The allegations against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are falling apart as the historic impeachment trial wraps up its first week of testimony.
On Friday, former Office of the Attorney General (OAG) employee Ryan Vassar returned to the witness stand for a second day of cross-examination by defense attorney Mitch Little in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Austin, Texas. Three other former employees, including David Maxwell, Ryan Bangert, and Jeff Mateer, have also testified this week.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick commended the lawyers on both sides for cooperating with the rules of the Senate trial. As president of the Senate, Mr. Patrick is presiding over the trial with the assistance of former Texas Fifth Court of Appeals Judge Lana Myers.
Mr. Paxton, who pleaded not guilty to 16 articles of impeachment, was present on the first day of the trial, but he has remained absent since. The remaining four articles of impeachment were held in abeyance.
His wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, is required to sit through the trial; however, she is barred from voting per the Senate trial rules.
The trial began Sept. 5 and is expected to run through next week.
In late May, Mr. Paxton was impeached by the House in a vote of 121-23 on accusations of abuse of powers and bribery following a quiet investigation led by a House committee.
The investigation came after Mr. Paxton settled a case with several former employees who had gone to the FBI in late September 2020 with allegations that their boss had used his office to assist Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who was entangled in lawsuits. Mr. Paul had donated $25,000 to Mr. Paxton’s campaign in 2018.
A group of former top deputies alleged that Mr. Paul had renovated Mr. and Mrs. Paxton’s at no cost and helped the attorney general cover up an extramarital affair in exchange for legal help from the OAG office. All of the employees either resigned or were fired after making their accusations to the FBI.
In November 2020, four of the employees, Jeff Mateer, Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, and David Maxwell, filed a so-called “whistleblower” lawsuit against Mr. Paxton, arguing that they had been fired in retaliation for reporting the alleged crimes.
The FBI investigation led to no charges against Mr. Paxton.
“If you think [Ken Paxton committed a crime after the Biden DOJ and the deep state FBI have done nothing after years, you aren’t using your critical thinking skills. They would have fried him and taken him out if they thought they had any evidence at all. To think otherwise is insane,” Jonathan Stickland, former Texas Rep. and president of Defend Texas Liberty PAC, wrote on X late Thursday evening.
The lawsuit was settled for $3.3 million in February.
Later the same month, Mr. Paxton asked the House Appropriations Committee to pay the settlement. House Speaker Dade Phelan opposed the idea, saying it would be an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.
In March, the House committee quietly launched an investigation over the allegations made by the former employees.
On May 23, the House revealed the investigation into the allegations on Mr. Paxton. Four days later, the GOP-led House impeached the attorney general.
‘Staging a Coup’
The first days of testimony have mostly focused on Mr. Paxton’s alleged conduct regarding Mr. Paul’s legal troubles.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Mr. Paul was facing foreclosure on multiple properties. Mr. Paul’s troubles reportedly started at least a year earlier, resulting in an FBI raid of his home and business, World Class Holdings, in August 2019.
Mr. Paul allegedly complained to Mr. Paxton that the raid was a violation of his rights. Witnesses testified that Mr. Paul asked his “friend” to use his power to probe the FBI’s raid of his property. In June, Mr. Paul was indicted on eight felony counts of making false statements to lenders between March 2017 and April 2018. Mr. Paxton is not mentioned in the indictments.
Mr. Mateer, the House impeachment managers’ first witness, told the state senators he had been concerned about his boss’s behaviors for months before he and the other senior advisers went to the FBI.
He said it finally made sense to him when he discovered that Mr. Paxton had hired an outside lawyer to conduct an investigation on Mr. Paul’s behalf. He said he also learned that Mr. Paul had employed the woman with whom Mr. Paxton had an extramarital affair.
“I concluded that Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good faith belief that it was illegal,” Mr. Mateer testified earlier this week.
Mr. Mateer and his colleagues testified that they had no choice but to report their boss to the FBI when he refused their advice for him to cut ties with Mr. Paul.
He said Mr. Paxton hired the outside lawyer to conduct an investigation on Mr. Paul’s behalf regarding the Mitte Foundation, a family trust that invested in World Class.
During cross-examination, defense lawyer Tony Buzbee pointed out that the OAG had agreed not to intervene unless the office received an additional inquiry involving Mitte, which it did.
Mr. Mateer said he was unaware of the second inquiry that led to the legal hiring of a young Houston lawyer, Brandon Cammack, who began subpoenaing banks.
Mr. Buzbee questioned Mr. Mateer on why he didn’t just go to his boss and ask about the hiring; after all, he was the second in command in the agency.
“And you could have put all this to bed if you had just talked to your boss,” Buzbee continued.
Mr. Buzbee asked Mr. Mateer why the former employees had scrubbed the OAG letterhead of Mr. Paxon’s name in a letter to the FBI.
“You were involved in staging a coup, weren’t you?” Mr. Buzbee asked. “That’s what you were up to. That’s the reason you went to the Governor’s office. That’s the reason you were talking to TLR [Texans for Lawsuit Reform]. That’s the reason you had engaged in conduct removing your boss’s name. You were staging a coup.”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Mateer responded.
No Evidence Taken to FBI
On Thursday, Mr. Vassar broke down in tears during testimony that Mr. Paxton had described him and the other former staffers as “rogue employees.”
“It was hurtful,” he said. “I worked for the state for eight years as a public servant, as one who values the commitment to public service. To set an example for my kids. It’s contrary—the statement of being rogue—it’s contrary to the years that I dedicated my life to the state.”
Mr. Vassar spent hours testifying that Mr. Paxton wanted to “find a way to help Nate Paul” and that he and the other staffers were forced to take their evidence of the attorney general’s alleged wrongdoings to the FBI.
But during cross-examination, Mr. Vassar admitted they had no physical evidence.
“I want to get this straight: 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?” Mr. Little asked.
“That’s right,” Vassar replied. “We took no evidence.”
On Friday, House lawyer Rusty Hardin guided the witness through clarification.
“Did you take your body? Did you take your voice? Did you take your brain? Did you take your experience? Did you take your knowledge of the last nine months?” Hardin asked Mr. Vassar, who answered “yes” to each question.
Mr. Vassar then told the state senators that the staffers’s experiences were their evidence.
“My opinion was that our experiences were evidence, but we did not take our own investigation to provide documentary evidence of what we had come to learn,” Vassar said.