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The strangest, most eye-opening moments from Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, talks with his defense attorney Tony Buzbee, left, before starting the ninth day of his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Austin, Texas.
Sam Owens
/
San Antonio Express-News (pool)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, talks with his defense attorney Tony Buzbee before starting the ninth day of his impeachment trial at the Texas Capitol on Friday.

Well, Texas ... we made it through a historic impeachment trial. Ken Paxton is only the third official in state history to face impeachment.

A member of the Texas Republican Party’s most conservative bloc, Paxton stands accused of abusing the power of his office, committing bribery and more, allegedly to help his friend Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and Paxton political donor, in a variety of legal and business matters.

Paxton was suspended from his position as the state’s attorney general in May by the Texas House after an investigative committee presented the chamber with 20 articles of impeachment. Paxton was then ousted by the chamber after 121 members, including 60 Republicans, voted for his removal.

A lot has transpired since the trial kicked off on Sept. 5. From emotional testimony by former Paxton loyalists to in-depth discussions of kitchen renovations to literal crickets filling the Capitol, here are some of the most memorable moments and eye-catching revelations from the trial.

On day one, the defense tried to get all charges against Paxton dropped. It failed…but Paxton didn’t have to testify

The trial opened with significant defeats for Paxton. The Senate shot down motions to drop virtually all of the impeachment charges against him, with a majority of Republican senators voting to proceed with the trial. At least 21 senators – or the minimum needed to vote to remove Paxton from office permanently at the end of trial – shot down each motion.

One motion that did go Paxton’s way exempted him from testifying. House impeachment managers sought to compel him to do so, and prosecutors wanted to call him as a witness. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ruled Paxton should be protected against self-incrimination, since the House impeachment managers and their attorneys repeatedly likened his case to a criminal trial.

Besides the first day of the trial — when Senate rules specified the three-term Republican needed to show up — and Friday’s closing arguments, Paxton was absent from the proceedings.

‘A gun to his head’

Was Paxton being held hostage? No. At least not in a Chuck Norris, action-thriller sort of way. But at least two former high-ranking Paxton loyalists said their old boss’s behavior was cause for concern. And they tied it to Nate Paul.

Jeff Mateer, a former deputy attorney general in the office, testified on day two of the trial that he believed Paxton was being blackmailed to keep details about Paxton’s alleged extramarital affair secret.

 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.

“I believed that [Paxton] potentially could have been subject to blackmail and as a result he was taking illegal actions on behalf of what we then knew was a campaign donor,” Mateer said. “He was taking actions on behalf of Mr. Paul.”

He later added: “I really wanted him to come clean. I even said, ‘Are you under undue influence, sir?’”

Later that day, Ryan Bangert, Paxton’s former deputy first assistant, took the stand, and painted a darker description of the hold this outside force allegedly had on Paxton.

During Bangert’s testimony about an attorney general’s opinion he and others said was crafted to benefit Paul, he described how it was “exceptionally uncharacteristic” for the attorney general to be so involved in an opinion of that nature, adding that Paxton reached out to him several times regarding the language of the opinion.

“It was bizarre,” he said. “He was acting like a man with a gun to his head.”

Paxton’s alleged affair came up quite a bit

While Ken Paxton’s relationship with Nate Paul was the trial’s main focus, another noteworthy name came up practically every day on the Senate floor: Laura Olson.

Olson allegedly had an affair with Paxton, and was eventually hired for a job with Paul’s company. Throughout the trial, several of Paxton’s former aides shed light on how they believed the relationship factored into Paxton’s behavior and relationship with Paul.

The prosecution called Katherine “Missy” Minter Cary to the stand on Monday. The former chief of staff in the attorney general’s office detailed how Paxton’s affair caused tension in the office. She said members of Paxton’s travel detail started complaining to her about Paxton’s actions.

“The travel detail was calling about the hours they were working, the places they were required to go, and they were concerned about the General's behavior,” Cary told the court.

