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Ken Paxton impeachment trial recap: Tense - and sometimes tearful - moments highlighted Day 3

Suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment trial resumes in Austin on Thursday.

AUSTIN, Texas — 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.

With plenty to cover, let's dive into the highlights from Day 3:

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.

First tears shed at trial 

While there have been no shortage of tense exchanges in the opening days of the trial, we saw our first moment of apparent emotion from the third witness who took the stand.

Ryan Vassar, the former deputy attorney general for legal counsel under Paxton, took the stand and was asked what he thought of Paxton calling him and the other whistleblowers "rogue employees."

His reaction included tears.

"It was hurtful," Vassar said. "I've... sorry. I 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. The statement of being 'rogue' is contrary to the years that I dedicated my life to the state."

Vassar then wiped the tears from his eyes, and attorney Rusty Hardin continued his questioning.

Credit: KVUE
Ryan Vassar at Ken Paxton's impeachment trial in 2023.

Tense exchange over reporting Paxton to FBI kicks off afternoon testimony 

The first intense moment of questioning Thursday came shortly after lunch, when Paxton lawyer Anthony Osso pressed witness Ryan Bangert over his involvement in reporting Paxton to the FBI in 2020.

Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general under Paxton, was one of several top staffers who went to the FBI with allegations about Paxton.

Osso questioned Bangert about the initial memo drafts they wrote with allegations about Paxton. Osso framed the FBI reporting as going behind Paxton's back. 

Bangert said it wasn't behind Paxton's back. But Osso pressed on.

"Mr. Bangert, I'm asking you 'yes' or 'no' questions," Osso told Bangert. "Did you tell Ken Paxton you were going to the FBI? Yes, or no?"

"I can't answer that question with a yes or no," Bangert said, before Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick instructed him to answer the question. 

"We provided him with ample opportunity," Bangert said.

"That's not what I asked you," Osso said. "Did you tell Ken Paxton you were going to the FBI? Yes or no?"

"We gave him ample opportunity," Bangert said.

"That's not what I asked you," Osso said. "Objection -- non-responsive, your honor. I ask that he answer the question beforehand."

Patrick told Bangert to answer the question.

"On Sept. 30 [2020], we did not," Bangert said, but Osso interrupted him, again telling him to answer yes or no.

At this point, Rusty Hardin, the attorney prosecuting Paxton, stepped in.

"Your honor," Hardin said to Patrick. "He answered the question, but because he was talking on top of him, he didn't hear it. He said, 'On September 30th, we did not.' He starts interrupting him halfway before and the court reporter probably had trouble hearing, 'We did not.' So I just ask him to let him finish what he's saying and not talk on top of him. If for no other person than the court reporter."

Osso again asked Bangert if he told Paxton he was going to the FBI.

"I did not tell Ken Paxton before I went to the FBI," Bangert said. 

Osso then pointed to a text message Bangert sent to his colleagues who were making the complaint against Paxton. They had drafted a memo about their complaint. Bangert told them, "Sounds like we need to beef up the specific allegations."

Bangert explained to Osso that he felt the staffers needed to include additional allegations to "substantiate what had happened."

Watch the full exchange:

Ex-staffer takes cross-examination questioning

Paxton lawyer Anthony Osso took up the questioning on cross-examination, asking former top Paxton staffer Ryan Bangert about a host of interactions and dealings he had with Paxton.

Much of what Osso asked Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general, related to what Bangert had already testified, in particular Bangert's recollection of Paxton's dealings with Nate Paul.

Watch a portion of the cross-examination here:

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.

Bangert said when he saw that subpoenas had been issued in the special counsel's investigation that were "outside the normal process of our office" he realized "there was nothing more I could do."

Credit: WFAA
Ryan Bangert.

Bangert said he resigned in November 2020. By that time, he said, his duties in the attorney general's office had been taken away from him.

Early tension on Day 3

Rusty Hardin, the attorney for the House impeachment managers prosecuting Paxton, opened Day 3 with more questioning of Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general under Paxton.

Bangert on Wednesday testified that Paxton had pushed for the release of a sealed affidavit related to Nate Paul. His testimony Thursday continued along the narrative that the attorney general's office was increasingly being used to address and respond to legal matters concerning Paul.

