The Exquisite Torments of Ken Paxton
Why is everybody so mean to the Texas Attorney General?
By Michael King,
3:50PM, Mon. Sep. 18, 2023
Blame it all on Sleepy Joe Biden.
That was the outlandish claim of Ken Paxton, newly restored Texas Attorney General, following his acquittal Saturday on all 16 articles of impeachment presented to the Senate by the House (four more, concerning his still-pending indictments for felony securities fraud, were dismissed without consideration). In a statement reflecting both his own astonishing grandiosity and the bottomless credulity of the current base of the Republican Party, Paxton described his impeachment as a collaboration between the Biden administration and the “liberal” House Speaker Dade Phelan (a Republican) and his “kangaroo court.”
In Paxton’s vainglorious hallucination, President Joe Biden (otherwise considered hopelessly senile and incompetent) had the bandwidth left over from his many national and international obligations to conspire against the beleaguered Texas A.G. and in concert with the sinister dregs of the two Bush administrations, led by … Texas House Speaker Phelan.
As my dear centenarian father-in-law likes to ask about witless comedians: “Who writes his material?”
Also loudly apparent in the aftermath of the acquittal is the previously simmering warfare between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Phelan. Patrick, dropping entirely his pose of neutrality adopted for purposes of presiding over Paxton’s Senate trial, aggressively denounced Phelan and the “flawed” House impeachment process. Phelan fired back angrily, saying Patrick had concluded the Senate proceedings by “confessing his bias.”
Patrick’s explosion was only the final indication that the fix was in to exonerate Paxton before his trial even began, when Patrick accepted another $3 million from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a vehicle for far-right West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and the Farris Wilks family. The campaign donation was certainly not lost on Republican senators who can find their tenures suddenly precarious under the gavel (and funding) of Patrick.
What Just Happened?
But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s review the last few days of the impeachment trial itself, which in retrospect seems to have been largely a charade grudgingly consented to by Patrick and almost all Senate Republicans, but with no real intention of seriously considering either the evidence or the arguments.
On Saturday morning, the votes were not identical, including some votes to acquit on a few articles by several of the 12 Democratic Senators. But only two Republicans – Robert Nichols of Jacksonville (East Texas) and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills (outside Fort Worth) – joined them in voting for conviction on 13 of the 16 articles. (Nichols and Hancock may hope that the backlash will have subsided by their 2026 reelection campaigns – if only.) The 16 articles of impeachment against Paxton charged him with various combinations of bribery, abuse of office, and obstruction of justice. Four additional articles addressed Paxton’s long-pending indictments for felony securities fraud, but had been suspended from consideration in the trial – the Senate summarily dismissed those out of hand.
It would have taken a two-thirds vote (21 of 31 senators) on any count for a conviction. Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, Paxton’s wife, did not deliberate with her colleagues or vote, but she attended the trial and was counted for the purpose of determining two-thirds. Judging from comments following the vote, that additional margin might have had an effect on the final outcome. Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, confirmed to the Texas Tribune that some Republicans – not willing to buy intense political trouble for only uncertain moral return – changed their votes from conviction to acquittal when they realized the former total would not reach two-thirds.
Unlike in the House, which voted 123-23 to impeach, the math in the Senate favored Paxton from the beginning. When the trial began, votes were taken whether to “consider” each of the 16 articles. Six Republican senators voted no on all 16 articles, joined by others on individual charges. That suggested Paxton’s defense attorneys needed only five more votes for acquittal, and they were already nearly there.
The trial itself (limited in time by agreement of prosecution and defense) lasted eight days; Day 9 (Friday) was comprised of closing arguments. During Week One the prosecutors representing the House Managers, relying heavily on the testimony of the “whistleblowers” (senior OAG staff who reported him to the FBI), laid out a pattern of alleged Paxton actions which reflected abuse of the A.G.’s authority in service to his friend and supporter, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The first week’s final witness was former chief law enforcement officer to the OAG, David Maxwell, who said he tried to convince Paxton to steer clear of Paul – a con man, in his estimation – but to no avail. It was a scenario repeated several times, over a period of months, by several of Paxton’s senior staffers, yet defense attorneys repeatedly demanded to know why they hadn’t asked their boss to explain himself before reporting him to law enforcement.
