Despite the delayed start to Wednesday’s impeachment proceedings, senators picked up where they left off on the first day, hearing testimony from Jeff Mateer – the former first assistant attorney general and one of the eight high-ranking officials who reported Ken Paxton to federal authorities.
Mateer returned to the witness stand after lead defense attorney Tony Buzbee withdrew a motion filed on Tuesday night that would have prevented documents that displayed contact between Paxton and attorneys who worked for him from being admitted as evidence due to “client-attorney privilege.”
Buzbee said Paxton had “nothing to hide” and told Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick – who was initially going to rule on the motion – that he did not want to seem as if he was “playing games.”
Paxton was not seated by Buzbee when the Senate gaveled in, nor was he present while Mateer was testifying or during the remainder of Wednesday’s proceedings after opting not to return to the floor following an afternoon break on Tuesday.
Much of Mateer’s testimony and the line of questioning he faced from prosecutor Rusty Hardin and Buzbee centered around what he knew about the relationship between Paxton and Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.
Additionally, Mateer provided further insight into the office of the attorney general's operations leading up to and after the whistleblowers came forward, alleging that Paxton had been engaging in several illicit activities to assist Paul under federal investigation.
Mateer said he was first concerned that Paxton was using his position of power to assist Paul after he returned from a weekend trip to find an opinion related to COVID-19 regulations – which did not allow foreclosure sales to take place – had been written and issued.
He said it was completely “contrary” to the stance Paxton and other state officials, who worked to loosen prior pandemic restrictions, took. This order eventually enabled Paul to evade foreclosure on several of his properties.
“The opinion took the complete opposite view. It was as if Anthony Fauci had written it,” Mateer said. “I mean, it was shut down – you can’t do outside foreclose sales – I remember coming back and talking to Mr. (Ryan) Bangert like, what was this?”
Mateer said he also noticed what he described as Paxton’s out-of-character behavior during two phone calls. These conversations were related to the approval of a contract for Brandon Cammack, a special prosecutor.
Cammack was hired as outside counsel to investigate claims made by Paul about the ongoing federal investigation into the real estate investor.
During the first conversation, while Paxton was on a plane, the attorney general told Mateer that he was upset with fellow whistleblower and former deputy attorney general for criminal justice, Mark Penley. Penley would not sign the contract, which blocked Cammack’s pending employment approval.
According to Mateer, it was a brief, “heated” conversation that ended with Paxton requesting he speak with Penley and convince him to sign off on Cammack’s contract. Mateer said he replied that he would back Penley.
During their initial conversation, Mateer testified he made his concerns known to Paxton and asked the attorney general why they were involved with Paul’s ongoing legal troubles amid all the other cases the attorney general’s office had.
Especially when Mateer said the office employees learned more about Paul amid Paxton pressuring attorneys in his office to appear on the real estate investor’s behalf in court proceedings.
“We had learned a lot more about who he (Paul) was, what was being alleged against him. I mean, he was not a good guy and had a lot of concerns about that,” Mateer said.
Mateer said Paxton called him a second time a couple of days later, around 9 p.m., again upset with Penley and David Maxwell, one of the other top officials who was law enforcement's attorney general’s office director – as Maxwell was siding with Penley.
Mateer said this phone call was “unlike any other conversation” with Paxton and claimed that the attorney general sounded as if he had been drinking. He also thought Paxton might have been accompanied by someone else and recorded their discussion.
Throughout this part of Mateer’s testimony, Buzbee objected continually, alleging that the questions Hardin asked were either “leading” Mateer to say what Hardin wanted or that Mateer’s answers were “hearsay.”
Buzbee and Hardin launched into a bit of a back and forth over these objections, which Hardin ended at the request from Patrick for both sides to “move on.”
“I’ve made it this far in life without advice from Mr. Buzbee. I’m going to try to make it the rest of my life,” Hardin said. “I’ll ask my questions, and if he objects, that’s fine.”
Unlike Tuesday, tensions appeared heightened between both legal teams as Buzbee took a relatively combative approach to cross-examining and objecting to Hardin’s line of questioning – Patrick had to intervene several times to settle disputes between the two lawyers.
Buzbee stated that Mateer alongside the seven other whistleblowers, was uninformed when reporting Paxton to federal authorities.
Instead, the defense attorney said Mateer and the rest of the whistleblowers relied on a game of “telephone” or what they thought Drew Wicker, Paxton’s former executive assistant, overheard about the attorney general accepting alleged bribes from Paul.
Mateer responded to Buzbee and said he had “good faith belief” that Paxton was engaged in illicit activity. When asked by Buzbee what Mateer thought Paxton was involved in, he said he thought Paul might have blackmailed the attorney general.
Mateer said he thought this could’ve been true as Paul was helping Paxton continue to visit Laura Olson, a woman with whom Paxton admitted to having an affair but claimed to have ended it in 2018 during a meeting with employees from the attorney general’s office.
Buzbee questioned Mateer as to why he had gone to others, including employees at the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office, but refrained from talking to Paxton before reporting him. To which Mateer insisted he had made his concerns known to the attorney general before going to the authorities.
Buzbee asked Mateer if he had wanted to be the next attorney general and whether that had motivated him to report Paxton. Mateer said anybody who knew him knew he did not want to be in Paxton’s position.
The lead defense attorney did not end here, as he accused Mateer and the seven other officials of wanting to stage a “coup” as they met with members of Texans for Lawsuit Reform – a nonprofit group that monitors statewide litigation activity – and conspiring against Paxton with George P. Bush, the former Texas Land Commissioner and Paxton’s challenger for attorney general.
According to Buzbee, Bush’s law license was reactivated about the same time the whistleblowers took their concerns to federal authorities in the Fall of 2020. Mateer denied ever having interacted with Bush.
James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said the “trench warfare” between the lawyers on both sides showcased the narrative that Paxton’s defense team is trying to sell – that Paxton's political enemies include people in the governor’s office.
Henson said this is a questionable tactic, especially with the possible swing Republic votes in the Senate.
“I have doubts that this is a very good message to send. That kind of narrative may play well with the attorney general's six votes already in the Senate, but that’s quite a tale to spin – particularly the part that incorporates Governor Greg Abbott,” he said.
The second witness was Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the eight whistleblowers.
Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general was the prosecutors' second witness called to the stand.
Bangert said he believed in Paxton's work and the policies he stood for initially. However, this changed as the attorney general asked twice if Bangert could evaluate whether it was possible to overrule a previous decision to withhold law enforcement documents from Paul regarding the FBI raid on his house and business.
Then Bangert’s concerns intensified as Paxton requested he find a way to intervene in ongoing litigation between Paul and the Mitte Foundation, a charity that had invested in Paul’s businesses.
The Mitte Foundation filed a lawsuit against Paul as he refused to provide financial information regarding the organization’s investment. Paxton asked Bangert to file a motion that would pause the lawsuit, but Bangert declined.
Bangert admitted he did assist Paxton by signing off on the COVID-19-related opinion Mateer referenced in his testimony even though he recognized that it was authored to benefit Paul and inconsistent with the office of the attorney general’s “return to normal” policies.
The Senate will hear more from Bangert first thing Thursday morning, who is set to finish testifying and face cross-examination by Buzbee.