Oldner would be convening a new grand jury to entertain an indictment of Paxton after a previous grand jury had refused to indict him. The clock was running on a three-year statute of limitations for a registration violation charge.
Actually, Paxton’s side argues that the clock had already expired, but even by the prosecutors’ reckoning, they’d need to get that indictment during the jury’s first or second session, or the window would close.
The billing records for Schaffer’s partner, Brian Wice, show him preparing all that first week of July for a presentation to the grand jury on July 7.
Hard at work on vacation?
Schaffer’s records depict him as hard at work, too, reviewing materials and carrying out “correspondence” and “conferences.”
In one example, Schaffer flew to Marrakesh and then went to Merzouga on an excursion into the Sahara Desert in search of Tuareg to photograph.
During this summer holiday he billed the taxpayer:
- 3.25 hours on June 29
- 6.25 hours on June 30
- 5.75 hours on July 1
- 1.25 hours on July 2
- 1.00 hour on July 3
- 0.75 hours on July 4
- 0.25 hours on July 6
- 0.25 hours on July 7
- 0.75 hours on July 8
- 0.50 hours on July 9
- 0.50 hours on July 10
- 0.25 hours on July 13
- 1.25 hours on July 14
- 1.25 hours on July 15, and
- 0.25 hours on July 16
Some of his photos taken from camelback during that leg of the journey, which was from around July 6 to 10, had the hashtag #norunningwater. Yet Schaffer apparently had the time and connection to conduct a daily conference with somebody on the Paxton case.
On July 11, he posted a photo captioned, “Out of Africa. Next stop, Cannes.” That was followed by photos from the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on July 12 and a St. Tropez beach shot on July 13. Then came a series of lovely shots from the City of Lights. The last, on July 16, was tagged “Quai de la Seine” and captioned, “Thursday Morning; Paris.”
In all, Schaffer billed 24 hours of work on the case during his summer vacation.
“I would find it hard to work on a case while I’m sightseeing in Bali or drinking margaritas while in St. Tropez,” said Ronald D. Rotunda, a professor at the Chapman University law school who has written several books on legal ethics.
“In any event, he should be able to document what he did and where he did it during that time, such as legal research, drafting a brief, etc.,” Rotunda added. “For example, if he was engaged in legal research, there should be a record on Westlaw or Lexis when he was using their program, to whom he billed the Westlaw/Lexis hours, and the subject of the research. His computer should record when he drafted documents and how long that drafting took.”
Rotunda didn’t want to pass judgment on the legitimacy of Schaffer’s billing records. “However, I note that others have gotten caught because what they post on Facebook is inconsistent with the billing records,” he said.
Not unusual for attorneys to perform work for while jet-setting
Larry Finder, a former U.S. attorney, has tried federal criminal cases against Schaffer and also knows him from their service together on the oversight board of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. That’s where Schaffer told him about his photography hobby.
“A few years ago,” Finder said, “Kent shared with me some of his photographic work, much of which was captured outside of Houston, outside of Texas, and even outside of the USA. I inquired how he was able to balance his very successful law practice with his passion for photography. He explained that he would often divide his work week between photography and his legal work, and he often worked while taking photo holidays.
“While I have no knowledge of any invoices he generated reflecting work performed while overseas, it is not unusual for lawyers who travel internationally for clients to perform work for other clients by staying up late at night in a hotel responding to those clients’ needs via Wi-Fi internet and/or mobile phone,” Finder added. “As I am currently responding to your email, I am in route to Houston from a meeting in Hong Kong where I did ‘after hours’ billable client work on my mobile phone, on the airplane, as well as from my iPad in the hotel room.”
In 2016, Schaffer billed hours during five different trips abroad.
Schaffer was in Havana from around Feb. 10-20, billing hours on the 11th (1.25 hours), the 17th (0.5 hours), and the 19th (0.25 hours). Interestingly, two of the entries were for a “Henderson conference,” apparently a reference to Richard Henderson, one of the Texas Rangers who had investigated the case a year prior.
On March 31, Schaffer posted a photo from the beach during a getaway in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. He also billed for another half-hour conversation with Henderson.
In June, Schaffer visited Indonesia for a week, passing through Jakarta, Bali, and other scenic spots. He posted a number of lovely photos of Ramadan observances and pastoral scenes taken on June 15. He also had time that day, according to his invoices, to spend an hour and a half reviewing a document that Paxton’s defense team had filed.
Then in late July, Schaffer was back in France, posting a photo from the five-star InterContinental Hotel Carlton in Cannes on July 28. He reported having another conference with Henderson that same day, this time for an hour and a quarter.
In late October, Schaffer spent almost a week in Vietnam during a trip around East Asia. He posted photos from the airport in Shenzen, China on Oct. 25, following that with all sorts of colorful street scenes from Vietnam, including several on Oct. 31. He reported working both days — another talk with the Ranger one day and reviewing a document the other.
It’s worth noting that the prosecution’s legal briefs so far have been submitted in Wice’s name. This isn’t to say that Schaffer isn’t involved. Actually, in a business filled with grifters who will take your retainer and wing it in court, Schaffer has a reputation for thorough and intense preparation.
He’s good enough, in other words, that it’s quite possible he’s never had a client unsatisfied enough to question which beach he says he was working from.
“I have taken vacations in and outside of the country while still responding to client needs,” Finder said, and “I have never been challenged by a client for billing at my hourly rate while staying in an expensive hotel. Of course what you have described could involve serious ethical, if not criminal issues for any attorney who knowingly submits inaccurate invoices to any client — public or private.”
Whether or not that is the case for Schaffer will have to wait, as his response is, “I am precluded from commenting due to a gag order.”