Although they objected to prosecutors’ questions and their witnesses’ testimony often and obstreperously – encouraged by Patrick’s reflexive willingness to sustain – Paxton’s defense attorneys made few dents in the wall of incriminating evidence against Paxton. Their sharpest blows came against whistleblower Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, under aggressive questioning by defense attorney Mitch Little. Little demanded to know if the whistleblowers had brought any “evidence” against Paxton to their initial discussion with the FBI. A flustered Vassar said they had not, although one would expect any lawyer – let alone a deputy attorney general – to know that in that instance, the whistleblowers’ own direct testimony of Paxton’s actions to investigators was all the evidence required at that time.
The prosecuting attorneys, led by Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, effectively patched up Vassar’s oversight in subsequent testimony, but it hardly mattered with the Paxton faithful. Instantly all over the web appeared Little’s withering accusation and Vassar’s apparent admission: “No Evidence.”
In summary, the whistleblowers testified that they had a “good faith belief” that their boss was committing crimes. Former First Assistant Deputy A.G. Jeff Mateer testified that in going to the FBI, the men – all longtime hard-line conservatives but also extremely disillusioned Patrick loyalists – presumed they were signing their professional “death warrant.” He and Maxwell would indeed end up among the group who were fired or “constructively dismissed” by Mateer’s successor, Brent Webster.
Webster was one of only four (yes, four) witnesses presented by the defense on the trial’s final day (prior to closing arguments). All four had been appointed or promoted by Paxton to replace departed whistleblowers, and all four testified that as far as they knew, Attorney General Ken Paxton had never done anything wrong. The feeble defense presentation, an implicit insult to the prosecution, was another indication that the final outcome had been predetermined.
The Special Prosecutor
Overall, Week Two of the trial had more lowlights than highlights, but it did feature embarrassment, mortification, and frustrated suspense. The embarrassment mostly belonged to a junior attorney recruited to play Spy vs. Spy by Paxton and his buddy, Austin investor Paul; the mortification was endured by OAG staff members who had been expected by Paxton to cover for his off-again, on-again love affair; and the frustrated suspense was suffered by the press corps when they learned that Paxton’s former (still?) paramour would not testify after all.
Before those details, note also that late in Week One, testimony reflected that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office got itself dragged into the case sideways, apparently out of a misplaced desire to maintain good bureaucratic relations with Paxton’s OAG. Their efforts at diplomatic, arms-length assistance did them no good – instead, Paxton and his eventual replacement officials (and his impeachment defense attorneys) returned the favors by attempting to lay the blame for all this meshugaas at the doorstep of former Travis County D.A. Margaret Moore.
Central to the D.A.’s entanglement was Paxton’s embarrassment of a “special prosecutor.”
If any currently strike-idled Hollywood screenwriters might be looking for potential post-settlement pitches, they could do worse than a legal-eagle remake of The Patsy, based on the story of one Brandon Cammack, the Houston junior attorney hired by Paxton to “investigate” Nate Paul’s enemies. (If you squint, Cammack even looks a bit like Jerry Lewis, the bellboy/patsy, circa 1964.)
However, in the movie Lewis (inevitably) emerges victorious. Cammack was not only kicked to the curb when Paxton and Paul had no further use for him, they stiffed him on the bill for his time as a “special prosecutor.” That’s the pretend title they anointed him, although when he asked the A.G. to provide credentials, or letterhead, or even an official email address, Paxton’s standard response was, “I’m working on it.”
Cammack was so wide-eyed and eager to commute from Houston to work for the A.G. that he didn’t blink when Paxton told him his own senior staff had refused to pursue Nate Paul’s “Operation Deep Sea” project: that is, effectively suborning the authority of the OAG to investigate Paul’s enemies in business and law enforcement. Just like a grown-up prosecutor (although lacking any prosecutorial experience), Cammack began issuing numerous “grand jury subpoenas” at the direction of Paul’s personal attorney, Michael Wynne – to law enforcement, to business competitors, to federal officials, to banks, even to Microsoft (concerning emails), which responded (here translated from bureaucratic dialect), “Who the hell are you?”
