Ken Paxton’s top deputy — the first impeachment witness — describes a boss out of control
At the end of September 2020, it finally made sense to Jeff Mateer why his boss, Attorney General Ken Paxton, was devoting so much of the agency’s attention to Paxton’s friend, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.
In Wednesday testimony that took up most of the second day of Paxton’s impeachment trial, Mateer said that for months he could not figure out why Paxton had brushed off repeated warnings that assisting Paul in his business disputes was an improper use of state resources.
And then, as the office was erupting in crisis when senior deputies learned that Paxton had quietly hired an outside lawyer to conduct an investigation on Paul’s behalf, Mateer said he learned something else. Paul had hired the woman with whom Paxton was having an extramarital affair, allowing her to move to Austin, where the attorney general could more easily visit her.
“It answered the question, why is he engaging in all these activities … on behalf of Mr. Paul?” Mateer testified. “It seemed to be he was under undue influence. At times, I wondered: Is he being blackmailed?”
In more than six hours of testimony, Mateer — the first witness called by the House impeachment managers — detailed his growing concerns through the summer and fall of 2020 about Paxton’s relationship with Paul, culminating in Mateer’s decision to join other senior advisers in reporting the attorney general’s behavior to the FBI on Sept. 30.
“I concluded that Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good faith belief that it was illegal,” Mateer testified.
Paxton’s lawyer attempted to cast Mateer as a rogue employee and disloyal friend of Paxton, arguing that the former first assistant jumped to conclusions about impropriety based on incomplete and inaccurate information. Attorney Tony Buzbee also accused Mateer of leading an attempted coup against Paxton.
But as Paxton has cast the impeachment as a persecution led by Democrats and liberal Republicans, Mateer presented a problem. He is an evangelical Christian and champion of religious liberty whose hiring by Paxton was praised by conservatives. And unlike four other senior deputies who filed a whistleblower lawsuit and later negotiated a proposed $3.3 million settlement — prompting Paxton’s camp to suggest they had a financial motivation for their allegations — Mateer simply quit within days of meeting with FBI agents in 2020.
Paxton on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to 16 articles of impeachment. The bulk of the House’s case centers on allegations that Paxton misused the power of the attorney general’s office to harass Paul’s perceived enemies, including business rivals, judges and law enforcement officials.
As expected, the attorney general’s affair with Laura Olson, the former Senate aide Buzbee identified by name during the trial, took center stage in the trial.
Mateer exhibited a pained expression when asked about the relationship, as Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, sat about 30 feet away — present for the trial but barred from deliberating or voting by Senate rules. Prodded by impeachment lawyer Rusty Hardin, Mateer said the affair was the missing piece that explained the bizarre behavior Paxton had exhibited in asking his senior deputies to help Paul.
Mateer added that he was present for a 2018 meeting in which Paxton, joined by his wife, admitted to the extramarital affair but said it was over and that he had recommitted to his marriage.
“Mr. Paxton apologized and, using Christian terminology, I would say he repented,” Mateer said. “I assumed it was over because that’s what he said.”
Sen. Paxton, at her desk, took notes as Mateer spoke. She has maintained a bright disposition during the trial, chatting with colleagues during breaks and waving to supporters in the gallery.
Mateer’s appearance was widely anticipated due to his position as Paxton’s most senior deputy and because he has said little publicly in the nearly three years since he resigned his post in October 2020.
Yet it was initially unclear if Mateer’s testimony would live up to its top billing when it began late Tuesday afternoon. Hardin, a genteel lawyer for the House managers, meandered while asking Mateer about his background, leaving senators to wonder when, if ever, he would get to the point.
Wednesday offered a reset. Hardin, normally loquacious, buckled down. He led Mateer through the summer of 2020, asking him to explain his growing discomfort with Paxton’s actions.
Mateer said he first knew little about Paul but was concerned when Paxton wished to personally argue a court motion in a case involving a charity that had sued two of Paul’s businesses. He said his consternation grew when Paxton directed the office to issue a legal opinion limiting foreclosure sales during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were at the forefront of having Texas reopen and to stop COVID restrictions. … We were the ones pushing to have Texas open up,” Mateer said. “The opinion took the complete opposite view.”
Impeachment managers allege that Paul used the opinion to delay the foreclosure sale of several properties.
Mateer also said Paxton repeatedly pressured him to approve the hiring of an outside lawyer to investigate claims made by Paul. The former top deputy recalled that Paxton called him late on Sept. 28 and was “very upset” with Mateer’s refusal to support the hiring, adding that Paxton’s demeanor led him to believe he had been drinking.
Mateer said the next day, he and other senior officials realized that the outside lawyer, Brandon Cammack, had in fact started working for the office weeks earlier, without their knowledge. They also discovered Cammack had issued subpoenas to banks that had lent money to Paul’s businesses.
“We considered it sort of a crisis moment,” Mateer said. “Everything regarding Mr. Paul was coming to a head.”
Another senior official then rushed to court and persuaded the judge to throw out the subpoenas, arguing Cammack had no power to issue them.
Buzbee attempts to discredit Mateer
For the cross-examination, Buzbee’s rapid-fire, quick-pivot questioning of Mateer was in stark contrast to Hardin’s chronological questioning that bordered on tedious. Instead of offering a counter-narrative to the House’s version of events, Buzbee sought to discredit Mateer and land punches where he could.
He homed in on a theme of Mateer as a misguided employee and friend who should have taken his concerns directly to Paxton instead of going behind his back to report him to law enforcement. He challenged Mateer’s contention that he and other senior deputies were attempting to protect the attorney general from himself.
“In order to protect Ken Paxton, what you did was you then called the FBI?” Buzbee asked. “That’s how you protected your friend?”
“That’s not correct, sir,” Mateer replied.
Buzbee suggested that if Mateer had asked Paxton about Cammack, he would have learned that the attorney general had properly hired him and that the subpoenas were a legitimate inquiry into a second Paul complaint that Mateer did not know about.
“So you went to the FBI thinking that this kid, as you called [Cammack], should not be subpoenaing banks?” Buzbee asked. “But you now know that if he was charged … to investigate bid rigging, then that might be something that he might subpoena?”
“I actually don’t know that,” Mateer replied.
What Buzbee did not mention, however, was that Paul’s second complaint alleged that he was the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy by business rivals, a court-appointed lawyer and a federal judge to steal his properties. No evidence has emerged, in the impeachment trial or any other forum, supporting the claim, which Paul code named “Operation Tarrytown.”
And House exhibits reveal that Paul and his lawyer had directed Cammack on how to conduct the probe, including by identifying investigative targets and writing the subpoenas.
As the cross-examination entered its third hour, Buzbee tried to elicit damaging admissions from Mateer, but the seasoned lawyer was unfazed. At one point, Buzbee asked at what hourly rate would an outside counsel be too expensive for the attorney general’s office.
“What’s your rate?” Mateer quipped.
At another, Buzbee returned to the argument that Mateer was insubordinate in joining other senior advisers in reporting Paxton to law enforcement.
“You were involved in a coup, weren’t you?” Buzbee asked.
“Absolutely not,” Mateer said.
Paxton a no-show, again, for trial
Paxton was again absent for Wednesday’s impeachment proceedings.
The suspended attorney general was present Tuesday morning while Buzbee entered not guilty pleas on his behalf, but he did not return after the lunch break as lawyers for the House impeachment managers called their first witness.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is the presiding officer over the impeachment trial, agreed with Paxton’s attorneys Tuesday after they argued that trial rules did not require Paxton’s presence beyond entering a plea.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/06/ken-paxton-impeachment-trial-mateer/.
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