Cary eventually confronted Paxton about the affair. She told him she was concerned that the relationship was disrupting daily operations in the office and that she was worried about the ethical dilemmas the affair presented.

Paxton “came in and said he was frustrated that I didn't understand that he still loved Ms. Olson," Cary said, recalling a meeting she had with Paxton in 2019.

She said she told Paxton that "it wasn't my business who he was sleeping with, but that when things boiled over into the office and into the state work that it [became] my business."

Cary also stated that her heart broke for Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, the Associated Press reported.

Waiting for Laura Olson

On Wednesday morning, House impeachment managers announced they planned to call Olson as a witness. Onlookers had wondered if she would take the stand at some point in the trial.

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 intentions.

Olson arrived at the Capitol later that day. After a break in proceedings where senators debated behind closed doors, Patrick returned to the dais and said Olson was present but "unavailable to testify."

While that development may have disappointed those who’d been anticipating Olson’s time on the witness stand, it did squash what could have been an awkward moment for Paxton’s wife.

While the Texas Constitution requires every senator to be present for an impeachment trial, Senate rules adopted for Paxton’s proceedings excluded Sen. Paxton from participating in deliberations or voting on whether to convict him.

Still, Sen. Paxton was present for each day of the trial, and spent her time writing notes while listening to testimony, occasionally waving to supporters in the Senate gallery. She declined multiple requests for comment from The Texas Newsroom (that’s not surprising given that senators were under a gag order and told not to speak to the press or other outsiders about the trial).

State Sen, Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, wife of defendant Ken Paxton, listens to whistleblower Ryan Vassar testify on the fourth day of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Austin, Texas.
Sam Owens
/
Pool via San Antonio Express-News
State Sen, Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, wife of defendant Ken Paxton, listens to whistleblower Ryan Vassar testify on the fourth day of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Austin, Texas.

A question of countertops

Much of Wednesday's testimony centered around who paid for renovations to the Paxtons’ home in an affluent Austin neighborhood. Impeachment managers alleged that Nate Paul covered some of these costs, and, in return “Paul received favorable legal help from Paxton’s agency,” according to one article of impeachment. Paxton has fiercely denied the allegations.

To lay out their case that something was fishy about the source of payment, the prosecution called Andrew James “Drew” Wicker, Paxton’s former personal assistant and a close friend to the attorney general and state Sen. Paxton.

Wicker said he visited the Paxton home numerous times over the summer of 2020, when renovations were taking place. He worried about what he saw and heard. Wicker testified he overheard Paxton’s lead contractor frequently checking in with Paul “with regards to cost” of kitchen renovations.

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

You can read all about Wicker’s testimony here, including what happened when he confronted Paxton with his concerns.

But let’s talk about the countertops.

They became a focal point for defense attorney Tony Buzbee’s cross-examination of Wicker. In what could be considered a key moment should senators decline to find Paxton guilty of the bribery charge, Buzbee presented Wicker with two photos of the Paxton’s home: one taken three years ago and another taken earlier this summer. Wicker said after viewing the photos 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, referring to this year’s photo.

“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, then 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.”

Who’s that lady? The internet loved Erin Epley.

Much of the pre-trial hype centered on the attorneys representing the House impeachment managers and Paxton. Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, the lead prosecutors, are legendary Texas legal forces, as is Tony Buzbee of the defense.

But just when trial-watchers had gotten used to hearing Hardin and fierce cross-examination from Buzbee, a new lawyer entered the mix: Erin Epley.

When Epley first questioned Wicker, Paxton’s former personal aide, she fiercely fought Buzbee’s objections and objected to the defense’s cross examination. The former assistant U.S. attorney became the subject of numerous posts on X, formerly Twitter.

"I am not sure why House Managers waited a whole week to use this absolute assassin," wrote one commenter, summing up much of the sentiments.


