The House impeachment managers rested their case against Ken Paxton on Wednesday amid a dramatic day that centered around questions of whether the attorney general’s paramour would take the stand and an abandoned effort to force a vote for an early verdict.
Paxton’s lawyers sought to cast doubt on a key prosecution that Nate Paul, the attorney general’s friend and donor at the center of the trial, paid to renovate the Austin home owned by the attorney general and his wife.
And the prosecution bungled its attempt to call the woman Paxton allegedly had an affair with, a crucial witness that could have helped prove the second element of the House’s bribery claim. Another impeachment article alleges Paul employed the woman in return for Paxton abusing the power of his office to help Paul harass and investigate his perceived enemies.
The House impeachment attorneys were racing against the clock Wednesday. At the start of the day, the prosecution had five hours and 17 minutes remaining to present their case, while Paxton’ side had almost double that.
Around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, toward the end of the seventh day of the trial, House lawyer Rusty Hardin announced the managers would rest. But he quickly realized he made the announcement too soon, cutting off further questioning of the current witness by either side. Paxton defense lawyer Tony Buzbee said he was fine with that and instead of beginning to present the defense’s case, he motioned for a directed verdict, a request for a dismissal of the articles of impeachment for lack of evidence.
That set off a kerfuffle as jurors realized the seriousness of what Buzbee was seeking. They met behind closed doors for about 45 minutes to consider the request.
When they returned, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the presiding officer of the trial, announced Paxton’s lawyers had withdrawn their motions for the dismissal and the trial would proceed with the defense’s witnesses.
The flurry of events capped one of the most dramatic days of the trial. As Wednesday began, House impeachment managers sought to call a key witness — Laura Olson, the woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair — but it was too soon for her to testify under a rule requiring 24-hour notice.
By late afternoon, Olson became eligible to testify, but the two sides reached an unspecified agreement that resulted in her leaving the Capitol without taking the stand. Patrick only said that she had “been deemed unavailable to testify,” but she was planning to assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Olson’s testimony was highly anticipated. Despite being a central figure in Paxton’s problems dating back to at least 2018, Olson had never spoken out about their relationship. In moving to impeach Paxton in May, members of the House investigative committee said covering up the affair was his primary motivation for helping Paul, a claim echoed by the whistleblower witnesses the past week.
Olson sat alone in the Legislative Reference Library as she waited for hours to be called to testify, according to one reporter at the Capitol.
Prosecutors, unable to call Olson in the morning, called another highly anticipated witness: Drew Wicker, Paxton’s personal assistant, who was often glued to the attorney general’s side and was once referred to as a “second son” by Sen. Angela Paxton.
Wicker’s testimony was perhaps the most challenging for the House on Wednesday. House impeachment lawyers labored to prove the 10th article of impeachment, which alleges that Paul paid to renovate the Paxtons’ Austin home.
Wicker testified that he overheard Paxton telling a contractor renovating the home that he wanted granite countertops in the kitchen, to which the contractor responded “I’ll have to check with Nate.” Wicker understood this to be Paul.
But in cross-examination, Buzbee produced two photographs of the Tarrytown home’s kitchen, taken before the renovation in 2020 and last month, that Wicker confirmed showed no changes to the counters, cabinets or stove.
“Can we agree, Drew, that your concerns now have been put to bed, at least with regard to the countertops and the cabinetry?” Buzbee asked.
“With regards to those two items, yes sir,” Wicker replied.
House impeachment managers have cast the renovation as part of a quid pro quo, alleging Paxton directed his office to help Paul investigate his business rivals and the police investigating him.
Then Buzbee walked the jury through a series of documents that he said showed a contractor billing the Paxtons, an insurance company paying out a claim to the Paxtons, and then the attorney general directing the trustee of the family’s blind trust to pay that sum of $121,617 to the contractor.
The House’s evidence for this item was largely circumstantial. Their exhibits had previously pointed out that the construction firm, Cupertino Builders, was run by a man, Raj Kumar, with close ties to Paul.
House lawyer Erin Epley suggested that perhaps Paxton and Paul merely considered, but did not follow through on, a plan to install granite countertops. And she suggested that Paxton changed course once he became aware he’d been reported to law enforcement, noting that the date of the payment, Sept. 30, 2020, was the same day that the whistleblowers reported Paxton to the FBI.
“I guess I’ll end where the defense began,” Epley said, parroting a line from Buzbee. “There are no coincidences in Austin.”
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday with the first defense witness, University of North Carolina professor Michael Gerhardt, who is an expert on impeachments.
The House has put itself at a disadvantage because it appears to have a maximum of two hours left of its allotted questioning time, compared with about four hours for the defense. If House lawyers are not brief with witnesses, that could permit a scenario where Paxton’s team can call witnesses that will not be cross-examined.
After each side has finished with witnesses, lawyers will get one hour to present rebuttal evidence and another hour for closing arguments.
On top of all the other drama Wednesday, the House proposed changing the trial rules to raise the stakes for Paxton. The chamber’s lawyers filed a motion asking that Paxton be automatically disqualified from holding state office again if he is convicted. Under the current rules, the so-called “disqualification” decision is a separate vote that would come after conviction.
Proposed changes to the trial rules require a 24-hour notice and then a two-thirds vote of the senators. The House proposed the rule change Wednesday morning, so it will be eligible for a vote the same time Thursday.
Paxton’s side opposed the rules change, writing that it would be “modifying 100 years of precedent on the fly.”