Cammack had no idea even how to draft a grand jury subpoena. Last Friday, former D.A. Moore testified that to this day she couldn’t “pick Cammack out of a lineup,” but she had politely bounced back Paxton’s initial request to investigate Paul’s conspiracy allegations to the OAG’s law enforcement chief (Maxwell), presuming it would be “dead on arrival.” Instead, her “referral” provided a barely legalized wedge for Paxton to deputize Cammack. And in an excess of collegiality, First Assistant D.A. Mindy Montford asked her staff to assist the greenhorn Cammack in preparing the forms of subpoenas. A long time later – amidst the reverberations of the whistleblower lawsuit – Paxton ordered up a whitewashing OAG report that blamed Cammack’s prosecutorial presumptions on the Travis County D.A.
Presumably, Moore and Montford have since come to regret their brief but storm-tossed swims in “Operation Deep Sea.” Hopefully, they have also pondered the bitter lesson that there is such a thing as too much professional courtesy.
Cammack testified he was persuaded by Paul’s crackpot “metadata” theory that the federal warrant for a search of his home, business, and properties had been mysteriously “altered” and expanded in range by the agents carrying it out – and that the federal magistrate, the FBI, the DPS, the state Securities Board, the banks, competing real estate investors … etc., etc. were all conspiring together to bankrupt Paul and harass him into prison. (He’s since been indicted on eight felony counts of bank fraud.)
After Cammack questioned the bereaved widower of a federal court clerk (because Paul hallucinated she had died under mysterious circumstances), federal marshals showed up at Cammack’s Houston office. In a panic, he called Paxton for advice. “Don’t talk to them without an attorney,” was the A.G.’s helpful reply. Cammack began to wake up and smell the KoolAid, and started backing off from any further “investigation.”
Cammack finally received “cease and desist” letters from the OAG senior staff when they realized Paxton, in service to Paul, had gone completely off the rails. They soon resigned or were fired (for “insubordination”) by Paxton’s new first assistant, Brent Webster. Meanwhile, Paxton and Webster summoned Cammack to an Austin Starbucks and summarily ended his brief career as a not very special prosecutor. Webster told Cammack he would have to “eat” his $14,000 fee for billable hours spent in the lunatic service of Paxton’s buddy Paul.
Paxton, the Great Fundraiser (as his GOP defenders repeatedly proclaim), could have paid Cammack out of his own petty cash, but he didn’t offer a dime to his hand-picked and now discarded “special prosecutor.” Presumably, since the A.G. was now facing lawsuits, investigations, indictments and potential indictments, and (prospectively) impeachment, it apparently wouldn’t be prudent to have any further traceable connection to his and Nate Paul’s patsy.
The Special Relationship
If the Cammack tale plays like comedy, the Laura Olson story is a noir melodrama. Olson was (or is?) the paramour involved with Paxton for several years, and it was left to a woman (since retired OAG chief of staff Katherine “Missy” Cary) first to try to clean up Paxton’s mess and then to testify about it under oath. The impeachment articles charge that Paul hired San Antonio resident Olson (a longtime GOP foot soldier) into Paul’s Austin office to make it easier for Paxton to visit her (long after he had earnestly told his staff and wife Angela that the affair was over). According to subsequent testimony, the Olson arrangement by Paul allegedly involved encrypted texts, emails, pseudonymous Uber accounts, and off-the-books mobile phones, and the prosecution alleged Paul’s facilitation of the affair – besides being just plain seedy – constituted one more form of “bribery” by Paul of Paxton.