The prosecution’s “oopsie”

Texas House impeachment managers took everyone by surprise – including themselves — when they suddenly rested their case late Wednesday afternoon.

The sudden development came as Rusty Hardin, the lead prosecutor, was questioningBlake Brickman, one of several Paxton deputies or assistants who reported the attorney general to the FBI.

The stoppage seemed to catch both sides somewhat off guard because Hardin had not yet passed Brickman, who was Paxton’s former deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives, over for cross examination.

The House still had time to question witnesses or to cross examine witnesses brought by the defense.

Hardin admitted his mistake.

“The court is having to put up with a screw up by me,” Hardin told the court. “I apologize.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick adjourned for the day, and Paxton’s defense team began calling their witnessesThursday morning.

Tony Buzbee presenting the defense's closing arguments during the impeachment trial for suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Sept. 15, 2023.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
Tony Buzbee presenting the defense's closing arguments during the impeachment trial for suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Sept. 15, 2023.

Fiery closing arguments

House impeachment managers faced off against Paxton’s defense team a final time Friday morning, when each side made their closing pitch for his guilt or innocence.

State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, the chairman of the board of House managers that indicted Paxton, fired his salvo by using one of the defense’s own arguments to make part of his case.

“Mr. Paxton's attorneys like to remind everyone that he was elected by 4.2 million voters, but they have blindly ignored the fact that he has ultimately ended up serving one person: himself,” said Murr. The trial has been cast by Paxton supporters as a thinly veiled attempt to usurp the will of Texas voters.

Buzbee, who led Paxton’s defense team, said instead that the trial was a complete sham and waded into a “Big Brother” theory that some Paxton supporters have embraced.

“If this can happen to him, it can happen to anyone,” he told the jury, composed of state senators. “It was about nothing. They failed to gather all the evidence, they failed to review their own evidence.”

Buzbee later alluded to a theory that gained popularity as the proceedings continued that alleges Paxton was targeted by a group aligned with the legendary Bush political family after he defeated George P. Bush in the Republican primary for attorney general.

“Guess what? Ken Paxton won hands down, resounding victory. He beat the latest in line for the Bushes. Let it be known. Let it be clear now, the Bush era in Texas ends today,” he said.

You can read more about closing arguments here.

Not to be outdone, however, Murr also invoked a legendary Texan. His final plea to the senators was to remember Sam Houston, one of the state’s founding fathers.

“At the beginning of trial, we watched all of you place your hand on Sam Houston's Bible and take your oath. Sam Houston's Bible,” he said. “At that time, I reminded you that Sam Houston told Texans: ‘Do right and risk the consequences.’ Now is your time to do right.”

One the many crickets that invaded the Texas State Capitol in Austin this week and made a ruckus during Ken Paxton's impeachment trial.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
/
The Texas Newsroom
One the many crickets that invaded the Texas State Capitol in Austin this week and made a ruckus during Ken Paxton's impeachment trial.

The sound of crickets…literally

After months of dry conditions, Austin saw significant rain this week. That drew out the crickets around the Texas Capitol.

Naturally, some made their way into the building, venturing into the Senate gallery.

And they were loud — so loud, in fact, that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had no choice but to acknowledge them.

"The crickets are still here, " said Patrick as senators filed their way onto the flood Thursday morning.

What's next?

Senators began deliberating late Friday morning and left the Capitol around 7:30 p.m without reaching a verdict. Lt. Gov Patrick, the head of the Texas Senate, said they’ll come back Saturday at 9 a.m. for deliberations and will continue into Sunday, if necessary.

“Take as much time as you need to come to a decision that you believe is the right decision,” he said. "God bless all of you. Thank you for your service to Texas.”

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.
Rachel Osier Lindley is a Senior Editor for The Texas Newsroom, a public radio journalism collaboration between KERA in North Texas, KUT in Austin, Houston Public Media, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio and NPR. This regional news hub is the prototype for NPR's Collaborative Journalism Network.
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