And like we saw Wednesday, there was some rising tension between the two high-powered legal teams. As Hardin questioned Bangert, Anthony Osso, an attorney on Paxton's legal team, repeatedly objected to hearsay statements, meaning statements that Bangert said that Paxton's team believed should not be included in testimony.

Hardin grew increasingly agitated, at one point staring at Osso in a moment of apparent frustration. 

WFAA reporter Chris Sadeghi shared that moment here:

Credit: Texas Tribune.
Anthony Osso during Wednesday's trial.

Day 2 Highlights

Ex-deputy says Paxton pushed for sealed documents to be released

Ryan Bangert, the former deputy first assistant attorney general under Paxton, took the stand Wednesday afternoon and testified that Paxton "was certainly applying pressure to look for any way possible to disclose" a sealed federal affidavit in a case involving Nate Paul, the Austin real estate developer at the center of bribery accusations against Paxton.

Bangert testified that Paxton in late 2019 or early 2020 had asked him to review an open records request regarding the document. Bangert told Paxton that the document could not be released because it could compromise the investigation.

Paxton pushed back, Bangert said, telling him that he didn't think it was fair that a defendant wouldn't have access to a probable cause affidavit against them.

"The attorney general shared with me his view that he had been wronged by law enforcement and was uninterested in having other Texans wronged by law enforcement," Bangert said. "He clearly very skeptical by law enforcement."

Buzbee accuses ex-Paxton top staffer of organizing coup

Ken Paxton lawyer Tony Buzbee was in attack mode while questioning witness Jeff Mateer, Paxton's former top staffer, and no moment highlighted that more than his questioning shortly before 3:30 p.m.

Buzbee was pressing Mateer on whether he was involved in removing Paxton's name from the Office of Attorney General's official letterhead around the time Mateer began having concerns about Paxton's involvement with Nate Paul, the Austin real estate developer at the center of bribery accusations against Paxton.

Mateer said he didn't remove Paxton's name, though he may have signed a letter that didn't have Paxton's name on the letterhead.

"You were involved in staging a coup, weren't you?" Buzbee told Mateer. 

"Absolutely not," Mateer responded.

"That's what you were up to," Buzbee said. "That's why you went to the governor's office. You were staging a coup, weren't you?"

"Absolutely not," Mateer said.

Buzbee comes out on the attack

Ken Paxton's attorney, Tony Buzbee, got his first chance at cross-examination shortly before noon Wednesday. And he immediately went on the attack, questioning Jeff Mateer, Paxton's former top assistant, about his motives and reasoning for raising concerns about Paxton's involvement with Nate Paul.

Mateer had testified most of Tuesday afternoon and again Wednesday morning about how and why he had concerns in 2020 over Paxton's alleged involvement with Paul, the Austin real estate developer at the center of the bribery accusations against Paxton. 

Mateer testified that he ultimately decided to go to the FBI, despite his efforts to protect Paxton as his role of first assistant attorney general.

Buzbee immediately went at that angle in his initial questioning of Mateer.

"In order to protect Ken Paxton, you called the FBI? That's how you protected your friend?" Buzbee said. "Instead of asking him some questions, you instead went to the FBI?"

Ex-staffer details Paxton's alleged affair confession

Jeff Mateer, the former first assistant attorney general under Paxton who resumed his testimony Wednesday, detailed a meeting Paxton and his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, allegedly had with top staffers about Ken Paxton's affair.

Mateer said Paxton revealed that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. He asked his staffers, both from the Office of Attorney General and his campaign, for forgiveness. 

Mateer said Paxton "repented" and that his staff "moved on with the expectation that he had made a mistake and we were moving on from it."

Mateer said he later learned that the woman Paxton was having an affair with had been hired by Nate Paul. Why was this important to Mateer?

"Because it answered the question, why was he engaging in all these activities on behalf of Mr. Paul?" Mateer said. "It seemed to me he was under undue influence. At times I thought, is he being blackmailed? This was so unlike what I experienced with him for four years. And this was part of it."

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