Olson appeared on the witness list and in the Capitol, but never testified – she was mysteriously deemed “unavailable” by Patrick and reportedly intended to take the Fifth in any case. Cary didn’t address Paul’s apparent arrangements with Olson, but testified emotionally to the effects the affair had been having on office morale – Paxton expected staff to cover for him in deceiving his wife. Cary testified that the A.G. had personally berated her for not being sufficiently accommodating in assisting and concealing his trysts. Cary told him that who he slept with was none of her business, until it spilled over into the office, and that he was also opening himself to accusations of “bribery and misuse of office.”
The warning didn’t take until eight staff members decided to go to the FBI. In his closing argument Friday, House manager and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Kerrville, noted that the regular Uber rides from Paxton’s locations to Olson’s apartment – confirmed forensically, and supposedly on the account of a pseudonymous “Dave P,” via the credit card of Nate Paul – ended the following day. Since Olson didn’t testify, the media and the public were treated only to various photographs captured of her movements around the Capitol – a statuesque platinum blonde in a white dress and heels, carrying a red jacket and a Balenciaga bag – clearly a person with somewhere else to be.
Defense attorney Tony Buzbee tried briefly to undermine Cary’s credibility, but mostly tried to dismiss her testimony as irrelevant. He suggested that if sexual affairs triggered impeachment, “We’d be impeaching for the next 100 years” (a theme he would return to during his bombastic closing remarks on Friday). He didn’t deign to acknowledge that the impeachment question at issue was actually the secondary consequences of the affair: Paul’s involvement, Paxton’s abuse of office, and the related allegation of bribery.
“Only one man has ever been perfect,” Buzbee told Cary. He didn’t specify who he meant, but considering his unending, flamboyant arrogance, and his reflexive condescension to witnesses, lawyers, and everybody else in the room, an observer could be forgiven for momentarily believing Buzbee was referring to himself.
Buzbee was only the most histrionic of the dozens of big-shot attorneys on both sides – prosecutors Hardin and DeGuerin generally opted for avuncular folksiness – but Buzbee took up so much of the hour allotted for closing that his co-counsel, Dan Cogdell, complained of being stifled. Buzbee loudly declared that the case against Paxton was “much ado about nothing” but entirely unproven suspicions and presumptions, and blamed the entire case – forwarded to the Senate by a 123-23 vote of the House – on the vengeful machinations of Speaker Phelan and allies of George W. Bush – or as the online MAGA faithful like to put it, “The Bush Cartel.”
“The Bush era in Texas,” Buzbee declared, “ends today.”
Murr’s closing was notable in that it was methodically detailed, sticking to the evidence and working steadily through the 16 articles. In eloquently representing the 123 House members who voted for impeachment, you wouldn’t know that Murr – like Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who followed him – is likely to face severe political retribution from those who consider Paxton their anti-Biden, pro-Trump legal gladiator. The threats became only louder and more explicit following Paxton’s acquittal.
Murr ignored Buzbee’s baiting histrionics. His most revealing additions to the trial record had to do with the evidence reflecting Paxton’s abrupt decision to finally pay for his house renovations (earlier allegedly underwritten by Paul), and confirming Paxton’s ongoing attentions to Olson. The payment occurred, and the attentions ended, immediately after the whistleblowers went to the FBI.
Following Paxton’s acquittal, there have been reams of local and national reportage addressing the potential implications. Does the impeachment mean the “end of the Bush era” in Texas, or rather the end of political and moral accountability (never flourishing) at the Texas Capitol?
Those questions will certainly linger. More immediately the Legislature, likely facing a special session in October, faces a less abstract question: Will the internal Republican political warfare mean that Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and their Christian nationalist billionaire sponsors, will make greater or lesser headway in their grand political project – most specifically, their determination to do whatever they can to starve and finally destroy the Texas public school system?
More about the Paxton impeachment and its background is available on our website, including here, here, here, and here. The Texas Tribune has produced indefatigable coverage of the story, and Texas Monthly has done great work as well, including Christopher Hooks’ superb backgrounder on the West Texas billionaires’ ardent devotion to Ken Paxton – in the golden light of which Angela Paxton, Laura Olson, and even Nate Paul seem but dimly passing fancies.