Paxton trial day 2: Former deputy details why he went to the FBI, left Paxton’s office
Day two of the impeachment trial of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton kicked off Wednesday when a former top deputy told senators why he left Paxton’s office and decided to report his former boss to law enforcement.
Paxton was suspended from his post in May when the Texas House voted to impeach him following an investigation that found he allegedly committed bribery and abused the power of his office, among many other allegations. Paxton was ousted by the lower chamber after 121 members, including 60 Republicans, voted for his removal.
Tony Buzbee, the lead attorney on Paxton’s defense team, withdrew an objection submitted late Tuesday that certain communications between Paxton and others were confidential and privileged.
The flamboyant Buzbee said he pulled the objection because “Attorney General Paxton has nothing to hide.”
Former deputy attorney general Jeff Mateer then continued his testimony that began Tuesday, calling Paxton a friend and saying he cared for him and his family. But the relationship began to sour after Paxton repeatedly ignored warnings from Mateer and other former employees about the attorney general’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who is at the center of the allegations against Paxton.
After Mateer and some of his colleagues went to the FBI to address their concerns, he quickly resigned from his position.
“One of the jobs of the first assistant is to protect, in addition to running the office, was to protect the attorney general. And, quite frankly, I obviously failed at that,” he told prosecuting attorney Rusty Hardin.
Mateer detailed how Paxton became agitated and pushed back against Mateer and his colleagues’ warnings. One of those colleagues was Mark Penley, who was fired soon after the group spoke with FBI agents. Mateer testified that Penley also objected to Paxton’s recommendation that the office hire outside counsel, attorney Brandon Cammack, to investigate if Paul was being treated unfairly by federal officials, as the real estate developer alleged.
“He was upset at Mr. Penley because Mr. Penley had expressed he was not in favor of hiring Mr. Cammack,” Mateer said. He added that the usually congenial Paxton became uncharacteristically belligerent on that occasion.
“He was angry, he was upset. I felt like perhaps there was someone else with him,” Mateer said about the phone call he received from his boss. “I did not get angry with him. I was really confused. I was troubled because he kept pressing the same thing over and over again.”
Mateer also said that an opinion from Paxton’s office about COVID restrictions went contrary to earlier statements the office made about shutting down businesses and other entities during the pandemic. The opinion was related to foreclosure sales and was crafted to allegedly aid Paul.
“The opinion took the complete opposite view. It was as if Anthony Fauci wrote it,” he said, referencing the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Mateer was the only witness to testify as of Wednesday afternoon. He was cross-examined by Buzbee, who tried to poke holes in Mateer’s testimony by casting doubt that the former assistant had solid evidence against his former boss.
“When you went to the FBI, what crime did you have this so-called ‘good faith’ belief had occurred?” Buzbee asked Mateer.
Mateer said he had solid reasons to believe that Paxton was violating the law to prevent other matters from coming to light, including an extramarital affair Paxton admitted to but continued.
“I believed that [Paxton] potentially could have been subject to blackmail and as a result he was taking illegal actions on behalf of what we then knew was a campaign donor,” Mateer said. “He was taking actions on behalf of Mr. Paul.”
Buzbee asked if Mateer initially wanted to protect Paxton from the alleged blackmail scheme.
“You didn’t think he was committing a crime? You thought someone was committing a crime against him?” he asked.
Mateer said that “at one point in time” he believed that, but his position changed because of Paxton’s ongoing relationship with Paul.
“I really wanted him to come clean. I even said, ‘Are you under undue influence, sir?” Mateer said. “When we found out that this woman he had the affair with from years ago that had moved up to Austin and was now employed by Mr. Paul and that he was taking these unusual actions, it just didn’t make sense to me, Mr. Buzbee.”
Buzbee said Mateer made assumptions that could have been false.
“You know that sometimes assumptions are wrong, right?” he said.
Later Wednesday, Ryan Bangert, Paxton’s former deputy first assistant took the stand, adding more context about the attorney general’s opinion on foreclosure sales — a move the whistleblowers said was directly crafted to aid Paul.
Bangert said he emailed Paxton an initial draft of the opinion, which said foreclosures could go forward. Later that day, Bangert testified, Paxton said that wouldn’t be acceptable.
“At some point that afternoon he informed me that was not … the answer that he wanted or that he was looking for,” Bangert said, adding that Paxton told him to “do the opposite.”
Bangert described how he reluctantly succumbed to Paxton’s orders and assigned his colleague, former deputy attorney general Ryan Vassar, to rewrite the opinion.
“He thought he could write it to pass the laugh test,” Bangert said of his discussions with Vassar. He added that it was “exceptionally uncharacteristic” for the attorney general to be so involved in an opinion of that nature, adding that Paxton reached out to him several times regarding the language of the opinion.
It was past midnight when the opinion was completed, and Bangert testified Paxton’s behavior was even more concerning by that point.
“It was bizarre,” he said. “He was acting like a man with a gun to his head.”
Paxton wasn’t on the Senate floor Wednesday and will not be compelled to testify. The trial is expected to last several weeks. It would take 21 senators, a two-thirds majority, to vote to permanently oust him.
Disclosure: Dick DeGuerin, one of the lead prosecutors for the state House in the Senate impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton, is a board member of Marfa Public Radio.