By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
““I did everything at his supervision”: Outside lawyer says Ken Paxton approved every step of Nate Paul investigation” 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.
The Texas Tribune is your source for in-depth reporting on the Ken Paxton impeachment trial. Readers make that possible. Support authoritative Texas journalism with a donation now.
Brandon Cammack was celebrating his birthday with friends on Aug. 22, 2020 when he missed a call from an unknown number.
He would shortly learn that the caller was Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Cammack, a Houston criminal defense lawyer who had graduated law school five years earlier, had never met Paxton but was told that Texas’ top lawyer was interested in hiring him to work on a criminal investigation for his office. He was flattered, excited and determined to make it work despite a busy schedule.
Instead, Cammack became the ninth prosecution witness to testify at Paxton’s impeachment trial, getting his first opportunity to discuss a role that led to being directly named in one of 16 articles of impeachment approved in May by the Texas House.
Cammack on Tuesday said Paxton was interested in hiring a “special prosecutor” to investigate a complaint by Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.
Once hired by Paxton, Cammack said, he frequently updated the attorney general on the course of his investigation, including plans to issue subpoenas to investigate two Paul complaints, one that his home and businesses had been illegally searched by law enforcement in 2019, and another claiming he was the victim of a wide-ranging fraud scheme.
Cammack stopped his investigative efforts after receiving cease and desist letters in late September from top officials in the attorney general’s office who said he had been improperly hired. Even so, Cammack testified, Paxton urged him to continue investigating Paul’s complaints.
Ultimately, however, Cammack said the relationship ended in the first week of October 2020 when Paxton and his new second-in-command, Brent Webster, met in Paxton’s office before driving to an Austin Starbucks to fire him. When he asked about a $14,000 invoice submitted to the agency for his work, Webster told him that he would have to “eat” the loss.
“It was offensive,” Cammack said. He said felt like he’d “gotten the rug pulled out from me.”
By then, Cammack’s name was being prominently featured in news reports about senior staff allegations that Paxton had misused his power to help Paul.
“I had a whole entire life before this. I had clients. I didn’t ask for any of this,” Cammack testified. “My name [was] being thrown through the mud in the media. It was a totally new world to me.”
Hired as an outside lawyer for the attorney general’s office, Cammack issued dozens of grand jury subpoenas as he investigated Paul’s claims that federal law enforcement had illegally executed a search warrant of his home and businesses — a claim that had been contradicted by a forensic examination and dismissed by local prosecutors.
In his testimony, Cammack said he reported directly to Paxton and was in constant communication with the attorney general as he gathered evidence for an expected report that would support or refute Paul’s claims. He testified that Paxton had directly given him the green light to investigate two separate complaints by Paul, one into alleged misconduct by law enforcement and another allegation that a group of Austin businessmen had conspired to acquire the loans on several of Paul’s properties, forcing them into foreclosure and rigging the public auctions at which they were sold. Paul claimed the group had enlisted the help of a court-appointed lawyer and federal bankruptcy judge.
“I did everything at his supervision and kept him informed of everything,” Cammack said. “I got affirmation the entire time that everything was good … until I got a cease and desist letter.”
Paxton believed Paul’s complaints were credible and deserved investigation, an argument that Paxton’s lawyer Dan Codgell emphasized during cross examination: that Paxton just wanted an investigation to reveal the truth.
“He told me he just wanted me to find out the truth about the first referral,” Cammack told Cogdell.
The House impeachment case focuses on accusations that Paxton misused his office to help Paul, and Cammack’s hiring formed the basis of impeachment Article 5, which alleged that Paxton misused his official powers by violating the laws regarding how outside attorneys should be appointed.
Asked to recall his first meeting with Paxton, Cammack said he drove from Houston to Austin on Aug. 26. After Cammack handed off his resume, Paxton said he was looking to hire a special prosecutor to investigate a criminal case.
Driving back from that meeting, Cammack testified, he called his grandmother to proudly tell her about meeting the attorney general.
Paxton also interviewed former U.S. Attorney Joe Brown for the position. Brown also testified Tuesday, stating that during his interview with Paxton he expressed concerns about investigating agencies involved in Paxton’s securities fraud indictment.
“Red flags are going off,” Brown said, adding that he told Paxton he would not commit to any level of prosecution before he could evaluate those potential conflicts of interest.
Cammack got the job.
In early September, Cammack met with Paul and his attorney, Michael Wynne, to hear their story. He described Paul as “energetic” and “passionate.”
Paul claimed he had been harassed by state and federal law enforcement officers in a raid of his home and business headquarters in August 2019. He also alleged they had altered the search warrants after they had been approved by a judge.
Cammack said he left the meeting thinking that “if the allegations were true they would be serious.”
Cammack testified that when he met with Paxton afterward, Paxton said his employees weren’t working on the case and that it would take some “guts to work on a case like this.”
“I was fired up about the opportunity to do it,” Cammack said Tuesday.
Cammack testified that he believed he was working with the attorney general’s office on the case. He expected to meet with Mark Penley, the former deputy attorney general for criminal justice who testified Monday that he thought Paul was dishonest, to discuss the case file compiled on Paul’s claims. Instead he was repeatedly told that Penley was on vacation and his case file was on his desk.
Every time Cammack asked Paxton for credentials, such as an ID badge or an agency email address, to prove that he was working for the attorney general’s office on the case, Cammack said Paxton told him he was “working on it.”
Despite these roadblocks, Cammack testified that he never grew suspicious of Paxton, Paul or Paul’s lawyer, Michael Wynne, who was communicating directly with Cammack about the investigation.
Cammack also said Paxton asked him to communicate with him through encrypted communications services such as Signal and ProtonMail, and that the first time he saw Paxton’s official email address, it was when he received a cease-and-desist letter from top agency deputies.
Paxton — who House impeachment managers have accused of using burner phones — also called from two cell phone numbers, Cammack said.
By the end of September, Cammack issued grand jury subpoenas to banks that lent money to Paul’s businesses, federal court staff, police officers, the head of a charity that sued him, a court-appointed lawyer in that lawsuit and the lawyer’s wife.
Cammack testified that he did not realize that some of the people he served with a grand jury subpoena were involved in ongoing litigation against Paul.
Cammack said Wynne, Paul’s lawyer, provided a list of people to subpoena in the investigation. Wynne also insisted on joining Cammack in delivering four subpoenas to financial institutions, overriding Cammack’s objections by saying Paul’s lawyer could be helpful in answering any questions that might arise.
Cammack said he felt pressured to allow him to join.
“I felt pressure to perform,” Cammack said. “I wanted to do a good job and, frankly, I trusted Michael [Wynne].”
At one point, Cammack said, he spoke with the spouse of a deceased clerk for the court that issued the search warrants for Paul’s businesses. He said Wynne and Paul suggested that the clerk had potentially died from “foul play” — insinuating that she was the victim of the same cabal that they claimed was targeting Paul.
In early October, Cammack said, several U.S. marshals arrived at his office to talk about his interview with the late clerk‘s husband.
In response, Cammack said, he started “blowing up” Paxton’s phone. After nearly a half-dozen calls, the attorney general finally answered.
He advised the young lawyer to decline to speak to the marshals “without a lawyer,” Cammack said.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/12/ken-paxton-impeachment-trial-brandon-cammack/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.