Impeachment trial day 6: Witness describes whirlwind experience as Paxton special counsel
Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial is likely in its final days, leaving House impeachment managers and the suspended Texas attorney general’s defense team just hours to present and cross-examine witnesses.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who serves as judge in Paxton’s trial before the Texas Senate, said yesterday he intends to hold proceedings into the evening over the next few days, with no pauses in the action until verdicts were decided on the multiple charges against Paxton.
If convicted, Paxton would be removed from office.
Paxton has maintained his innocence throughout and pleaded not guilty to all 20 articles of impeachment.
‘I didn't think that it was unusual’
Criminal attorney Brandon Cammack was the first witness called Tuesday by House impeachment managers. Cammack’s name has already come up quite a bit during the trial — in late summer of 2020, he was the outside attorney Ken Paxton hired to investigate federal and local officials related to the FBI searches of Austin real estate developer Nate Paul’s home and businesses. Cammack had no prior experience as a prosecutor before being hired.
Paxton was suspended from his office in May when a Texas House investigation found Paxton allegedly committed bribery and abused the power of his office, among many other allegations, in connection with Nate Paul. Paxton was removed after 121 Texas House members, including 60 Republicans, voted for his removal.
Cammack testified that Paxton said he wanted to hire a special prosecutor because his regular staff was not willing to pursue the investigation.
“He said that he was looking to hire a special prosecutor to investigate a criminal case where potentially there were potential violations of the Texas penal code,” Cammack said.
He also described meeting with Nate Paul and Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, at which time he said Paul told him no amount of evidence could convince Mark Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, to pursue action against the individuals who orchestrated the searches of Paul’s properties.
“I thought, ‘Why is the attorney general involved in this? Why is he wanting me to know about this?’ This is not a state matter, from what I could tell,” Penley said on Monday.
Cammack agreed to take the job for Paxton, not realizing the extent of the opposition to his hiring. He said he considered Paul’s allegations that the search warrants against his properties had been illegally altered to be worth investigating.
“I viewed (Paul) as a complainant in the case,” Cammack said, “and just in the same way that if a client hires me for a case and they bring in a banker's box full of documents and information, I'm going to go through it. And so I didn't think that it was unusual that I would be getting information from the complainant and his attorney. And as I got that information, you know, I thought this was the same information that Mr. Penley had.”
During cross examination Dan Cogdell, a member of Paxton’s defense team, downplayed the significance of Paxton hiring Cammack to investigate whether the search warrant was justified. Instead of a secret, cloak-and-dagger operation, Cogdell said those inquiries are standard practice for defense attorneys.
“If there has been a suggestion made in this court room before these 31 senators that it is somehow wrong or illegal to investigate the legality of a search or a search warrant, that is not your world view?" Cogdell asked.
“I was convinced there was something there. I didn’t make a judgement ether way but it was a persuasive presentation.” — Brandon Cammack, who was hired by Ken Paxton to look into claims made by Nate Paul.
“That is what we do,” he said. “It was an investigation into potential violations of the Texas Penal Code, which is what I am familiar with doing. So, it would be in my wheelhouse.”
Cogdell’s focus on the matter is related to one of the articles of impeachment against Paxton — it states the attorney general “misused his official powers by violating the laws governing the appointment of prosecuting attorneys” and in doing so “misled and manipulated Cammack into investigating a baseless complaint.”
Cammack later added that, after a meeting with Wynne and Paul, he came away feeling Paul’s allegations should be investigated. “I was convinced there was something there,” he said. “I didn’t make a judgement ether way but it was a persuasive presentation.”
Shortly after being hired, Cammack said he received two referrals from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. One dealt with the federal search of Paul’s properties, but the second dealt with an entirely separate matter, where Paul alleged mortgage fraud and wrongful foreclosure of his properties in a bankruptcy hearing.
Cammack said he approached Paxton, thinking this second referral was outside the scope of his contract, but was told to follow it up as well.
“Towards the end of September,” Cammack said, “I was told by Michael Wynne that Mr. Penley had reached out to him, kind of out of the clear blue for documents. And then I asked Mr. Paxton about that when I spoke with him, and he said, ‘Well, I told him to stand down. He's not working on this case. You are.’”
In his testimony, Cammack described how his contract persisted for three and a half weeks without his being given any official credentials, something he said he needed in order to issue grand jury subpoenas.
Cogdell also attempted to dilute Mateer’s concerns about hiring Cammack. The person who sent a cease-and-desist letter, Cogdell said, was the same person who knew what Cammack would eventually be asked to do.
