By Kate McGee and Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune
““It was not a mutiny”: Senior staff had no choice but to report Ken Paxton to the FBI, whistleblower testifies” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Ryan Bangert did not want to report his boss, Attorney General Ken Paxton, to the FBI.
A bona fide ultraconservative and former Paxton donor, the onetime deputy first assistant attorney general believed in Paxton and the office, calling it a national “beacon” of the conservative legal movement.
But, as Bangert detailed in crisp, riveting testimony during Thursday’s impeachment trial proceedings, he reluctantly concluded that Paxton’s repeated and escalating use of the office to help his friend and political donor Nate Paul left him and other senior staff with no option but to report the behavior to the FBI.
“It was not a mutiny,” he said, rejecting prior characterizations by Paxton’s lawyers that his top staffers were trying to stage a coup in the attorney general’s office.
Instead, Bangert said, he and other whistleblowers concluded that Paxton was misusing the agency’s power to help one private individual, Paul — in violation of the agency’s responsibility to work on the public’s behalf — by instructing top deputies to draft legal opinions that benefited Paul and hiring an outside attorney to investigate his business rivals.
“We were protecting the interests of the state and ultimately, I believe, protecting the interests of the attorney general and, in my view, signing our professional death warrant. We understood the gravity of that act,” Bangert testified.
Over two days of testimony, Bangert walked senators through nine months of Paxton’s “alarming” 2020 behavior, saying he repeatedly expressed concerns with Paxton over his demands to work on Paul’s behalf.
Paxton, Bangert testified, directed him and other members of the attorney general’s leadership team to take three actions that he described as “concerning” and “bizarre.”
- Paxton asked Bangert to overrule two previous decisions by the office of the attorney general that denied Paul access to documents related to a law enforcement investigation into Paul’s businesses.
- Shortly after, Paxton directed Bangert and staff to quickly whip together a legal opinion that would prohibit public foreclosure sales due to COVID-19 restrictions — a position that would’ve benefitted Paul, who had properties facing foreclosure days later.
- Despite objections from senior staff, Paxton hired an outside lawyer to investigate Paul’s claim that his home and businesses were improperly searched by law enforcement in 2019.
“I was deeply concerned that the name, authority and power of our office had been, in my view, hijacked to serve the interests of an individual against the interests of the broader public,” Bangert testified. “It was unconscionable.”
As Paxton made his demands, Bangert said, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, local jurisdictions were clamoring for guidance on how to respond, and the office was consumed with a massive legal case against Google. Even so, he said, Paxton’s main focus continued to be Paul’s affairs.
“We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have,” Bangert said.
Ultimately, Bangert and six other top staffers reported Paxton to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020, alleging bribery and abuse of office. Paxton publicly denied the allegations, saying they were made by “rogue employees.”
During cross examination, Paxton’s lawyer sought to attack the credibility of Bangert’s claims — specifically those regarding the foreclosure opinion that Paul used to stave off auctions of some of his properties.
Paxton lawyer Anthony Osso downplayed the benefit that Paul received from the foreclosure opinion. After Bangert said he had voted for former President Donald Trump, Osso asked him if he was aware of Trump’s executive order that similarly delayed foreclosures.
Osso also referred to two separate, but related, narratives that Paxton’s team had proposed earlier. In one theory, they argued that the whistleblowers, aided by their boss’s political rivals, were so intent on destroying Paxton that they removed his name from official agency letterhead and went to the FBI before articulating their concerns to him.
Separately, Paxton’s team has pointed to some of the whistleblowers’ communications with well-known attorney Johnny Sutton before they were fired or resigned from their positions in the fall of 2020. Sutton’s name was invoked numerous times during Wednesday cross examination of Paxton’s former second-in-command Jeff Mateer. Osso also brought up Sutton on Thursday, accusing Bangert of having a conflict of interest by privately hiring Sutton while Sutton was recommended for a $50,000 agreement to represent the attorney general’s office.
Mateer and Bangert, who are both still represented by Sutton, denied there was anything improper about the timing of their outreach to Sutton, who they noted was never hired by the agency.
Paxton was not in attendance Thursday. He has not been in the Senate chamber, where the impeachment trial is taking place, since his lawyer pleaded not guilty on his behalf late Tuesday morning.
Bangert, the second witness called by impeachment managers, said he first became aware of Paul in early 2020 when he was serving as deputy attorney general for legal counsel.
Paxton asked Bangert to evaluate if it was possible to overrule a previous decision by the attorney general’s office to withhold law enforcement documents from Paul regarding an FBI raid on his house and businesses. Releasing the documents would go against long-standing precedent designed to protect information crucial to law enforcement investigations, Bangert said.
“That immediately sends up red flags to disclose law enforcement materials to someone who is under an active and very far-reaching investigation,” he said.
