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6 main themes emerge in first week of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial

The suspended AG’s lawyers focused on disloyalty, attacked evidence, while impeachment managers accused Paxton of excessive, obsessive misconduct. Neither side ignored the politics behind the case.
Tony Buzzbee, Ken Paxton, Dan Codgell.PNG
Posted at 11:49 AM, Sep 09, 2023

The first week of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s history-making impeachment trial closed Friday with only four prosecution witnesses taking the stand in the first four days.

Even so, the broad strokes of the cases being presented by lawyers for the House impeachment managers and Paxton’s defense team emerged in Tuesday’s opening statements and during frequently tedious, sometimes contentious questioning of witnesses.

Among the many subplots, these themes are likely to guide a trial that could take several additional weeks — ending when senators deliberate in private and emerge to cast votes that will determine whether the three-term Republican will return to work or be permanently removed from office.

Paxton attended the opening hours of his trial on Tuesday, during which senators overwhelmingly rejected his attempts to dismiss the articles of impeachment and his lawyer entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. He was absent the rest of the week.

The trial is set to resume Monday at 9 a.m.

Defense team challenges loyalty, evidence

Under trial rules adopted by the Senate, prosecutors began presenting their case first, and they chose to lead with three former high-ranking officials of the attorney general’s office — all of whom reported Paxton to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020 before quitting or being fired.

Three Paxton lawyers split cross examination of the opening witnesses, and all three hit on similar themes.

Lead defense lawyer Tony Buzbee equated reporting Paxton to the FBI as an act of betrayal. By going behind the attorney general’s back, he said, Paxton was deprived of the opportunity to answer questions that could have cleared matters up.

“You went to the FBI uninformed, isn’t that true?” Buzbee asked Jeff Mateer, Paxton’s former second in command and the first prosecution witness.

“I would not say that, sir,” Mateer replied Tuesday.

[Who’s who in the Ken Paxton impeachment trial, from key participants to potential witnesses]

Defense lawyer Mitch Little picked up the theme during his aggressive questioning of the third prosecution witness, Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, on Thursday.

In an extensive back and forth, Little suggested that Paxton was due the courtesy of a warning after nurturing Vassar’s career. More importantly, Little added, failing to let Paxton address their concerns left Vassar and other whistleblowers uninformed when they met with FBI agents to accuse Paxton of criminal acts.

Little said the whistleblowers had no direct knowledge, let alone evidence such as invoices, of wrongdoing regarding allegations that Austin real estate investor Nate Paul offered bribes by paying to renovate Paxton’s home and employing the woman Paxton was dating outside of his marriage.

“You went to the FBI on Sept. 30 with your compatriots and reported the elected attorney general of this state for a crime without any evidence, yes?” Little asked.

Vassar tried to qualify his answer several times, but Little repeatedly objected, stating it was a yes or no question.

“That’s right, we took no evidence,” Vassar finally stated.

On Friday, Rusty Hardin, a lawyer for the impeachment managers, sought to clear up the impression left by Vassar.

Vassar said he believed Little was referring to “documents, documentary evidence,” adding that he intended the FBI to find the truth, not conduct his own investigation.

“Did you give the FBI evidence?” Hardin asked.

“Our experience was evidence,” Vassar replied. “But we did not conduct our own investigation to provide documentary evidence of what we had learned. … I believed that I was a witness to criminal activity that had occurred by General Paxton.”

Prosecutors focus on “egregious misconduct”

State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, gave the opening statement on behalf of the House impeachment managers. He promised senators would hear testimony portraying Paxton as obsessed with helping Paul — who was under state and federal investigation for his business dealings — despite warnings and objections from his top lieutenants at the agency.

Paxton engaged in “egregious misconduct,” he said.

“The state’s top lawyer engaged in conduct designed to advance the economic interests and legal positions of a friend and donor to the detriment of innocent Texans,” Murr said, adding that Paxton “turned the keys of the office of attorney general over to Nate Paul.”

Ryan Bangert, Paxton’s former deputy first assistant attorney general, testified Wednesday and Thursday that Paxton took an unusual interest in matters involving Paul, such as pressing to overrule two agency decisions that denied Paul access to documents related to an active investigation into Paul’s businesses.

“We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have,” Bangert said.

“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 added. “It was unconscionable.”

[“Operation Deep Sea”: How Nate Paul pulled the strings in the attorney general’s office to investigate his enemies]

On Friday, impeachment lawyers called their fourth witness, David Maxwell, Paxton’s former director of law enforcement. Maxwell was out of state when seven senior agency officials reported Paxton to the FBI in 2020. Instead, Maxwell took his concerns to other law enforcement officials and was later fired from the agency.

