Paxton trial, Sept. 11: Whistleblower says political donor acted like he was the “real boss” of AG’s office

(Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune, Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

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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.

Former district attorney says donor’s claims about a conspiracy were “ridiculous”

The fifth day of the Ken Paxton impeachment trial concluded with testimony from two former members of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office who were involved in reviewing Nate Paul’s claims about a vast conspiracy or Paxton’s alleged misconduct.

Former Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore testifies during the fifth day of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, on Sept. 11, 2023.
Former Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore testifies during the fifth day of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate on Monday. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Margaret Moore, who served as the county’s district attorney from 2017 to 2020, said she had her office look into Paul’s claims that he was the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy. They found his claims “ridiculous,” she said, and forwarded his complaints to Paxton’s former top cop David Maxwell, who testified on Friday.

Moore said they expected Maxwell and others to “view this matter as absolutely baseless and not worthy of investigation.”

“I expected it to be a dead issue,” she said.

Moore later found out that the attorney general’s office had hired Brandon Cammack, an outside attorney from Houston, to investigate Paul’s claims. During her testimony, lead prosecutor Rusty Hardin played audio in which an unnamed member of the attorney general’s office said that it was Moore’s decision to hire Cammack — which she vociferously denied.

“It is astonishingly untruthful,” she said after the audio was played. “I couldn’t pick [Cammack] out of a lineup.”

On cross-examination, Paxton’s attorney Tony Buzbee suggested Moore was too dismissive of Paul's allegations against the FBI in particular. He pressed her on whether she was aware of various cases throughout history where the agency was accused of violating people's rights.

Buzbee repeatedly asserted that Moore's initial reaction to Paul's claims was that they were "ridiculous." She disputed that characterization but held firm in her belief that Paul's accusations were far-fetched.

"It wasn't just the FBI," Moore said. "It was a whole range of agencies. It was a conspiracy that I felt was absolutely incredible and without basis. That's not just the FBI."

Moore’s testimony was preceded by testimony from Gregg Cox, the former director of the Travis County DA's special prosecutions division. Cox testified that he had previously looked into Paxton and Paul and uncovered a number of potential crimes, including bribery, abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant.

Moore said they “stood down” on the investigation after talking to federal authorities who were looking into similar matters, a decision that he said “frustrated” him because of the severity of what he uncovered.

“It was something I felt was worthy of investigation and involved important issues involving the State of Texas,” he said.

Robert Downen and Patrick Svitek

Former chief of staff says AG initially lied about affair that eventually hurt office morale

Ken Paxton’s alleged extramarital affair came up for the first time at length Monday in his impeachment trial.

Katherine “Missy” Cary, the former chief of staff in the attorney general’s office, testified how she came to learn about the alleged affair and how Paxton ultimately confessed to it. The testimony came as Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, listened on from the Senate floor.

[Former chief of staff for AG’s office details alarm over Ken Paxton’s alleged affair]

“My heart broke for her,” Cary said of Angela Paxton, who is disqualified from voting in the trial but has to attend.

The relationship was impacting staff morale, Cary added, with Angela Paxton calling the office to try to track down her husband and staffers feeling “uncomfortable answering those questions.”

Cary eventually had a meeting with Ken Paxton where they discussed the “ethical implications of a secret affair,” she said. One of the things Cary said they discussed was that such conduct could “open one up to bribery and misuse of office” — allegations at the center of his impeachment.

In September 2018, Paxton and his wife convened a meeting with top aides where he confessed to the affair, Cary said. After that meeting, Cary said, she believed such behavior was “out of [Paxton’s] life for good.” But a month later in 2019, Cary said, Paxton told her the affair was continuing.

Patrick Svitek

Paxton didn’t trust law enforcement after securities fraud indictment, whistleblower testifies

A Ken Paxton whistleblower shed light Monday on the suspended attorney general’s distrust of law enforcement, suggesting it dates back to his 2015 indictment on securities fraud charges.