A third prosecution witness, Ryan Vassar, who at the time oversaw the attorney general’s open records division, testified Thursday afternoon that Paxton pressed to have the information released to Paul. Vassar said he told Paxton that doing so would upend decades of precedent protecting records relating to ongoing investigations.
“It protects confidential information, it protects witnesses who could be compromised if their names were released,” Vassar said. “There is incalculable problems with reversing the decision to withhold the information and requiring it to be produced.”
“It was hurtful,” Vassar said, mentioning his eight years in public service by then. “The statement of being rogue is contrary to the years that I dedicated my life to the state.”
Vassar paused to compose himself and was handed a tissue on the stand and used it to blot his face.
Testifying earlier Thursday, Bangert said Paxton’s requests on Paul’s behalf “metastasized to a new section within the attorney general’s office” when Paxton asked Bangert to find a way to intervene in a lawsuit between Paul and the Mitte Foundation. The charity had invested in Paul’s businesses but sued Paul, alleging he refused to provide them with financial information about their investment.
Bangert said he believed intervention from the attorney general’s office directly benefited Paul and his main company, World Class Holdings. Initially, he tried to unsuccessfully mediate between the two sides. Bangert then said Paxton ordered him to file a motion to halt the legal proceedings. Bangert said he was uncomfortable doing that and was ultimately removed from the case.
Paxton approached Bangert again a few months later with another order: evaluate whether foreclosure sales could be allowed to continue given the current state of the governor’s COVID orders. Bangert testified that Paxton rejected his initial advice that foreclosure sales should be allowed to continue.
Procedurally, the attorney general’s office needed to find someone authorized to submit a formal request for an opinion from the attorney general’s office. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, ultimately stepped in. But Bangert testified that there was no evidence Hughes knew this request was made to benefit a specific individual.
Bangert and another whistleblower, Ryan Vassar, worked through the weekend on an opinion stating that foreclosure sales should be allowed to continue, which was consistent with the agency’s efforts to reopen Texas several months into the pandemic. When Bangert emailed the draft early Sunday morning, Paxton rejected it, telling Bangert it needed to be reworked — quickly — so COVID-safety rules applied to foreclosure sales.
“It was bizarre,” Bangert said. “He was acting like a man with a gun to his head. Anxious, desperate, urging me to get this out as quickly as humanly possible.”
When the Paxton-ordered opinion was finished, Bangert said he signed it, making sure his name was on the order instead of his younger colleague, Vassar.
“If something broke bad with this, I didn’t want it to tarnish his career,” he said.
Ultimately, Bangert said, he realized that issuing an opinion to stop foreclosure sales would benefit Paul, who had dozens of properties facing foreclosure.
On another matter, Bangert recalled, he and Paxton met Paul at his downtown Austin office, got in Paul’s car and drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant. There, Paul shared a laundry list of grievances related to his belief that he was being unfairly targeted by the Mitte Foundation and by federal and state law enforcement.
Bangert walked the jury through the summer and fall, as he and other senior staff learned Paxton hired an outside lawyer to investigate law enforcement who had an open investigation into Paul’s businesses. Bangert said he and other senior staff pushed back against the idea to hire outside counsel, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, but were unsuccessful.
Bangert called the evidence supporting Paul’s accusations against law enforcement as “frivolous at best,” an opinion he and others repeatedly shared with Paxton, only to learn that Paxton had hired Cammack anyway.
Bangert testified that while he and his direct boss, Mateer, were at a conference in Atlanta, they received a call from Paxton where he expressed frustration at the opposition to hiring Cammack.
The two were about to have an important meeting about the state’s lawsuit against Google, but Paxton only wanted to talk about hiring an outside lawyer.
“We were about to move into a very intense phase of Google litigation, and the attorney general’s focus was on Nate Paul, not on the Google case,” Bangert stated.
Shortly after, Bangert said, senior staff learned Cammack had been hired when a bank reported that it had received a grand jury subpoena related to the investigation.
“It became clear to me that there was nothing more I could do, that the attorney general was determined to harness the power of our office and to fulfill the interests of a single individual against the interests of the state,” Bangert testified.
Seven employees went to the FBI, where they were interviewed collectively for hours, Bangert testified. The following day, they alerted Paxton via text message they had made the complaint.
Bangert testified that he resigned about a month later after his professional duties at the attorney general’s office had been stripped away, including his oversight of the special litigation unit.
Hardin posed to Bangert many of the arguments that Paxton lawyer Tony Buzbee used the previous day in effort to poke holes in Mateer’s testimony, such as why the whistleblowers didn’t go directly to Paxton to express their concerns about his behavior. But Bangert said there was “no question that he was well aware of our objections,” saying they had been lodged “repeatedly” and “in various ways” for months.
“We had stepped into the void at that point. There was no road map to follow,” Bangert said.
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An earlier version of this story misstated the city in which Johnny Sutton is based.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/07/ken-paxton-impeachment-trial-ryan-bangert/.
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