After calling four agency staffers as witnesses, suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s defense lawyers rested their case.
Closing arguments will begin at 9 a.m. Sept. 15, the lawyers announced. Each side will have one hour to make their final statements.
Next, the case heads to the jury of senators. Thirty senators will deliberate behind closed doors, while the attorney general’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, is not allowed to participate due a conflict of interest.
The senators must vote individually on 16 articles of impeachment. A majority vote, or 21 senators, is needed to convict Paxton, in which case he would be immediately removed from office. Senators can also choose to bar Paxton from running for a future public office.
Updated 5 p.m. Sept. 14
Henry De La Garza, the human resources chief for the attorney general’s office, testified he agreed with the firing of four whistleblowers in 2020.
Four former staffers sued the agency for retaliation, arguing they were unfairly terminated after they reported their concerns about Ken Paxton’s alleged misconduct to the FBI.
“In my opinion,” De La Garza testified, the whistleblowers were let go for other misconduct, not their whistleblower report.
He said the four former deputies—Blake Brickman, Ryan Vassar, David Maxwell and Mark Penley—committed “pretty egregious violations” of agency policy, including speaking in insubordinate tones, refusing to complete tasks assigned by agency leaders and more.
“I admire all he’s done, but with respect to HR issues, [Maxwell] was developing a pattern of not going to HR for guidance on very sensitive agency matters,” De La Garza testified. “[This] exposed the agency to potential liability.”
During the first week of the trial, Maxwell, a former Texas Ranger with a nearly 50-year career in law enforcement, said Paxton ended his career “when he fired me and then berated me in the news.”
One of the 16 articles of impeachment against the suspended attorney general alleges Paxton terminated his employees “without good cause or due process and in retaliation for reporting his illegal acts and improper conduct.” Because Texas employers are allowed to terminate employees “at-will,” De La Garza said, neither good cause or due process are required.
During cross-examination, prosecutor Daniel Dutko referenced a portion of the Texas Government Code, which states if a whistleblower is fired within 90 days after making a report, “it is presumed ... to be because the employee made the report.”
The last whistleblower was fired Nov. 17, Dutko said—just over six weeks after the former staffers went to the FBI.
Updated 2:50 p.m. Sept. 14
The defense’s second witness was Austin Kinghorn, the current associate deputy attorney general for legal counsel. Kinghorn, who was promoted in November 2020 as the whistleblowers left the attorney general’s office, said he was “proud to serve Ken Paxton.”
Defense lawyer Chris Hilton, who is on leave from the attorney general’s office to defend Paxton, questioned Kinghorn about several of the 16 articles of impeachment.
One of the charges alleges Paxton “improperly obtained access to” an FBI brief, which had not been released publicly, to benefit his friend and donor Nate Paul. Hilton asked if Paxton has the authority to access “any file in the agency.”
“I believe he does. ... His name’s on the wall,” Kinghorn said. “It’s his law firm, [so] he gets to see any file he wants to see.”
During cross-examination, House prosecutor Erin Epley pressed Kinghorn about that statement and asked who he thought his “client” was.
“My client is the attorney general,” Kinghorn said, while Epley argued it is Texas.
Another impeachment charge is related to a $3.3 million settlement between Paxton and four whistleblowers who alleged he wrongfully terminated them for reporting their concerns to the FBI. Paxton asked the Texas Legislature to fund the settlement with taxpayer money, which kicked off the House’s investigation into his alleged misconduct earlier this year, according to the House board of impeachment managers.
Kinghorn said the attorney general’s office and other state agencies are prohibited from settling cases over $250,000 without requesting assistance. The settlement has not yet been funded.
Kinghorn testified he did not witness any wrongdoing during his time at the attorney general’s office.
“I accepted a promotion in this agency at a very critical time, and I assured myself and I assured my wife if there were ever anything I saw that were illegal or unethical, I would step away,” Kinghorn said. “I’m still here. I’m proud of the work we do.”
Watch a livestream of the trial here.
Suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawyers called their first witness, Justin Gordon, to the stand Sept. 14. Gordon currently leads the open records division for the attorney general’s office.
The defense team is expected to question witnesses throughout the day after the House impeachment managers abruptly rested their case Sept. 13. The House can no longer summon their own witnesses, but they are allowed to cross-examine the defense’s witnesses.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the trial, said the House lawyers had 2 hours and 34 minutes remaining as of 9 a.m. Sept. 14, while the defense had 8 hours and 38 minutes left. Each side was given 24 hours to question witnesses and present evidence.
Once a side is out of time, it cannot be extended. Both sides have one hour for closing statements and one hour for rebuttals after questioning concludes.
During his testimony, Gordon said he was not pressured by Paxton to release an FBI file to Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and campaign donor.
Paul and his lawyer, Joe Larsen, requested an FBI brief about a 2019 raid on Paul’s home and businesses. Paxton was “personally involved” in the request, Gordon testified, but did not “pressure” employees to release anything.
Two of the 16 articles of impeachment against Paxton allege he abused his office to obtain and order the release of documents from federal and state law enforcement on Paul’s behalf.