Defense Rests on Day 8 of Texas AG Ken Paxton's Impeachment Trial

Attorney General Ken Paxton's defense team introduced their first witness in the historic trial.
Defense Rests on Day 8 of Texas AG Ken Paxton's Impeachment Trial
Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton (L) talks with his attorneys before his impeachment trial for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 5, 2023. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)
Jana J. Pruet

The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton resumed Thursday with the introduction of the defense’s first witness.

The defense called on Justin Gordon, chief of the open records division at the Texas Attorney General’s Office (OAG), to take the stand on day eight of the trial.

Mr. Gordon provided testimony about an open records request his division received on behalf of Nate Paul, who has been at the center of the accusation against Mr. Paxton.

Earlier this year, Mr. Paxton was impeached by the House in a vote of 123-21 on 20 articles of impeachment that accuse the Republican of abuse of power and bribery.

The suspended attorney general is facing possible removal from office if he is convicted on 16 of 20 articles of impeachment. Four of the articles were held in abeyance.

On Wednesday afternoon, after failing to successfully call witness Laura Olson, Mr. Paxton’s alleged mistress, the prosecution’s lead attorney, Rusty Hardin, abruptly rested their case.

Defense attorney Tony Buzbee then moved to end the trial on the grounds of insufficient evidence but later withdrew the request without a vote shortly before the trial adjourned for the day.

Ms. Olson was the day’s first witness called by the House, but her testimony was delayed due to the short notice provided by the prosecution. The trial rules require a full 24-hour notice to be provided.

“She is present but has been deemed unavailable to testify,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, adding that both sides had agreed to the decision.

The House then called lawyer Ray Chester of the Mitte Foundation, followed by Mr. Paxton’s former executive assistant, Drew Wicker, and Blake Brickman, former deputy attorney general.

Mr. Brickman was one of the top aides who went to the FBI with accusations against Mr. Paxton. He was fired and later filed a lawsuit against the attorney general for wrongful firing, along with three other former staffers who were fired.

'Egregious' Behavior

OAG Human Resources Director Henry De la Garza testified about the firing of four of the whistleblowers. He told the jury that the former deputies were fired for insubordination and other policy violations. The sixth article of impeachment accuses Mr. Paxton of terminating the employees without good cause.

Mr. De la Garza, who joined the agency in 2008, said the "agency is an outstanding place to work."

In his testimony, he said he supported the decision to fire Mr. Brickman, who had displayed "egregious" behavior, which was "pretty rare in our agency."

"Based on the facts as presented to me and the applicable law, especially about political patronage, yes, there didn't seem to be a reasonable expectation that he could continue working with or for Brent Webster or continue serving as a high-level policymaker for the attorney general," Mr. De la Garza said.

The witness also testified that Mr. Webster—not Mr. Paxton—was responsible for firing the four whistleblowers who did not resign after going to the FBI.

Under Texas law, employees can be terminated at will and without cause.

"But at the attorney general's office, we ensure that there are good reasons and that it's fair," Mr. De la Garza testified.

He denied that any of the former staffers were fired in retaliation.

Not a 'RINO'

Prior to Mr. De la Garza's testimony, the defense called Associate Deputy Attorney General Austin Kinghorn to the witness stand. Mr. Kinghorn testified that he had never witnessed any wrongdoing at the OAG.

He told the jury of senators that he had received a promotion after Mr. Vassar was fired.

"I accepted a promotion in this agency at a very critical time," Mr. Kinghorn said.

"And I assured myself, and I assured my wife if there [was] ever anything that I saw that [was] illegal or unethical, I would step away. I'm still here. I'm proud of the work we do. I'm proud to serve General Paxton. I'm proud to be part of this agency."

 Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton (center) stands between his attorneys Tony Buzbee (front) and Dan Cogdell (rear) as the articles of his impeachment are read during  his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Sept. 5, 2023. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)
Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton (center) stands between his attorneys Tony Buzbee (front) and Dan Cogdell (rear) as the articles of his impeachment are read during  his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Sept. 5, 2023. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Last week, Mr. Vassar testified that he and the other former staffers had no evidence when they took their allegations against Mr. Paxton to the FBI. House attorney Rusty Hardin later walked the witness through a clarification that while they had no physical evidence to offer, they had provided their experiences as evidence.

Defense lawyer Chris Hilton asked Mr. Kinghorn if he was a "RINO," meaning "Republican in Name Only."

"I've been called a lot of four-letter words, and that's not one of them," Mr. Kinghorn responded.

Mr. Kinghorn told the jury that he was not involved in the hiring of outside Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, but he did follow up with him regarding an inquiry about processing the attorney's invoices that totaled $14,000.

Mr. Cammack testified earlier this week that he was never paid for the work he conducted on an investigation regarding the FBI's raid of Mr. Paul's home and business.

Mr. Kinghorn said he informed Mr. Cammack that his invoices could not be paid until he had met the conditions of his contract. He said he never heard from Mr. Cammack again after that inquiry.

Prosecutor Erin Epley asked Mr. Kinghorn whether he had been pressured to share with the defense information about his conversations with her.

"Did you receive pressure from Chris Hilton or Jed Stone to provide you information in regards to our conversation?" Ms. Epley asked.

"Not at all," he responded.

Ms. Epley also focused on a remark Mr. Kinghorn had made about the OAG being a law firm.

"What's the most important part of being a lawyer for the state of Texas?" Ms. Epley asked.

"I would say the most important part of my job as a public servant is to faithfully serve my principal and the people of Texas," Mr. Kinghorn said.

The lawyer then asked Mr. Kinghorn who he believed his client was.

"The attorney general," he said.

"Would you believe me if I told you that when you work for the office of the attorney general, you are under his authority and work for him," Ms. Epley said. "The client is and only ever is the state of Texas."

The defense objected, citing the comment as argumentative.

Handling of Nate Paul's Open Records Request

The first witness of the day, Mr. Gordon, provided testimony regarding the open records request from the Texas State Securities Board in 2019 on behalf of Nate Paul and a follow-up request in 2020.

Two of the articles of impeachment accuse Mr. Paxton of misusing his office to help Mr. Paul regarding an open records request.

Mr. Paul's home and business, World Class Holdings, were raided by the FBI in 2019. The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) assisted in the raid.

Mr. Gordon said he met with Mr. Paxton to discuss whether or not to release the documents related to the search. He said that while it was the first time Mr. Paxton had gotten involved in a DPS records request,  he did not feel pressured by the attorney general to release the records.

Mr. Gordan said there were "violations" and "irregularities" pertaining to the FBI's handling of multiple requests from Mr. Paul's lawyer.

He said the FBI missed deadlines and heavily redacted documents in one of its responses to the requests.

"The new documents were substantially different than the documents that had been originally submitted," Mr. Gordon said.

Deputy First Assistant Attorney General Grant Dorfman was the defense's final witness before resting its case late Thursday afternoon. Closing arguments are set to begin at 9 a.m. on Friday.

Jana is an award-winning investigative journalist. She covers news in Texas with a focus on politics, energy, and crime. Jana has reported for many media outlets over the years, including Reuters, The Dallas Morning News, and TheBlaze, among others. She has a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University. Send your story ideas to: [email protected]