“Paxton trial, Sept. 7: During new testimony, former AG deputy tears up responding to “rogue” allegations” 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.
Ken Paxton’s lawyer Mitch Little grilled Ryan Vassar, the former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, on Thursday evening over whether Vassar owed his boss a call before he reported him to the FBI.
Vassar testified that he had no regrets, an exchange that illustrated the latest effort by Paxton’s side to paint the whistleblowers as disloyal deputies.
He also pressed Vassar on whether the whistleblowers had any physical evidence they provided to the FBI when they reported Paxton.
“We had no evidence that we could point to but we had reasonable conclusions that we could draw,” Vassar said. Vassar added that it was law enforcement’s responsibility to investigate and collect evidence.
Little first portrayed Paxton as a “kind” and “gentle” boss — descriptions Vassar agreed with — and then asked Vassar if he “owed [Paxton] at least the courtesy of a phone call before you reported a man to the FBI without a shred of evidence?” He later suggested that Paxton was reasonable in firing the whistleblowers for reporting him to authorities without consulting him first.
Vassar disagreed with the premise that the whistleblowers needed evidence to report Paxton to the FBI. But he said he did not think he “owed General Paxton anything.”
Little then asked Vassar that if he could go back in time, would he have reached out to Paxton before going to the FBI?
“I wouldn’t do anything else differently,” Vassar replied.
Vassar said Paxton was unpersuaded by his argument that releasing the records, which concerned a 2019 FBI-led raid on Paul’s home and business, would upend decades of precedent that information related to ongoing law enforcement investigations is exempt from public disclosure.
“He said he believed something bad had happened to Mr. Paul,” Vassar said. “He felt that Mr. Paul was being railroaded by the FBI and DPS.”
In the spring and summer of 2020, Paul and his lawyer alleged to senior deputies at the attorney general’s office that Paul had been mistreated by law enforcement during the raid a year earlier. They later alleged that Department of Justice officials had altered search warrants, floating the theory that originally agents got permission to search for drugs but after finding none, illegally changed the warrants to search for evidence of financial crimes.
Paul’s lawyers had filed an open records request with the Department of Public Safety, which had sought a ruling from the attorney general, a standard practice for state agencies. Vassar said the office drafted a ruling that recommended the records, which included investigative files that a federal judge had placed under seal, be withheld from Paul. But Paxton disagreed.
“He wanted us to find a way to release the information,” Vassar said. “We were at an impasse.”
Eventually, the attorney general’s office issued a ruling that took no opinion on whether the records should be released, which Vassar said he had never seen done before. The Department of Public Safety did not release the records.
The House impeachment managers allege, however, that Paxton directed an aide to ferry the documents to Paul. Their exhibits have not provided any proof of this, though an outside lawyer hired by Paxton later subpoenaed state and federal law enforcement agents who planned and participated in the raid. Emails to the outside lawyer, Brandon Cammack, show that Paul provided him with the subpoena targets.
The House team alleges Paul could not have known the identities of these officers without Paxton’s help.
Ryan Vassar, the former deputy AG for legal counsel, tears up when asked about Ken Paxton referring to him as a “rogue employee.”
— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) September 7, 2023
Ryan Vassar, Ken Paxton’s deputy attorney general for legal counsel, teared up shortly after taking the witness stand Thursday afternoon.
The emotional moment came as House lawyer Rusty Hardin asked Vassar about Paxton’s statement that Vassar and the other top Paxton deputies who reported him to the FBI were “rogue employees.”
“It was hurtful,” Vassar said, mentioning his eight years in public service by then. “The statement of being rogue is contrary to the years that I dedicated my life to the state.”
Vassar paused to compose himself and was handed a tissue on the stand and used it to blot his face.
Vassar is the third witness — and the third whistleblower — who has testified at the trial, which started Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, praised Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate’s performance in trying Ken Paxton, saying they have been “professional” and “respectful of their role under the constitution.”
“The Texas Senate and the Lt. Gov. are doing a good job listening impartially, not prejudging and giving the parties a chance to make their case,” Cornyn said speaking with reporters Thursday.
Cornyn called the impeachment allegations “disturbing” and said he was closely watching the trial. Cornyn served as Texas attorney general from 1999-2002 and has participated in two impeachment trials in the U.S. Senate over former President Donald Trump.
