Ken Paxton’s lawyer attacks allegation that home renovation was a bribe

Drew Wicker, former executive aide to the attorney general, testifies on Sept. 13, 2023, the seventh day of Ken Paxton's impeachment trial before the Texas Senate. (Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune, Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune)

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The lead attorney for Ken Paxton took direct aim Wednesday at a central claim to his ongoing impeachment trial: That the suspended attorney general received a bribe in the form of renovations to his Austin home that were paid for by real estate investor Nate Paul.

That simply isn’t true, said Paxton attorney Tony Buzbee.

Buzbee’s comments came during a lengthy cross-examination of Drew Wicker, who served as Paxton’s former personal aide and testified Wednesday that he heard Paxton and a contractor discuss the cost of proposed changes to the renovation, including cabinets and a granite countertop. Wicker said he heard the contractor estimated that the change would add $20,000 to the cost. Three times the contractor said he would “need to check with Nate,” Wicker testified.

“I walked away with the impression that Nate Paul was involved in the renovations of General Paxton’s home,” Wicker said.

Buzbee pointed to a series of documents that he said belied the claim, including a $121,617 bill from a construction firm and text messages in which Paxton directed the head of his blind trust to write a check to pay for the work. Buzbee also presented photos showing that the kitchen in Paxton’s home — which House managers say was significantly upgraded on Paul’s dime — was unchanged from 2020.

In response, House impeachment lawyer Erin Epley suggested that Paxton simply opted to forgo the changes out of fears that they could be later scrutinized.

“Isn’t it true that if you knew people were looking, you might choose not to get them upgraded?” she asked Wicker.

Epley also scrutinized one of the documents provided by Buzbee — an invoice from the construction company dated Sept. 1, 2020 billing Paxton for $121,617. Metadata revealed that the invoice was created on Oct. 1, 2020 — the same day senior staffers at the attorney general’s office told Paxton they had reported him to the FBI a day earlier.

Buzbee argued that text message records showed that Paxton directed his blind trust to pay the construction company on Sept. 30, a day before Paxton was told about the report to the FBI. That, in addition to a kitchen remodel that he said never occurred as alleged in impeachment Article 10, show that there was no merit to the bribery accusation, he argued.

Earlier, WIcker had testified that he was unconvinced by Paxton’s explanation for the renovations in 2020. On Wednesday, prodded by Buzbee, he said he was satisfied that no kitchen remodel took place.

A witness who could shed light on the matter, the contractor, has been subpoenaed but has declined to testify, Epley told the court.

Questioning a later witness, Blake Brickman, Paxton's former deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives, impeachment lawyer Rusty Hardin showed emails between Paul and the contractor discussing work being done on Paxton’s house. Paul requested photos of the work, which the contractor provided.

“Do you have any idea,” Hardin asked, “why they would be communicating like that if Nate Paul had nothing to do with” the work being done on Paxton’s home?

Buzbee’s objection was upheld before Brickman could respond.

A pattern of concerning behavior

The dispute over renovations followed lengthy testimony in which Wicker described a pattern of concerning behavior beginning in mid-2020, when he said Paxton often diverged from his official calendar, ditched his security detail and relied on Wicker to take him to meetings with Paul at local restaurants or at the Austin headquarters of Paul’s faltering real estate empire.

Wicker, who testified that he still loved Paxton and his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, also said that Paxton obtained two “extra” cell phones, used encrypted communications services and, on a handful of occasions, borrowed Wicker’s phone and “wiped” the call log before returning it.

Wicker’s concerns about Paxton grew in late summer 2020, when Wicker was with his family at the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa. By then, he said, he’d already shuttled Paxton numerous times to and from the high-end resort, where Paxton was staying as his Tarrytown home was remodeled.

While at the hotel with his father one evening, Wicker said he saw Paxton emerge from an elevator with a woman that Wicker did not recognize at the time. The attorney general was wearing basketball shorts; the woman was in high heels. Wicker said it was clear the two knew one another.

“It did spur some questions,” Wicker said.

On Wednesday, he was shown a drivers license photo of Laura Olson, the woman whose affair with Paxton is central to his ongoing impeachment trial. Wicker confirmed that it was Olson who walked out of the elevator three years ago.

In addition to the renovation allegation, Paxton faces a second bribery allegation in the articles of impeachment, which allege that Paul gave Olson a job in return for “favorable legal assistance from, or specialized access to, the office of the attorney general.”

Wicker said there were other concerning incidents involving Paul. At one point, he said, he was instructed to deliver a manilla envelope to Paul that House managers allege contained sensitive information about an FBI investigation into his businesses. He also testified that, in the fall of 2020, he was contacted by the FBI about Paxton, after which the attorney general’s office offered to provide legal representation and “indicated” that they would like him to avoid talking to investigators.

Wicker said he retained his own counsel after it became clear that the attorney general’s office was focused on protecting the “institution,” rather than him.

Wicker resigned from the attorney general’s office, as well as from his job on Paxton’s reelection campaign, in November 2020. Despite that, he said, he continued to receive a stipend from the campaign that Paxton told him to “keep.”

Feeling he had not earned it — and concerned it could be seen as improper — Wicker donated the money back to Paxton’s campaign.

“I didn't do the work,” he said. “It might have been an innocent mistake … but I did not want it to appear as though I had any conflict of interest if anything like this [impeachment trial] came about."

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