Maxwell said he found Paul’s complaint to be “absolutely ludicrous,” including claims that search warrants were improperly altered in a web of conspiracy that included a federal magistrate judge.

As a result, Maxwell said, he urged Paxton to drop his interest in Paul. “I told him that Nate Paul was a criminal … and that, if he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was going to get himself indicted.”

Defense: Paxton did not exceed his authority

Defense lawyers, in opening statements and in questions to prosecution witnesses, pushed back on claims that Paxton acted illegally when he pressed his agency’s lawyers and employees to take actions that were helpful to Paul.

When Vassar testified that Paxton broke internal rules on hiring outside lawyers to appoint Houston attorney Brandon Cammack to investigate Paul’s complaint, Little pointed to state law to argue that Paxton — as the elected leader of the attorney general’s office — had the power to approve Cammack’s contract.

Defense lawyer Dan Cogdell, in opening statements Tuesday, said Paxton hired Cammack in understandable frustration because employees of the attorney general’s office “did little to nothing” to investigate Paul’s serious complaint that his home and business had been improperly searched by state and federal officials.

Similarly, several Paxton lawyers disputed allegations that Paxton improperly directed his agency’s lawyers to intervene in an Austin charity’s lawsuit against Paul, arguing that he had clear authority to run his agency.

Prosecutors push back on several fronts

Under questioning from House impeachment lawyer Dick DeGuerin, Maxwell pushed back on claims that Paul’s complaints had been brushed off without proper investigation. A forensic analysis of the search warrants found nothing to support Paul’s claim that the documents had been improperly altered, he said.

After Buzbee opened his case by stating that “nothing of significance” had been exchanged between Paxton and Paul, lawyers for the House impeachment team pressed their witnesses to explain how Paul benefited from Paxton’s repeated interventions.

A legal opinion, published with unusual speed at 1 a.m. on a Sunday in 2020, took a highly unusual position at Paxton’s insistence, Bangert testified. The attorney general’s office had led efforts to reopen Texas several months into the pandemic, yet Paxton demanded that the opinion say local COVID-19 safety rules barred property foreclosure sales.

Only later did it become known that Paul’s lawyer referred to the agency’s opinion letter to avoid foreclosure sales of several Paul properties two days later, Bangert said.

Buzbee warns of potential political consequences

In opening statements laying out Paxton’s case, Buzbee sounded a political warning.

Impeachment could become a common tactic of political retribution if Paxton — a leading conservative legal voice on abortion, immigration and other key issues — were to be convicted and removed from office, he argued.

“Let’s be clear. If this misguided effort is successful … the precedent it will set would be perilous for any elected official in the state of Texas,” Buzbee said.

Buzbee also argued that impeachment thwarted the will of Texas voters.

“Texans chose at the voting booth who they wanted to be their attorney general … but because of what this House has done, only 30 [senators] out of almost 30 million will decide if Ken Paxton is allowed to serve in the office he was voted into,” he said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. That’s not democratic.”

Impeachment team counters with its own political focus

Murr rejected arguments that impeachment violated democratic principles, saying the framers of the Texas Constitution did not believe elections alone could protect the public from abusive office holders.

“It’s too easy to use the powers of office to conceal the truth,” Murr said in opening statements. “The voters did not, and do not, know the whole truth” because Paxton went to great lengths to conceal his misconduct, he added.

Impeachment lawyers also focused on the ultraconservative political beliefs held by their first three witnesses — all attorneys who praised Paxton’s priorities that, as one put it, turned the Texas attorney general’s office into a beacon of the conservative legal movement.

Mateer worked on Capitol Hill for two Texas Republican stalwarts, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, and is now chief legal officer of First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal defense organization that focuses on religious liberty issues. His nomination for federal judge by President Donald Trump was thwarted by controversy over statements critical of transgender youth.

Bangert is a senior vice president for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group focused on religious freedom and limiting abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and he had previous ties to the Christian Coalition.

Vassar worked for notable conservative judges, including Don Willett, a former Texas Supreme Court justice named to a federal appeals court by Trump. Vassar also was a summer fellow for former Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Paxton has blamed the impeachment on political opposition to his deeply conservative principles, but Mateer, Bangert and Vassar testified that they reluctantly took their concerns to the FBI after concluding that Paxton was misusing his authority on Paul’s behalf.

"Political warnings and accusations of misconduct: 6 main themes emerge in first week of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial" 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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