Cornyn’s comments come in contrast to Paxton’s allies — including Sen. Ted Cruz — who assert his impeachment was politically motivated.
Cornyn also pushed back on Paxton’s defense that the impeachment goes against the will of voters, saying: “I don’t think the public had full knowledge of all the facts and circumstances that have been now charged and which are now the subject of the trial.”
“The voters did not know what they will know by the time the trial is over so I don’t make too much of the fact that he actually was reelected,” Cornyn said.
Much of the Ken Paxton impeachment trial Thursday revolved around the nuances of foreclosure law during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ryan Bangert, one of the key whistleblowers, told state senators that Paxton directed him and other members of the attorney general’s leadership team to take three actions that he described as “concerning” and “bizarre.”
Among those, Bangert said, was that Paxton told staff to quickly whip together a legal opinion that would prohibit public foreclosure sales from continuing due to COVID-19 restrictions — a decision that would’ve benefitted Nate Paul, a Paxton friend and donor who had dozens of properties facing foreclosure.
Read more about Bangert’s testimony here.
Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant to the attorney general, continued his meticulous testimony detailing his increasing alarm with how Ken Paxton was using the office to benefit his political donor Nate Paul throughout 2020. Bangert ultimately concluded there was nothing more he could do but report the behavior to law enforcement.
“I was deeply concerned that the name, authority and power of our office had been, in my view, hijacked to serve the interests of an individual against the interests of the broader public,” Bangert testified. “…It was unconscionable.”
In June 2020, Bangert recalled, he and Ken Paxton met Nate Paul at his office, got in his car and drove with Paul to Polvos, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin. There, Paul shared a laundry list of grievances related to his belief that he was being unfairly targeted by federal and state law enforcement, and a charity that had sued Paul, the Mitte Foundation.
Bangert walked the jury through the summer and fall, as he and other senior staff learned Paxton hired outside counsel to investigate law enforcement who had an open investigation into Paul’s businesses. Bangert said he and other senior staff pushed back against the idea to hire outside counsel, but were unsuccessful.
During questioning, House impeachment lawyer Rusty Hardin posed to Bangert many of the arguments that Buzbee used the previous day to try and poke holes in Mateer’s testimony, such as why the whistleblowers didn’t go directly to Paxton to express their concerns with his behavior. But Bangert said there was “no question that he was well aware of our objections” that had been lodged “repeatedly” and “in various ways” for months.
Bangert also rejected an allegation Paxton’s lawyer Tony Buzbee posited to Mateer on Wednesday that they were staging a “coup” in the attorney general’s office.
“It was not a mutiny,” he said. “We were protecting the interests of the state and ultimately, I believe, protecting the interests of the attorney general and, in my view, signing our professional death warrant. We understood the gravity of that act.”
Former deputy first assistant AG Ryan Bangert testifies in Paxton’s impeachment trial: “I was deeply concerned that the name and authority and power of our office had been, in my view, hijacked to serve the interests of an individual against the interests of the broader public.” pic.twitter.com/NmvNkr5Yye
— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) September 7, 2023
Throughout his cross examination of Jeff Mateer yesterday, Paxton lawyer Tony Buzbee repeatedly mentioned the “second referral” the Travis County District Attorney’s Office made of a Nate Paul complaint.
What was he talking about?
Paul filed two complaints with Travis County prosecutors. The first, filed in June 2020, alleged that Paul had been mistreated by law enforcement officials who authorized and executed a raid on his home and business in August 2019. After prosecutors referred it to the attorney general’s office, which they later told investigators they did as a courtesy to Paxton, Paul and his lawyer met with senior agency officials, who concluded the complaint lacked merit.
Paul’s second complaint to Travis County, in September 2020, alleged he was the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy by business rivals, a court-appointed lawyer and a federal judge to steal his properties. The district attorney’s office referred the complaint directly to Brandon Cammack, the outside counsel Paxton had hired to assist Paul. Therefore, Mateer and other senior advisers did not know it existed until after they reported concerns about Paxton’s behavior to the FBI.
Buzbee argued that Mateer was reckless and misinformed when he spoke with federal agents. If Mateer had known about the second referral, Buzbee reasoned, he would have known that Cammack’s inquiry was legitimate, as were the subpoenas he issued to banks that had lent money to Paul’s businesses.
