The second day of the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas on Wednesday featured the heart of the case against him: how his interventions on behalf of a local real estate investor so disturbed the Republican lawyers who were his top aides that they became whistle-blowers against him.
By keying in on the impact Mr. Paxton’s behavior had on fellow conservatives in his office, the opening testimony confronted head on claims by Mr. Paxton’s defenders that the attempts to remove him from office have been politically motivated.
Mr. Paxton’s former top aide, Jeff Mateer, testified that he first became suspicious in July 2020 when Mr. Paxton wanted to go down to a local courtroom in Austin to make an argument himself in a low-level lawsuit.
“I couldn’t remember a sitting attorney general going into district court to argue anything,” Mr. Mateer said. “I was very concerned why he would want to do that when, again, we have 800 attorneys at the office.”
The concerns felt by Mr. Mateer and other top officials in the office would eventually grow to include a range of unusual legal interventions — all connected to the Austin real estate investor Nate Paul — that led them to speak up against Mr. Paxton in the fall of 2020, and ultimately resulted in the first impeachment trial of a statewide official in more than a century in Texas.
After opening statements on Tuesday, the case against Mr. Paxton began with testimony from Mr. Mateer. He took the stand again on Wednesday.
Mr. Mateer was able both to describe in detail many of the events that lie at the heart of the impeachment case and to undercut claims that it was a plot by moderate Republicans and Democrats to remove an attorney general who has aggressively brought conservative legal challenges on issues like immigration, abortion and transgender rights.
Mr. Mateer, an evangelical Christian lawyer who has been a supporter of the conservative Federalist Society, described himself as staunchly conservative. He left the nonprofit First Liberty Institute, a legal organization focused on defending religious freedom, to work for Mr. Paxton because he believed the attorney general was “a true believer.”
“Did you ultimately change your opinion?” asked Rusty Hardin, a lawyer who has been leading the impeachment case.
“I did,” Mr. Mateer said.
“All right, let’s take you on that road,” Mr. Hardin said, a comment directed at Mr. Mateer but which appeared equally aimed at the state senators, 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, who will decide the case. The votes of 21 senators are needed for a conviction on any of the articles and Mr. Paxton’s removal from office.
Defenders of Mr. Paxton have attempted to sway Republican senators, exerting external political pressure through ads and mailers. Dozens of supporters, in matching “Ken Paxton” campaign shirts or with slogans attacking the “sham” trial, attended the first day of the proceeding on Tuesday. But by Wednesday, the gallery was mostly empty.
About a third of Republicans told pollsters in August that Mr. Paxton had not done anything that warranted his removal from office, versus about 25 percent who said he had, according to a poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Nearly half were still making up their minds. His job approval among Republicans had sunk below 50 percent.
A similar split appeared to be present among the senators, based on their votes on the pretrial motions to dismiss on Tuesday. Six Republicans voted in favor of every attempt to throw out the case. Seven others voted against each one. The rest were mixed, but a two-thirds majority supported the trial, suggesting a desire to hear the evidence.
The trial is focused on 16 articles of impeachment related to the whistle-blowers’ central allegations: that Mr. Paxton had abused his office by using it to benefit Mr. Paul, who had given him a $25,000 campaign contribution and, lawyers for the prosecution said, paid for renovations to one of Mr. Paxton’s houses and helped him engage in an extramarital affair.
Mr. Paul, who was indicted on federal financial fraud charges in June, has denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Paxton, who has been under state indictment for securities fraud since 2015, pleaded not guilty to all the articles of impeachment on Tuesday. He was not present at the trial on Wednesday.
Mr. Mateer said he became alarmed at Mr. Paul’s apparent influence over the office in July 2020 when the attorney general sought to make an argument on a motion in Travis County District Court in a lawsuit involving Mr. Paul’s company, World Class Capital, and the Mitte Foundation, a Central Texas nonprofit.
Mr. Mateer and others confronted Mr. Paxton about what seemed to be his unusual concern for legal matters involving Mr. Paul. “I wanted to have a meeting with the attorney general to discuss why he was involving himself in the affairs of Nate Paul,” he testified on Wednesday.
The attorney general told them he would back off and let others in the office handle the issues, Mr. Mateer said, but instead he became only more involved in helping Mr. Paul.
The next month, Mr. Mateer said, he learned that the attorney general’s office was issuing legal guidance related to the reopening of businesses during the coronavirus pandemic that said outdoor foreclosure auctions should not resume.
Mr. Mateer said it seemed directly contrary to the state’s policy on reopening after pandemic-related business closures. “It was as if Anthony Fauci had written it,” he said, referring to the face of the federal government’s response to Covid-19, a reviled figure among many Republicans. “What was this?” he said. “We were not for shutting things down. Certainly not for shutting down outdoor foreclosure sales.”
Later, he said, he learned who had wanted the guidance, in order to prevent foreclosure sales of his properties: Mr. Paul.
At one point, Mr. Mateer recalled confronting the attorney general over the interventions, including Mr. Paxton’s interest in hiring a young lawyer, Brandon Cammack, to look into the federal criminal investigation of Mr. Paul.
“Ken, why are we involved in this?” Mr. Mateer recalled asking.
He said he later learned that Mr. Paxton had resumed an extramarital affair that had been revealed during his first re-election campaign in 2018, and which Mr. Paxton had promised at the time that he had ended. Prosecutors have said Mr. Paul hired the woman involved in the affair, and also helped Mr. Paxton conceal it by providing an Uber account under an alias that Mr. Paxton used to meet her.
Mr. Paxton’s lawyers on Tuesday vigorously denied that there was any quid-pro-quo and said the woman had been hired to perform legitimate work and was still employed at the job. In cross-examining Mr. Mateer, they suggested that he made assumptions about the attorney general’s motivations without evidence to back them.
But for Mr. Mateer, who resigned from the attorney general’s office after becoming a whistle-blower and returned to the First Liberty Institute, the resumption of the affair helped to explain Mr. Paxton’s relationship with the real estate investor.
“It answered one of the questions that I kept struggling with,” he said. “It answered the question, why is he engaged in all of these activities?”