“[Mateer] is basically saying ‘This is unauthorized, you're performing illegal activity.’ This is the very same Jeff Mateer whose office you sat in interviewing for the job that you took, right?” Cogdell asked.
“That’s correct,” Cammock responded.
Communicating through unofficial channels
Cammack said that, during this time, he communicated regularly with Paxton via text, the messaging app Signal, and through cell phones rather than official government lines, as well as Proton email accounts rather than official government email accounts.
Cammack said he only learned of Paxton’s official government email account when he received a cease-and-desist message from First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer.
In his own testimony last week, Mateer testified that Penley had objected to Paxton’s recommendation of hiring Cammack as an outside counsel to investigate whether Paul was being treated unfairly by federal officials.
“He was upset at Mr. Penley because Mr. Penley had expressed he was not in favor of hiring Mr. Cammack,” Mateer testified, adding he “thought it was very suspicious that someone who is the target of a federal investigation was reaching out to the attorney general of Texas for legal help.”
He added that the usually congenial Paxton became uncharacteristically belligerent on that occasion.
A termination at Starbucks
Cammack testified he’d received multiple communications through Wynne containing information about individuals to whom he should issue grand jury subpoenas. These included opposing counsel in a number of civil suits against Paul and a federal bankruptcy judge trying a case against Paul. Cammack said he used one of the memos he received from Wynne as the basis of a prosecution memo he forwarded to Paxton.
“I said, ‘What about my $14,000 invoice?’ And (Webster’s) like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to eat that invoice.'"
Shortly after Cammack began issuing subpoenas, he received a pair of cease-and-desist orders – first from Penley, then from Mateer. Then, Cammack said, U.S. Marshals showed up at his office in Houston. Cammack said he blew up Paxton’s phone, calling or texting at least five times until the attorney general responded to him.
“He told me, ‘Don’t talk to them without a lawyer. I don’t know what it’s about either,’” Paxton said.
Following the cease-and-desist letter from Mateer, Cammack said he was summoned to Austin to meet with Wynne at Paul’s house. He said Paxton was there, but that the attorney general spent most of the time on the phone and that Wynne and Paul did most of the talking.
“When Mr. Paxton came in as I was going to leave,” Cammack said, “he had mentioned that Mr. Penley didn’t have any authority to tell me to stop working. He told him to stand down and just to continue to work on this report.” Cammack said he did not do any further work, having received two cease-and-desist letters and having not yet been paid for his work to date.
Cammack said he was summoned back to Austin in the first week of October 2020 to meet with Paxton and First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster. He said Paxton and Webster took him to a nearby Starbucks, at which time Webster informed him Cammack’s contract was no longer valid and that he was terminated.
“I said, ‘What about my $14,000 invoice?’” Cammack said, “And (Webster’s) like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to eat that invoice. I’ve had to eat $40,000 invoices.’” Cammack said Paxton and Webster then prepared to leave the Starbucks and nearly drove off, leaving Cammack alone, before Cammack stopped them and asked them for a ride back to his car.
The last witness to take the stand was Darren McCarty, Paxton's former deputy attorney general for civil litigation who later joined a group that reported Paxton’s alleged misdeeds to the FBI.
McCarty told attorney Dick DeGuerin, a member of the prosecution’s team, that Paxton took an unusual interest in Paul’s legal battle with the Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based charity that sued Paul in 2018.
“General Paxton expressed sort of more interest in the foundation litigation than almost anything else that my divisions were interested in. And there was a certain urgency - and almost anxiety - around what we were doing in the Mitte foundation lawsuit,” he said.
Paxton’s focus on the Mitte came at the same time the office was involved in a multi-state lawsuit against Google. McCarty said there was no way to compare the significance of the Google lawsuit to the Mitte foundation intervention.
“The Google litigation, of course, had the potential to impact virtually every Texas and U.S. citizen - and frankly citizens across the world,” he said. “The Mitte foundation litigation, as I understood it, was a dispute that Texas, in my view, did not have any significance in.”
Tony Buzbee, a member of Paxton’s defense team, reminded McCarty that he and three other attorneys in the office approved intervening in the Mitte case.
“Each of you signed off on an official government document because you felt at the time that it was in the best interest to do so. Isn't that right?” Buzbee asked.
McCarty agreed that he made that decision, but said it was based on what Paxton had told him.
“I believed that it was important for us to intervene in the Mitte Foundation litigation and that [Paxton] had colorable reasons to do so,” he said. “I had no reason to question at the time.”
Testimony will resume Wednesday morning in Texas Senate chamber.