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Day 4 recap: What we learned in Ken Paxton's impeachment trial Friday

The fourth day of the trial against Paxton, who faces allegations of bribery among other misconduct, was set to begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

AUSTIN, Texas — Week 1 of the Ken Paxton impeachment trial is in the book.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is presiding over the trial, decided to end court early Friday afternoon, around 4:30 p.m., giving the 30 Senators who will decide Paxton's political fate the weekend off.

Testimony is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Monday.

Paxton, who faces numerous allegations including bribery, was again not present for the trial Friday. Two of his former top staffers, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar, were, and they were the two witnesses on the stand Friday.

Here are the highlights from Friday:

Former top law enforcement officer for AG: Paul allegations were "ludicrous" 

David Maxwell, the former top law enforcement officer in the attorney general's office under Paxton, testified Friday that allegations made by Nate Paul -- ones that Paxton pushed to investigate -- were "ludicrous" and "without merit."

Furthermore, Maxwell said his assessment of Paul was that he was a "criminal and we should not be associated with him."

Paul, an Austin real estate developer, is at the center of the bribery accusations against Paxton.

Paxton's former top staffers have testified that Paxton pushed them to help Paul and investigate allegations he had against authorities who were investigating him.

When Paxton and his staff, including Maxwell, met with Paul, the real estate developer described a "conspiracy" he had against law enforcement officials behind the FBI search of his home, Maxwell said.

Before the meeting, Maxwell already had his concerns about Paxton's office getting involved with him. 

When Paul's allegations against authorities was brought to Maxwell, he found they were "absolutely ludicrous, without merit, no probable cause, not even a reason to believe that a crime had been committed," Maxwell said in court Friday.

"I did not want to meet with Nate Paul and expressed my concerns about that to Jeff Mateer (former first assistant attorney general under Paxton)," Maxwell said. "He said he was getting a lot of pressure from General Paxton to do this."

Maxwell said he didn't think the attorney general's office should get involved with Paul because it could be considered obstruction of justice or interfering with an investigation, as Paul was under investigation by federal authorities.

Maxwell said he relayed these concerns to Paxton.

"I told him that Nate Paul was a criminal, he was running a Ponzi scheme that would rival Billy Sol Estes, and that if he didn't get away from this individual and stop what he was doing, he was going to get himself indicted," Maxwell said. 

Maxwell said after two more meetings with Paul, Paxton ultimately sided with Paul.

"[The investigation on behalf of Paul] was improper because Nate Paul was a criminal and General Paxton was using the office to his benefit," Maxwell said. "I know that [Paxton] was angry with me because I was not buying into the big conspiracy theory that Nate Paul was having him believe."

Staffer explains what he went to FBI with

A key focus for Paxton's attorneys Thursday was honing in on what his former top staffers did - or did not have - when they went to the FBI about Paxton in 2020.

Mitch Little, a Paxton lawyer, harped on the comments of Ryan Vassar, Paxton's deputy attorney general of legal counsel, in which Vassar said the top staffers had a "good faith belief" that Paxton was engaging in criminal activity in his dealings with Nate Paul. Little questioned whether that "good faith belief" equated to evidence.

"That was the point of the good faith belief," Vassar said Thursday. "We had no evidence that we could point to, but we had reasonable conclusions that we could draw."

On Friday, Rusty Hardin, the attorney prosecuting Paxton, attempted to have Vassar clarify why he and others went to the FBI.

"My opinion was that our experiences were evidence, but we didn't conduct our own investigation to provide documentary evidence," Vassar told Hardin.

Vassar said he and the other staffers went to the FBI with what they knew in the hopes the FBI would conduct an investigation.

"We were witnesses," Vassar said. "I believe that I was a witness to criminal activity that had occurred."

AG office had reporter 'blacklist,' witness says

Ryan Vassar, the former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, testified about a media "blacklist" the Office of Attorney General had under Paxton.

"It's my understanding at the office that there was a list of certain reporters that were handled differently than other reporters," Vassar testified.

The purported "blacklist" was brought up when Paxton attorney Mitch Little was reviewing text messages sent between Vassar and other top staffers in 2020, when the staffers began to resign or get fired after raising concerns about Paxton.

Lauren McGaughy, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, was referenced in the texts when someone in the group suggested she was on the "blacklist." McGaughy has reported extensively on the turmoil and turnover within the Office of Attorney General.

Texts between Paxton staffers under scrutiny

Mitch Little, the Paxton attorney handling the questioning of witness Ryan Vassar, began his cross-examination Friday morning by scrutinizing the text messages sent between Vassar and his fellow colleagues who raised concerns about Paxton in 2020.

Little pressed Vassar, Paxton's former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about the joking nature of the texts between him and other whistleblowers.

Vassar on Thursday had testified that it was hurtful to hear Paxton call him and others "rogue employees." Little on Friday countered Vassar's feelings with the joking texts Vassar and others sent about junior employees in the attorney general's office.

Vassar said he wasn't proud of the texts, but he said they were made among friends in a joking manner. Among the texts was an Amazon link to a children's coloring book; Vassar had joked that newer lawyers in the attorney general's office might need them.

About 30 minutes into the testimony, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer over the trial, stepped in and sent court to a 30-minute break. The reason was unclear, though the break was not part of the trial's normal cadence of breaks. Outside of lunch, court has typically taken breaks of 10-20 minutes, and they've gone at least an hour to an hour and a half of testimony between breaks.

Thursday highlights

Thursday brought more of what we saw Wednesday in the impeachment trial of Ken Paxton: Moments of tense questioning, verbal jabs back and forth between the legal teams and plenty of key testimony from witnesses who worked closely with Paxton, before they were fired.

Notably, two of Paxton's top former staffers explained their reasoning for going to the FBI over his dealings with Nate Paul, the Austin real estate developer at the center of the bribery accusations against Paxton.

Ex-staffer: 'Criminal activity had occurred' to benefit Nate Paul 

Ryan Vassar, the former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, described in his testimony the "tipping point" that led him and a handful of other top Paxton staffers to report him to the FBI in September 2020.

"It became clear at that point that the degree and extent to which the attorney general was using the office [to benefit Nate Paul]... criminal activity had occurred," said Vassar. 

Vassar was referring to Brandon Cammack, a lawyer hired as special counsel, issuing bank subpoenas in an investigation into allegations made by Paul.

Vassar said him and his fellow top staffers decided to go to the FBI when "the concern was it would only get worse, that [Paxton's] use of the office would only be more extreme and the potential for us to be labeled as co-conspirators."

Vassar testified that he was fired by the attorney general's office on Nov. 17, 2020. The new first assistant attorney general, Brent Webster, told Vassar that he was being let go for disclosing confidential information, Vassar said.

When Vassar asked what information, Webster didn't say.

Ex-Paxton staffer: AG's office was hijacked to serve Nate Paul 

Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general under Paxton, testified Thursday that the authority of the attorney general's office was "hijacked" in 2020 to serve the interests of Nate Paul.

"I was deeply concerned that the name and authority and power [of the attorney general's office] had been, in my view, hijacked to serve the interests of an individual against the broader interests of the public," Bangert said. "It was unconscionable in my view. you were using criminal process had been harnessed to pursue the business enemies of an individual, Nate Paul, who also was under investigation by law enforcement."

Bangert was referring to the special counsel that was hired to investigate the Mitte Foundation, which Paul was having a dispute with.

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