By Texas Tribune Staff, The Texas Tribune
“Paxton trial, Sept. 6: Witnesses claim AG was fixated on Nate Paul” 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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Editor’s note: Today’s impeachment proceedings have ended and this post will no longer be updated. You can find new articles reporting the latest from Ken Paxton’s trial here.
The historic impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton is underway in the Texas Senate. He faces 16 articles of impeachment that accuse him of misusing the powers of the attorney general’s office to help his friend and donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor who was under federal investigation.
Paxton pleaded not guilty to all impeachment articles on the trial’s first day. His defense attorneys have vowed to disprove the accusations and said they will present evidence showing they are based on assumptions, not facts.
The trial could last several weeks and is expected to hinge on Paxton’s relationship with Paul. It could also prominently feature details of Paxton’s alleged extramarital affair. The proceedings involve a massive cast of elected officials, high-profile lawyers, whistleblowers from within Paxton’s office and the attorney general’s former personal assistant.
House lawyers called a second witness in the impeachment proceedings Wednesday: Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the senior staffers who reported Ken Paxton to the FBI for potentially illegal behavior.
House lawyer Rusty Hardin took the jury through Bangert’s GOP bonafides, including his membership in conservative groups like the Federalist Society and the Philadelphia Society.
“I believed in what [Paxton] was doing, I believed his policies,” said Bangert, who was a Paxton donor and now works as a senior vice president for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group that has pushed back against abortion and LGBTQ rights.
But a year or so into Bangert’s time in the attorney general’s office, he said he grew concerned with Paxton’s increasing focus on matters involving one person: Nate Paul, a political donor and personal friend.
In painstaking detail, he shared how as 2020 unfolded, Paxton repeatedly asked him to review multiple matters involving Paul and his legal issues. In two instances, Paxton asked Bangert to evaluate if it was possible to overrule a previous decision to withhold law enforcement documents from Paul regarding an FBI raid on his house and business, a decision that would go against long-standing precedent.
“That immediately sends up red flags to disclose law enforcement materials to someone who is under an active and very far reaching investigation,” Bangert said.
Bangert said Paxton’s requests then “metastasized to a new section within the attorney general’s office” when Paxton asked Bangert to find a way to intervene in a lawsuit between Paul and a charity called the Mitte Foundation. The foundation had invested in Paul’s businesses, but filed a lawsuit against Paul after he allegedly refused to provide them with financials about their investment.
Bangert testified that he believed that intervention from the attorney general’s office would directly benefit Paul and his company, World Class Holdings. Initially, he tried to unsuccessfully mediate between the two sides. Bangert then said that Paxton ordered him to file a motion to halt the legal proceedings. Bangert said he was uncomfortable doing that and was ultimately removed from the situation altogether.
Paxton approached Bangert again a few months later with another order: evaluate whether foreclosure sales could be allowed to continue given the current state of the governor’s COVID orders. Bangert testified that Paxton rejected his initial advice that foreclosure sales should be allowed to continue.
Procedurally, the attorney general’s office needed to find someone authorized to submit a formal request for an opinion from the attorney general’s office. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, ultimately stepped in. But Bangert testified that there was no evidence Hughes knew this request was made to benefit a specific individual.
Bangert and another whistleblower, Ryan Vassar, worked through the weekend on the opinion that foreclosures be allowed to continue, which was consistent with positions the office had taken throughout the pandemic that erred on the side of returning to normal. But when Bangert emailed it to Paxton early Sunday morning, Paxton rejected it. Bangert stated it needed to be reworked so foreclosure sales wouldn’t go forward.
“It was bizarre,” Bangert said. “He was acting like a man with a gun to his head. Anxious, desperate, urging me to get this out as quickly as humanly possible.”
Ultimately, Bangert realized that issuing an opinion to stop foreclosure sales would benefit Paul, who had dozens of properties facing foreclosure.
He signed the order anyway, making sure his name was on the order instead of his younger colleague, Vassar.
“If something broke bad with this I didn’t want it to tarnish his career,” Bangert said.
Bangert is scheduled to take the stand again to continue providing testimony. The trial will resume at 9 am Thursday.
– Kate McGee
In a meandering, hours-long cross examination, Buzbee often jumped from one line of questioning to the other as he insinuated that Mateer and other senior staff were colluding against Paxton by meeting with the governor and lobbyists from the group Texans for Lawsuit Reform and by moving to have the attorney general’s office hire an outside lawyer before approaching the FBI about Paxton’s relationship with Paxton donor and friend Nate Paul.
“You were involved in staging a coup, weren’t you?” Buzbee asked.
“Absolutely not,” Mateer responded.
Buzbee also repeatedly accused Mateer of removing Paxton’s name from official letterhead, arguing that it amounted to altering a government record in violation of state law. Mateer said he signed the letter in question, but denied making any changes to the letterhead.
At times, Mateer sparred with Buzbee as Paxton’s defense lawyer tried to question Mateer’s decision making.
“You’re trying to misstate things,” Mateer said to Buzbee at one point in the cross examination. Upon conclusion of cross examination, House lawyer Rusty Hardin started a new line of follow up questions for Mateer.
As the Ken Paxton impeachment trial continued early Wednesday evening, Paxton sent a fundraising email to supporters, telling them that “with your help, I can be back in office by the end of the month.”
In the lengthy email published on social media by a Dallas Morning News reporter, Paxton touted his role in pushing back against President Joe Biden’s policies and cited “crucial victories” against “Big Tech tyranny and deceitful business practices.”
