Texas AG’s office was swamped, but Ken Paxton was focused on helping donor: ex-staffer

An attorney general’s office flooded with work related to COVID-19 and other lawsuits spent too much time on matters tied to one of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s political donors, a former deputy told senators Thursday.

Ryan Bangert, who served as deputy first assistant in the office, began his testimony on Wednesday in Paxton’s impeachment trial.

Paxton is accused of misusing his office to benefit Austin developer and political donor Nate Paul and retaliating against now former employees after they reported Paxton to the FBI in September 2020. Paxton gave Paul special legal attention and help while accepting home renovations and a job for a women with whom he was having an extramarital affair, House impeachment managers argue. Thursday was the third day of the impeachment trial.

During Bangert’s second day on the stand, he outlined the events that led up to his and other whistleblowers’ decision to report Paxton to federal law enforcement. Bangert is not among the four whistleblowers who later sued for retaliation.

Rusty Hardin, one of the attorneys for the House impeachment managers, asked Bangert about the landscape of the attorney general’s office around the time they were dealing with matters related to Paul.

Bangert said the office was working on a lot of COVID-19 related issues, a multistate lawsuit against Google, and election-related lawsuits, around the time they were also being asked to handle matters related to Paul.

“When the attorney general kept raising Nate Paul issues, the ones we’ve gone through so far and later in the future, do you have any idea ... how much time or resources were devoted to dealing with Nate Paul instead of real concerns?” Hardin asked.

“We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have given the importance of those issues,” Banger replied, going on to say he spent the better part of three days working on an opinion related to Paul and and even more time on a lawsuit intervention related to Paul.

The former attorney general’s office employee detailed why he went to the FBI with concerns about Paxton in September 2020: “In my view there was simply nothing more we could do,” Bangert said.

Bangert, who now works at the Alliance Defending Freedom, is the second witness to take the stand.

Bangert explained that Paxton wanted to hire outside counsel, attorney Brandon Cammack, to investigate law enforcement action concerning Paul, including the search of his house and properties. Eventually, Cammack issued grand jury subpoenas on behalf of the office related to Paul.

“In my view, the criminal process had been harnessed to purse the business enemies of an individual, Nate Paul, who also happened to be under intensive investigation by law enforcement,” Bangert said.

Paxton was warned against taking actions to benefit Paul, Bangert said.

“We had continually and in various ways warned him about Mr. Paul,” Bangert said. “We had discussed with him the absence for any substantiated basis for taking actions to benefit Mr. Paul.”

What drove you to go to law enforcement, Hardin, the impeachment manager attorney, asked.

“In my view, there was simply nothing more we could do,” Bangert said. “The course of actions had played themselves out. The AG was determined to follow this course of action in favor of Nate Paul, despite all of our efforts to persuade him otherwise.”

Paxton’s attorneys have argued the impeachment proceedings were politically motivated and that evidence is lacking and doesn’t warrant a conviction on the articles. Paxton didn’t engage in bribery with Paul, and Paxton should be acquitted, they said.

Attorney Anthony Osso questioned Bangert on behalf of the attorney general. Paxton has not been present for most of the proceedings this week.

He grilled Bangert on open records requests and an informal attorney general opinion related to foreclosures during the pandemic that Bangert signed off on. Paxton is accused of having Sen. Bryan Hughes ask for the opinion to help Paul.

Bangert on Wednesday testified that he and then deputy attorney general Ryan Vassar completed what they thought was a satisfactory draft, but when it was sent to Paxton, the attorney general told him the conclusions reached were not the desired ones and they should reverse the opinion, which they did.

Osso brought up a text message in which Paxton said the opinion was for the benefit of Texans.

He read from the message: “Thank you again. I can’t express in words how much I appreciate your work, especially over the weekend. I am grateful because I feel like hundreds of people will be protected from harm and maybe devastation. You and Ryan deserve all the credit. Thank you I hope your Sunday is relaxing and enjoyable with your family.”

Bangert said he doesn’t believe Paxton was being truthful in the message.

Osso also emphasized through his questioning that Bangert was not fired, but resigned. Bangert testified his job duties were stripped from him ahead of his resignation.

Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general, who is among the plaintiffs on the whistleblower lawsuit, took the stand after Bangert Thursday.