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Friday, April 19, 2024

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial: Senate begins deliberations

Austin, Texas — The Texas Senate on Friday morning began deliberating in the impeachment trial of state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who will be removed from office if he is convicted of any of the 16 articles of impeachment.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told the 30 state senators who are acting as jurors that they could leave only to go home at night and were not to speak to anyone about the trial or watch any news coverage. If a verdict is not reached by Sunday evening, he said he would consider sequestering the senators.

The articles of impeachment include bribery and abuse of public trust. Paxton, who attended the trial on the first day and the last day, pleaded not guilty last week. He has denied all wrongdoing.

Republicans hold a 19-12 advantage in the Texas Senate, and the state requires a two-thirds majority, or 21 votes, to convict Paxton on any of the charges. State Sen. Angela Paxton, the attorney general’s wife, has been barred from voting or participating in deliberations, but she still counts toward the number of senators necessary to convict — meaning the state still needs 21 votes.

Paxton’s defense sought to dismiss the impeachment vote as a political “witch hunt” and partisan fight within the GOP against Paxton, a close ally of former President Donald Trump.

House impeachment manager Jeff Leach, who represents Paxton’s home base in Collin County, Texas, countered that Paxton had been a “dear friend and political mentor,” but “the people of Texas deserve answers.”

Only two Texas statewide officials have ever been removed from office after a conviction, Gov. James Ferguson, in 1917, and District Judge O.P. Carrillo, in 1975. If Paxton is convicted, the Senate will likely also hold a separate vote to determine if Paxton should be barred from holding office.

Read breakdowns of each day’s testimoy and more at CBS News Texas.

What are the charges against Paxton?

In May, the Texas state House voted overwhelmingly to impeach Paxton on a 121-23 vote. The Senate decided to hear arguments on 16 of the articles of impeachment.

The accusations stem from Paxton’s involvement with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who has been indicted in a separate case.

Several aides in Paxton’s office came forward in 2020, alleging that Paxton influenced employees to get involved in legal disputes that would benefit Paul and his business. In return, they said Paul provided extensive favors for Paxton, including providing home renovations and employing a woman with whom Paxton was allegedly having an affair.

Paxton’s defense sought to prove his impeachment was just an attempt to settle a score by political opponents in the state House and his own former aides. In his closing argument, his lawyer, Tony Buzbee, accused the Bush family — in particular, George P. Bush, who primaried Paxton in 2022 — of manufacturing the impeachment allegations.

“The Bush era ends today in the state of Texas,” Buzbee said. “They can go back to Maine.”

After the whistleblowers came forward, some resigned, but others were fired. Those who were fired filed a lawsuit in November 2020 alleging that they had suffered retaliation. On Feb. 10, Paxton announced the attorney general’s office had settled the lawsuit for $3.3 million. On Feb. 21, Paxton put a line item in the budget for the $3.3 million to settle the lawsuit with taxpayer money.

That request led the state House to open an investigation into Paxton. On May 23, the House General Investigating Committee went public about its probe into the proposed whistleblower settlement. According to the committee, the settlement would prevent a trial and the details from becoming public.

On Thursday, the defense called the attorney general’s director of human resources, Henry De La Garza, who testified that the whistleblowers were not fired for retaliation but rather for “egregious” policy violations.

What happened at Paxton’s impeachment trial?

The trial featured dramatic testimony from former top Paxton aides. All conservative Republicans, they testified that they were concerned about Paxton’s relationship with Paul. Paxton’s former top lieutenant, Jeff Mateer, testified that part of his job was to “protect the attorney general,” but he “failed.”

Paxton publicly called the whistleblowers “rogue employees.” His lawyers questioned why the whistleblowers went to the FBI, rather than to Paxton, with their concerns.

Witnesses said that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as Texas promoted a policy of opening up, Paxton allegedly rewrote the state’s policy to exclude foreclosure sales — a policy that appeared to benefit Paul. Former deputy first assistant Ryan Bangert testified that Paxton’s insistence was “bizarre,” and he was “acting like a man with a gun to his head.”

“I believed, based on my experience over the previous nine months, that the attorney general had abandoned his obligation to work on behalf of the interests of the people of Texas to serve the interests of one person — Nate Paul,” Bangert said.

Former Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, meanwhile, testified that Paxton pressured him and Bangert to provide legal opinions that would have prevented foreclosure on some of Paul’s property amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does this have to do with Paxton’s alleged affair?

Paxton’s defense tried to separate the affair allegations from the articles of impeachment. His alleged affair was not among the counts in the articles of impeachment.

On Friday, defense attorney Tony Buzbee said “we know why they mentioned Laura Olson,” the woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair. “They want to shame him.”

“If this impeachment is about marital impropriety, then line up,” Buzbee said, implying others in the Legislature have had affairs.

Olson herself was called to the stand on Wednesday, although her appearance was postponed and then canceled for undisclosed reasons.

Mateer, the former top aide to Paxton, testified that the alleged affair is “relevant” to the allegations because it “answered one of the questions I kept struggling with.”

“Why would General Paxton jeopardize all this great work that we’ve been doing in the Office of the Attorney General,” Mateer continued. “Why would he be engaged in these activities on behalf of one person…?”

Paul allegedly hired the woman with whom Paxton had an affair, and Paxton allegedly paid for an apartment in Austin for her.

Paxton’s former chief of staff, Katherine “Missy” Cary, testified in the trial’s second week about the impact of Paxton’s alleged affair on his office.

“The ethics advice in 2018 was when you try to keep things secret when you are a statewide elected official who is running for office, it can be ethically, legally and morally challenging — and it was beginning to bleed over to people in the office,” Cary said.

Cary said in 2018, there were complaints in the office from security and travel details about their hours and non-state business, such as the alleged affair. She also recounted that Angela Paxton used to call the office regularly to ask about her husband’s schedule or his whereabouts, which led to complaints from the office staff members that they were “uncomfortable.”

And she recalled that during lunch one day, she ran into Paxton, who was with the woman with whom he allegedly had an affair and introduced her as his realtor. She testified that in the summer of 2018, she confronted Paxton, who confirmed the affair. She said he was “contrite” and “listened to what I had to say very carefully” about the “ethical implications” of having an affair.

“There’s ethical risks, there’s political risks, there’s legal risks … these things can open one up to bribery and misuse of office, misuse of state time,” she said.

Cary told senators that at one point in 2018, she believed he had ended the affair, but she learned in 2019 that it was still going on. Cary testified that she spoke to him again about the alleged affair, but Paxton was “frantically upset” and said he “still loved” the woman with whom he was allegedly having an affair.

“Imagine if we impeached everyone here in Austin that had had an affair — we’d be impeaching for the next 100 years,” Buzbee said. Cary declined to respond. “Just because someone had an affair doesn’t mean that they’re a ‘criminal,’ does it?”

What are the criminal charges against Paxton, and is that case affected by the impeachment?

Paxton was indicted in 2015 by a Collin County, Texas, grand jury on two first-degree felony charges of securities fraud and a third-degree felony charge of failure to register. He has pleaded not guilty, and he has successfully delayed a trial in the case while he’s in office.

The impeachment case is completely separate from those allegations, and Paxton still faces a trial on those charges.

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