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Paxton trial Day 7: Former top assistant was concerned Nate Paul paid for AG's home renovations

A person standing in a suit surrounded by other people in suits looks up with a smile
Juan Figueroa
/
Dallas Morning News (pool)
Suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton looks up at the gallery during the first day of his impeachment trial in the Texas Senate at the Capitol on Sept. 5.

The seventh day of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial opened with House impeachment managers saying they planned to call Laura Olson, who allegedly had an affair with the embattled Republican, as a witness.

Paxton, who is currently suspended from his role as Texas attorney general, stands accused of abusing the power of his office to assist Nate Paul — an Austin real estate investor and Paxton political donor — in a variety of legal matters. Specific charges include multiple counts of dereliction of duty and constitutional bribery, among others. If convicted on any of the charges, Paxton will be removed from office.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ruled prosecutors would have to wait to call Olson until the afternoon, however, as they had given fewer than 24 hours notice of their intention to do so. Patrick later said Olson was deemed "unavailable to testify."

Prior witnesses against Paxton have included several of Paxton’s former top deputies in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, as well as an outside attorney Paxton briefly engaged as a special prosecutor to conduct an investigation on Paul’s behalf.

‘They tried to force a settlement’

While much of Wednesday's testimony centered around who paid for renovations to Ken Paxton's Austin home, the first witness to take the stand was Ray Chester, an attorney for the Mitte Foundation. Chester described multiple lawsuits between the Texas-based charitable foundation and Nate Paul’s company, World Class Holdings.

The foundation sued Paul for fraud starting in 2018. Earlier, former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Litigation Darren McCarty testified that Paxton intervened in the litigation in 2020, arguing it had gone on too long.

The first impeachment article against Paxton charges him with dereliction of duty, specifically failing to protect the charitable organization. “Paxton harmed the Mitte Foundation in an effort to benefit Paul,” the article reads.

Chester testified that the Attorney General’s Office put consistent pressure on the Mitte Foundation to settle its lawsuits for “pennies on the dollar.” On cross examination, Chester held firm to his position.

“They tried to force a settlement,” Chester said. “They were trying, but they could not force us.”

Mitte Foundation attorney Ray Chester testifies during the 7th day of the impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate chamber at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, September 13, 2023.
Mazlin Jordan

/
Daily Texan (pool)
Mitte Foundation attorney Ray Chester testifies during the 7th day of the impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate chamber at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, September 13, 2023.

‘Check with Nate’

The prosecution then called Andrew James “Drew” Wicker, Paxton’s former personal assistant and a close friend to both the attorney general and his wife, State Senator Angela Paxton. Wicker testified he was present on more than a dozen occasions at luncheons and at Paul’s place of business when Paxton met with Paul. He described how he picked up and delivered various documents between the Attorney General’s Office and Paul’s business office.

Wicker testified how Paxton was staying at an Omni Hotel in the summer of 2020 during a period when Paxton’s Austin home was being renovated. Impeachment managers allege Paul provided renovations to Paxton's home. In return, they state “Paul received favorable legal help from Paxton’s agency.” This is something Paxton and his lawyers have consistently denied throughout the proceedings

Wicker said Paxton called off his protective detail during this period and that Wicker picked him up and dropped Paxton off at the Omni regularly.

At one point, Wicker said he himself was staying at the hotel with members of his family and he ran into Paxton, who was in animated conversation with a woman whom he later identified from a photograph as Laura Olson. Wicker said he was concerned enough about the incident to report it to a supervisor.

Wicker said he was at Paxton’s home half a dozen times during the summer of 2020 when renovations were being performed. According to Wicker, Kevin Wood — the lead contractor of Ken Paxton’s home — said, “(Wood) would check with Nate on several of the items…with regards to cost,” regarding renovations to Paxton’s kitchen.

“He mentioned the total of $20,000...for the cabinetry and the countertops," Wicker said.

Wicker said he relayed the information to superiors in the Attorney General’s Office, then spoke with Paxton. He told Paxton he was under the impression that Nate Paul was involved with the renovations at Paxton’s home and that there might be an inappropriate relationship given the office was involved in several matters with Paul. Paxton reassured him there was no reason to be concerned.

In the fall of 2020, Wicker said he told Paxton the FBI had reached out to him. Paxton asked why and Wicker didn’t have anything to tell him. Wicker said he then had a discussion with First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, who told Wicker he should not respond to the FBI, saying Wicker ran the risk of incriminating himself if he did.

Paxton later told Wicker he believed there was an opportunity for Wicker to assert attorney-client privilege. Wicker testified he was told that the Attorney General’s Office would provide counsel for him. However, Wicker said he preferred to hire his own, thinking an attorney provided by the Attorney General’s Office would primarily be concerned with the office’s interest, not his.