What Buzbee did not mention, however, was that no evidence has emerged, in the impeachment trial or any other forum, supporting the second complaint, which Paul code named “Operation Tarrytown.” And House exhibits reveal that Paul and his lawyer had directed Cammack on how to conduct the probe, including by identifying investigative targets and writing the subpoenas, which he called “Operation Deep Sea.”
This is an excerpt from The Blast, our paid newsletter aimed at equipping civically-engaged Texans with insider information about Texas politics. Lead writer Renzo Downey is bringing exclusive daily non-partisan analysis and commentary about the impeachment trial for suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton. Subscribe today.
While he faces the trial of his political life, impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton is appealing to his financial supporters to help fund his campaign.
“With your help, I can be back in office by the end of the month,” Paxton wrote in a fundraising email sent out today.
It’s important to note that Paxton is allowed to pay for his counsel with his campaign funds. In this case, Paxton is being represented by Tony Buzbee, Dan Cogdell and Stone Hilton PLLC — a new firm rushed into reality by OAG employees who are on leave to defend Paxton.
In the words of Buzbee: “There are no coincidences in Austin.”
During Buzbee’s cross-examination of Jeff Mateer today, Mateer and Buzbee discussed the hourly rates of outside counsel. Buzbee then recognized that the “world-class lawyers” for the House managers, Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, are getting $500 an hour.
“What’s your rate?” Mateer asked Buzbee.
“Well, you’ll find out soon enough,” he responded.
Near the end of the day, Buzbee tagged out to other counsel on Team Paxton while Hardin questioned the prosecution’s next witness, Ryan Bangert. Buzbee was sitting next to “Eric,” scrolling on his phone. During the questioning, an Instagram story by Buzbee’s wife appeared on his own story, offering a reminder that Buzbee is running for Houston City Council.
“Out delivering @tonybuzbee for City Council District G signs today! If you live in district G and would like one… message me and we will get one to you!!!”
In a post to his Instagram, Buzbee posted photos from “two different reputable news organizations” that he said show him with dramatically different skin colors. One of the photos appears to be a screenshot from a livestream of the Senate trial.
“I am out in the sun a lot, but I don’t think my skin has ever been that ‘tan,’” Buzbee wrote. “Why would they doctor my pic? I’m sure you could take a guess. So you think the news isn’t bias? Think again.”
Day three of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial will resume at 9 a.m. with more testimony from Ryan Bangert, former deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven whistleblowers who reported Paxton’s allegedly illegal behavior to federal authorities in 2020.
Bangert gave crisp, direct testimony on Wednesday afternoon detailing how Ken Paxton repeatedly asked him to intervene on issues related to his political donor, Nate Paul. Bangert described Paxton’s behavior as “bizarre,” and alarming.
Much of the testimony focused on Paxton’s demands that Bangert write an attorney general opinion that would prohibit in-person home foreclosure sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, an opinion that countered the office’s and state government’s decisions to reopen the state.
“He was acting like a man with a gun to his head,” Bangert stated. “Anxious, desperate, urging me to get this [opinion] out as quickly as humanly possible.”
Bangert is a bona fide conservative who belongs to the conservative Federalist Society and at one point worked under Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley when he was that state’s attorney general, before coming back to Texas to serve in Paxton’s office.
After House lawyer Rusty Hardin finishes his questioning, Bangert will face cross-examination from Patxon’s defense team.
On Wednesday, Paxton lawyer Tony Buzbee led a long, meandering cross-examination of the prosecution’s first witness, Jeff Mateer. He attempted to paint him as a rogue employee who staged a “coup” of the attorney general’s office, an accusation Mateer vehemently denied.
Paxton has not appeared on the Senate floor since Buzbee pleaded not-guilty on his behalf Tuesday.
— Kate McGee
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.
Wednesday’s impeachment proceedings were dominated by testimony from Jeff Mateer, the former second-in-command to suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton. He told senators that Paxton’s relationship with real estate investor Nate Paul was alarming.
Among the actions that concerned 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.
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.
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.
During cross examination, Paxton’s lead attorney Tony Buzbee accused Mateer of “staging a coup” against Paxton.
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.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/07/ken-paxton-impeachment-trial-live-updates/.
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