“I will NEVER SURRENDER,” he added before asking supporters if they can spare $50 “to help me stand strong.”
The fundraising email came hours after Paxton attorney Tony Buzbee again demurred on questions about the financing of the suspended attorney general’s defense. After Buzbee mentioned that lead prosecutors Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin were being paid $500 an hour for their services, witness Jeff Mateer asked Buzbee about his own rate.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Buzbee responded.
That’s not changing as Paxton’s impeachment trial gets underway in the Senate. Asked Wednesday what Abbott is doing during the trial, an Abbott spokesperson, Renae Eze, provided a statement that focused on other issues.
“Governor Abbott is focused [on] keeping Texas the #1 economy in the nation and protecting Texans from President Biden’s reckless open border policies as he continues his duties as Governor,” the statement said.
Paxton’s impeachment by the House in May has divided Republicans, and Abbott has been careful to stay out of the intraparty conflict. He has not offered any personal opinions on Paxton’s alleged wrongdoing and has noted that his only formal role in the process is to appoint an interim attorney general. He has done that twice, first picking John Scott and then replacing him with Angela Colmenero.
Buzbee appears to be insinuating that Jeff Mateer, former first assistant attorney general, and other whistleblowers were colluding with Paxton’s political rivals.
Buzbee noted that Bush reactivated his law license in the fall of 2020, around the time the Paxton whistleblowers took their concerns to the FBI.
Bush, the then-land commissioner, ran against Paxton in the 2022 Republican primary. Another candidate in that primary, Eva Guzman, regularly criticized Bush for having an inactive law license from 2010-2020, suggesting it showed he had insufficient legal experience.
Bush downplayed the issue throughout the primary. He said he made his license inactive in 2010 because that is when he deployed to Afghanistan — he was a Navy Reserve officer at the time — and he kept it inactive when he returned because he did not need it to lead the General Land Office, which has its own lawyers.
“It’s basically a formality, and once a lawyer, always a lawyer,” Bush said during the campaign.
On the witness stand Wednesday, Mateer flatly denied any contact with Bush.
“I’ve never talked to George P. Bush,” he said.
A Bush representative did not response to a request for comment.
During cross examination, Paxton’s lead attorney Tony Buzbee attacked the credibility of former first assistant attorney general Jeff Mateer, accusing him of having “jumped to conclusions” and improperly alerting the FBI about Paxton without first talking to his one-time friend and boss.
Buzbee argued that Mateer was “uninformed” when he reported Paxton to the FBI instead of going straight to the attorney general with his concerns about Paxton’s work on behalf of real estate investor Nate Paul. At one point, Buzbee compared the information to hearsay and rumors, similar to the ending of a game of “telephone.”
“Is it possible, Mr. Mateer, that you jumped to a lot of conclusions really fast?” Buzbee asked. “You could have just put this all to bed if you just talked to your boss.”
Mateer pushed back against those claims multiple times, and reiterated that he and other top agency staff went to Paxton on repeated occasions to express their concerns.
“I did talk to him, sir!” Mateer responded during one exchange.
He also disputed Buzbee’s insinuation that he had reported Paxton to law enforcement because Mateer aspired to be attorney general.
Buzbee also accused Mateer of erasing electronic notes from a work computer. The notes would have been taken in the summer of 2020 as Paxton’s top lieutenants grew increasingly concerned about his relationship with Paul.
Mateer said he did not know how to wipe his work computer clean and suggested that the information was likely still on the computer.
Jeff Mateer, the former second-in-command under suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton, testified Wednesday that Paxton’s relationship with real estate investor Nate Paul was so alarming that Mateer was concerned the attorney general was being blackmailed.
Mateer said a turning point came when he learned that Paxton had resumed an extramarital affair with a woman who was hired at Paul’s company in mid-2020. Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, had alerted senior staff in 2018 about his infidelity, Mateer said, adding that the attorney general was repentant and had recommitted to his marriage.
When he learned that Ken Paxton had resumed the affair, Mateer said, he finally understood why the attorney general had fought so hard, and risked so much, to help Paul — including hiring an outside attorney to investigate Paul’s business rivals.
“It answered the question, ‘Why is he engaging in all these activities on behalf of Mr. Paul?’“ Mateer testified.
As Mateer testified, Angela Paxton appeared attentive, taking notes as Mateer shared his knowledge of her husband’s extramarital affair.
Mateer was one of several top deputies who reported Paxton to the FBI for alleged bribery in late September 2020. In his testimony, he recounted a monthslong, deeply concerning pattern of behavior by Paxton when it came to Paul. Among the actions that alarmed him: Paxton’s insistence that the agency write a midnight opinion that declared foreclosure auctions unsafe because of COVID-19, which Paul used days later to stave off the sales of numerous properties he owned.
“I concluded that Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good faith belief that it was illegal,” Mateer testified.
He also said that he and other top deputies repeatedly tried to protect and help Paxton, and implored him to “come clean” about any wrongdoing.
“We couldn’t protect him, because he didn’t want to be protected,” Mateer said.
As the Senate gaveled in for a second day of impeachment proceedings, the man at the center of the trial, Ken Paxton, was again absent.
The suspended attorney general was present Tuesday while his lawyer, Tony Buzbee, pleaded not guilty on his behalf. But Paxton did not return after the lunch break as lawyers for the House impeachment managers called their first witness.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is the presiding officer over the impeachment trial, agreed with Paxton’s attorney’s Tuesday after they argued the rules did not stipulate Paxton must be present beyond entering a plea.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/06/ken-paxton-impeachment-trial-live-updates/.
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