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Paxton trial Day 3: 'There was nothing more I could do,' former Paxton loyalist testifies

 Ryan Bangert, former first deputy assistant of Attorney General Ken Paxton, testifies at the impeachment trial of Paxton at the Capitol on Thursday September 7, 2023.
Jay Janner
/
Austin American-Statesman (pool)
Ryan Bangert, former first deputy assistant of Attorney General Ken Paxton, testifies at Paxton's impeachment trial at the Capitol on Thursday.

Testimony continued Thursday in the impeachment trial of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton with a key witness corroborating previous testimony about the embattled state leader’s relationship with an Austin real estate developer at the center of the trial.

Paxton was suspended from his position as the state’s top law enforcement official in May when a Texas House investigation found Paxton allegedly committed bribery and abused the power of his office, among many other allegations.

Paxton was removed after 121 Texas House members, including 60 Republicans, voted for his removal. He now faces the possibility of being permanently removed if Texas state senators, who are acting as jurors, vote to convict Paxton.

The three-term Republican has denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

‘We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have’

Thursday’s testimony began with witness Ryan Bangert, a former deputy first assistant in Paxton’s office. Bangery was among a group of whistleblowers who reported Paxton to the FBI in 2020 after they unsuccessfully tried to convince him to sever ties with campaign donor and real estate developer, Nate Paul. According to Texas House investigators, Paxton used his office to intervene in a federal investigation against Paul, even asking his staff to change a COVID-19 legal opinion to benefit Paul.

Like former first deputy attorney general Jeff Mateer did Wednesday, Bangert outlined how Paxton insisted his office spend resources, including several hours of manpower, to craft the opinion about foreclosure sales during the height of the pandemic — a move Bangert said was designed to assist Paul and prevent his properties from being auctioned off. The pressure from the attorney general came despite the office needing to tackle other issues, including a multi-state lawsuit against search-engine giant Google and several election-related matters, Bangert testified.

"The attorney general was determined to harness the power of our office to fulfill the interests of a single individual against the interests of the state."
Ryan Bangert, a former deputy first assistant in Paxton’s office

“We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have, given the importance of those issues,” he said. “The opinion that we discussed yesterday consumed the better part of three days of my time that could have been spent working on other matters.”

Bangert and Mateer were part of a group of more than a half-dozen of Paxton’s former subordinates that eventually went to the FBI to raise their concerns about Paxton’s alleged misdeeds. And once they did, Bangert added, they felt they had decided their fate.

“It became clear to me that there was nothing more I could do that the office, the attorney general, was determined to harness the power of our office to fulfill the interests of a single individual against the interests of the state,” he said. “In my view, [we were] signing our professional death warrant. We understood the gravity.”

Bangert’s testimony was a continuation from Wednesday’s, when he told the senators that Paxton was acting “like a man with a gun to his head” as he insisted the office aid the real estate developer.

Bangert resigned from his position after he said that the office stripped him of his duties following the group’s meeting with the FBI.

Following Bangert's testimony, senators heard from Ryan Vassar, another whistle blower and former Paxton deputy. Vassar said he took offense to accusations the group was a band of "rogue" employees, as Paxton has alleged.

"This statement of being rogue is contrary to the years that I dedicated my life to the state," Vassar testified.

Vassar held back tears while explaining he “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, the people that I worked with, the people that I managed."

Shortly after going to the FBI, Vassar was terminated from his position at the AG’s office, allegedly for disclosing confidential information outside the agency.

Vassar also testified that Paxton had intervened to ensure the Attorney General’s Office released a file to Nate Paul containing confidential information regarding a federal investigation into Paul’s business affairs. Vassar said Paxton pressured both him and Bangert to provide legal opinions that would have prevented the foreclosure of some of Paul’s properties during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In his Thursday afternoon testimony, Vassar also described how Paxton intervened to arrange for outside counsel to investigate a complaint made by Paul. Attorney Brandon Cammack was hired for the job, looking into what Paul alleged were improper state and federal searches of Paul’s home and businesses.

When Cammack sent in an invoice for the work, “We informed him that we did not have a record of a contract under which to pay him,” said Vassar. Cammack eventually produced one signed by Paxton. 

In explaining why he ultimately went to the FBI, Vassar said, “I formed a conclusion that General Paxton was using the power and authority of his office to benefit a private individual.”

“The concern was that it would only get worse,” he added.

Shortly after going to the FBI, Vassar was terminated from his position at the AG’s office, allegedly for disclosing confidential information outside the agency.

What we’ve heard from witnesses so far

On Wednesday, Mateer testified that, at first, he thought Paxton was acting uncharacteristically because he was possibly being blackmailed due to recently admitting to an extra-marital affair. Mateer said that Paul hired the woman in question, his suspicions grew.

“I really wanted him to come clean. I even said, ‘Are you under undue influence, sir?” Mateer said. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”

He and Bangert also denied accusations by Paxton’s team that they were part of an alleged coup formed to remove Paxton.

It’s unclear how long the trial will last. A two-thirds majority of the state senators, 21, need to vote to remove Paxton from office. State Sen. Angela Paxton, a McKinney Republican, is present during the proceedings but will not vote for or against her husband’s removal.

When the trial kicked off Tuesday, Paxton’s team made a motion to dismiss the charges outright. The vote failed however as only six senators, all Republicans, voted to end the proceedings.

Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 KERA

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the former Texas Capitol reporter for The Texas Newsroom.
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