Also around this time, Wicker said Paxton offered him a promotion. Wicker said he declined, fearing it would appear he was being offered it in exchange for his silence to the FBI.

Wicker resigned on Nov. 2, 2020, but said he continued to receive a stipend from Paxton’s campaign for a year afterwards. Wicker said he ultimately donated the money back to the campaign.

“I didn’t put in the work,” he said, “and I didn’t want it to appear as though I might have any conflict of interest if anything like this ever came about.”

'I am not accusing anybody of anything'

Defense attorney Tony Buzbee later played up Wicker’s close relationship with the Paxtons and elicited from the former assistant that he didn’t think Paxton committed bribery — or any other crime.

Buzbee implied several times that if anyone would know, it would be Wicker, who Buzbee said spent more time than anyone else with the attorney general.

“The Paxtons used to joke that you were a second son, didn’t they” Buzbee asked. “[So] let’s be clear, the guy that spent more time with General Paxton than anyone else during the time frame that we’re here to talk about, it absolutely not accusing General Paxton of doing anything wrong, are you?”

“I am not accusing anybody of anything. No,” Wicker said.

Defense attorney Tony Buzbee smirks during testimony from a former Paxton employee on Sept. 13, 2023 at the Texas Capitol.<br/>
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Defense attorney Tony Buzbee smiles during testimony from a former Paxton employee on Wednesday.

Continuing that line of questioning, Buzbee asked if Wicker knew the extent of Paul’s relationship with Paxton. Wicker called them "friends."

“I wouldn’t speculate beyond that,” Wicker said, adding that he never witnessed Paul and Paxton enter into any agreement.

Buzbee then focused on a document previously admitted into evidence containing insurance information about a policy the Paxtons had on their Austin home receiving the renovations in question. The document, Buzbee said, showed an explanation of payments and benefits that had been paid out. Wicker said he had never seen the document.

“I'm trying to figure out how it would be that that Nate Paul's paying for repairs when, in fact, USAA is paying for some of them. You have any idea about that?” Buzbee asked.

Wicker said it was his understanding that the repairs were being paid for by more than one source.

“General Paxton expressed to me that he was paying things out of his own pocket as well as insurance,” he said.

Paxton's lawyers push back on home renovation claims

After a break, Buzbee shared the strongest evidence so far that, according to Paxton’s team, contradicts any allegations of bribery.

He presented two photos showing the Paxtons' kitchen: one taken during 2020 and another taken earlier this summer. Wicker had stated he couldn’t say for sure if the Paxton’s had their countertops replaced.

“You see the same countertops that you saw on the previous picture, don't you?” Buzbee asked.

“It would appear so, yes,” Wicker said.

Buzbee then presented Wicker with statements showing an invoice for more than $121,000 billed to the Paxtons. Buzbee also shared copies of text messages instructing a trustee to pay the same amount.

Erin Epley, one of the attorneys for the House impeachment managers, immediately took a page from the defense team and said that there are “no coincidences” in Austin. She told Wicker the invoice was dated immediately after the whistleblowers who reported Paxton to the FBI spoke with agents.

“After the whistleblowers, after he knows that you're aware of the renovations, after a cease and desist, after directing payment,” she said. “Only after all of those things does he get the first piece of documentation that would in any way credit that it was valid.”

Blake Brickman, former employee of Ken Paxton on the witness stand during the Ken Paxton impeachment trial on Sept. 13, 2023. Brickman is one of the seven to report Paxton to the FBI. <br/>
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Blake Brickman testifies during the impeachment trial. Brickman is one of seven to report Paxton to the FBI.

'I was very concerned that Mr. Paxton was breaking the law'

James Blake Brickman, Paxton’s former deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives, testified later Wednesday afternoon about his time in the AG's office. Brickman said he was personally recruited by Paxton to return to Texas after a successful career working for various Republican officeholders, including former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.

Brickman eventually joined the group of whistleblowers who reported Paxton to the FBI, and told the senators that Wicker approached him with concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul.

Brickman’s own suspicions grew after a few more months in office, he said.

“My office was about five feet away from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office. And what I saw over the course of those three, four or five months, the summer of 2020, I was very concerned that Mr. Paxton was breaking the law,” he said.

By September 2020, Brickman said, he realized those concerns were valid.

“I witnessed Attorney General Ken Paxton do brazen things on behalf of Nate Paul. He abused the entire office of the attorney general of Texas to benefit Nate Paul,” he said. “And it got worse and worse and worse as the year progressed.”

Brickman was fired a few weeks after he and his colleagues went to the FBI.

The former aide was also asked about a 2021 report that Paxton touted that supposedly cleared him of any wrongdoing.

“I would call this report a whitewash full of lies, and omissions,” he said.

Copyright 2023 KERA

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