The whistleblower, Mark Penley, testified that Paxton’s skepticism of law enforcement became clear in the fall of 2020. At the time, Paxton was agitating for Penley to continue investigating conspiratorial allegations that Paxton’s friend and donor, Nate Paul, was making against law enforcement agencies. Penley said he increasingly resisted because Paul and his attorney were not cooperating, among other reasons.

[Paxton empathized with Nate Paul’s distrust of law enforcement because of his own indictment, whistleblower testifies]

In one contentious meeting, Penley recalled, Paxton told him, “You don’t know what it feels like to be the target of a corrupt law enforcement investigation.”

Paxton has been fighting the securities fraud charges for most of his tenure, since first winning election as attorney general in 2014. A trial is expected to finally begin early next year, though both sides have agreed to wait until after the impeachment trial to set a date.

House impeachment managers lawyer Rusty Hardin asked Penley what Paxton specifically thought about the Texas Department of Public Safety. The agency’s Texas Rangers unit investigated Paxton in the securities matter, and a Collin County grand jury indicted him in 2015.

Penley said he had heard Paxton “make negative comments about DPS.”

“He doesn’t trust the director and he feels like they ran a corrupt investigation on him” in the securities case, Penley said.

Patrick Svitek

Whistleblower says Paxton donor acted like he was the “real boss” of AG’s office

A Ken Paxton whistleblower testified Monday that Nate Paul acted like he was the “real boss” in the attorney general’s office during one meeting at a crucial moment there.

The whistleblower, Mark Penley, made the comment while describing an August 2020 meeting with Paul where Penley said he informed Paul he would close an investigation that the office had started at Paul’s behest. Paxton was present for the meeting, where Penley said he told Paul the office had found no evidence of his claims against a federal magistrate judge. Paul and his lawyer, Michael Wynne, were “very unhappy” and “immediately pushed back,” Penley said.

“Mr. Paul acted like we didn’t understand who the real boss was,” Penley said. “It wasn’t the attorney general, it was him.”

The articles of impeachment center on Paxton’s relationship with Paul, an Austin real-estate investor and Paxton campaign donor. Paxton stands accused of abusing his office to help Paul, and Penley is the fifth whistleblower who has testified to the unusual lengths that Paxton went to aid Paul. Penley was the deputy attorney general for criminal justice.

Penley said Monday that Paxton was present for most of the August 2020 meeting and showed some favor for Paul. At one point, Penley said, the participants debated whether Paul had leaked details of the investigation to the media and Paxton “took his side and agreed with him he had a First Amendment right to talk” to the media.

Patrick Svitek

Senators could start deliberating Paxton's fate this week

Jurymembers are led onto the Senate floor on the morning of Sept. 11, 2023. Sept. 11 marked the fifth day of Ken Paxton's impeachment trial in the Texas Senate.
State senators walk onto the Texas Senate floor on Monday morning. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opened the fifth day of the Ken Paxton impeachment trial by saying the jury could begin deliberations as soon as Thursday.

Patrick, the presiding officer of the trial, said each side has about 14 ½ hours left, meaning they “could be out of time on Thursday morning.” That means Paxton’s fate could be in the jury’s hands by “late Thursday or Friday.”

“We will not take a day off until a final resolution,” Patrick said.

The House impeachment managers then called their fifth witness: another Paxton whistleblower named Mark Penley, who was deputy attorney general for criminal justice.

Patrick Svitek

Prosecutors portray Paxton as obsessed while defense says he was betrayed

Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Monday. During the first week of proceedings, whistleblowers who reported the suspended attorney general to the FBI for potential criminal activity portrayed Paxton as obsessed with helping friend and political donor Nate Paul, who was under state and federal investigation for his business dealings. House impeachment manager Andrew Murr, a Republican from Junction, said 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 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.

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

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.

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

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 officeholders.

Chuck Lindell

Disclosure: Tony Buzbee has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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