By Robert Downen and Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“Ken Paxton impeachment trial begins with sniping: “Slow creep of corruption” vs. “nothing of significance”” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Accused of allowing the “slow creep of corruption” to taint his office, impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton fired back Tuesday as his lawyers disparaged the impeachment case against him as a dangerous exercise based on “ignorance, innuendo and outright lies.”
Paxton’s impeachment trial before the Republican-dominated Texas Senate began with a series of highly anticipated votes on Paxton’s multiple bids to dismiss every article of impeachment. All 16 motions were soundly defeated.
Paxton succeeded in another key early decision when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, acting in his role as trial judge, ruled that the suspended attorney general could not be forced to testify during impeachment proceedings.
Called before the Senate for only the third impeachment trial in Texas history, Paxton stood on the Senate floor beside his lead lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who pleaded not guilty to all 16 articles of impeachment on Paxton’s behalf.
But when the trial reconvened after lunch for opening statements, Paxton was absent, raising questions about whether he would be present for the remainder of his trial.
Speaking on behalf of House impeachment managers, who presented opening statements first, Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, said Paxton “turned over the keys” of the attorney general’s office to friend and donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor who was under investigation by federal authorities. Paul was charged in June with eight felony counts of lying to financial institutions to secure business loans.
Paxton, Murr said, misused the powers of his office by conducting sham investigations of Paul’s rivals, improperly provided Paul with sensitive information about an FBI investigation into his businesses, and baselessly involved the attorney general’s office in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin nonprofit.
Murr promised that witnesses would explain Paxton’s misdeeds in greater detail as the trial, expected to take several weeks, continued.
Paxton’s lawyers, Buzbee and Dan Cogdell, responded with a spirited but tedious defense in their allotted hour — delving into specific details of various impeachment articles to argue that the case against Paxton is a “whole lot of nothing” and based on “nothing of significance.”
“Is there proof beyond all reasonable doubt for you to convict Ken Paxton?” Cogdell asked senators, who are acting as jurors. “And I suggest to you that it is crystal clear that there is not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. I have one simple ask: do the right thing.”
Buzbee made sweeping promises that he and his legal team will disprove accusations in the impeachment articles and provide additional evidence that will show the allegations to be based on assumptions, not facts. Throughout their opening statements, Buzbee and Cogdell railed against media coverage, saying it unfairly characterized Paxton’s actions. Buzbee also criticized the Senate for imposing a gag order on both parties, hampering his ability to answer allegations, and questioned if Paxton could get a fair trial.
Buzbee also warned senators that convicting Paxton and removing him from office will have grave repercussions for future political attacks on elected officials in Texas.
“If this misguided effort is successful, which I am confident it will not be, the precedent would be perilous for any elected official,” he said.
Buzbee and Cogdell also argued that a conviction by 30 senators would be undemocratic, undermining the will of several million voters who elected Paxton to a third four-year term in November.
Diving into specifics, Buzbee pushed back against House allegations that Paul paid for renovations to the Paxtons’ Austin home, promising to show photos of the Paxtons at Home Depot and pay stubs to prove they paid for the renovations themselves. Buzbee said it was untrue that Paul paid for new granite countertops for the home.
“The countertops are just old ratty tile,” Buzbee said.
Buzbee also addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” — the allegation that Paul hired a woman with whom Paxton was having an extramarital affair as a favor to the attorney general. Buzbee argued that the woman’s job application and employment contract will prove the hiring was not part of a bribery scheme. And he rejected the accusation that Paxton was bribed with a $25,000 political donation from Paul, noting that Paul “gave money to people in this very chamber as well.”
Paul donated $10,000 to Patrick’s campaign in 2018, but Patrick donated the money in 2020 after agency executives made an FBI complaint accusing Paxton of bribery and misusing his office.
Buzbee also rejected allegations that Paxton used burner phones or secret email accounts to communicate outside the norms of the office. In addition, he said, defense lawyers will show that Paxton had the authority to hire an outside lawyer to investigate Paul’s complaint against a host of state and federal officials whom he believed improperly searched his home and businesses.
According to House impeachment managers, Paxton hired Brandon Cammack, a five-year lawyer from Houston, to investigate Paul’s “baseless complaint.” Cammack responded by issuing 30 grand jury subpoenas in an effort to help Paul, according to the House impeachment resolution.
While Paxton’s lawyers used all but one minute of their allotted hour to attack minute details of the accusations, Murr used only 17 minutes to address what he called the “slow creep of corruption” that Paxton introduced into the attorney general’s office — offering few details that weren’t already outlined in about 4,000 pages of documents that were filed with the Senate late last month.
Murr also took aim at claims that Paxton’s team has used to question the legitimacy of the trial — including arguments that Paxton can’t be impeached for conduct that predated his most recent election in November, or that his conduct had to be criminal to warrant his removal from office.
“Wrongs justifying impeachment don’t have to be crimes. Wrongs justifying impeachment are broader than that because they have the purpose of protecting the state, not punishing the offender,” Murr said.
Tuesday afternoon, impeachment managers called their first witness — Jeff Mateer, the former second-in-command at the attorney general’s office who resigned in October 2020 after meeting with FBI agents about the Paxton-Paul relationship.
Mateer detailed how he was concerned that Paxton was taking unusual steps to help Paul with his legal matters, including interfering in a Travis County District Court case involving Paul, stating that it was inconceivable that a sitting attorney general would attend to such a small matter. Mateer said he discouraged Paxton from getting further involved.
But after opposing lawyers spent a lengthy amount of time debating whether certain exhibits were permissible in the court proceedings, Patrick abruptly adjourned the trial for the day shortly before 5 p.m, cutting Mateer’s testimony short. The trial is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/05/ken-paxton-impeachment-opening-statements/.
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