Ethics Commission Fines Hecht

Texas Supreme will have to pay $29,000 fine for accepting a donation larger than the law allows, and for failing to report it

Judge Nathan Hecht
Judge Nathan Hecht

Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht has been fined $29,000 for accepting a large in-kind donation (in the form of a discount on legal fees) from law firm Jackson Walker, and then failing to report it as a political contribution, the Texas Ethics Commission concluded after a public hearing Thursday.

Hecht's legal woes began in 2006 after he received a reprimand from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which found that he'd misused his judicial position by becoming a public champion for buddy Harriet Miers, the former Lottery Commission official who President George W. Bush nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Hecht hired his high-priced counsel to appeal the CJC finding, and ultimately had it dismissed.

That was good news for Hecht, but the experience left him with a bill for nearly a half-million in legal fees – an amount that he, as a man of "limited means," he wrote in an affidavit, presumably would be hard pressed to cover. So the firm negotiated a fee, he said, and agreed to knock off part of it as pro bono work, since the case was really about the free speech rights of Texas judges. Indeed, lawyers negotiate fees all the time (better to be paid something than nothing, or have to take legal action to collect on a bill) and there was nothing out of the ordinary about the bill being reduced, from nearly $500,000 to just under $350,000, the judge argued. He paid the bill with campaign funds. After finding out about Hecht's two-step, the nonpartisan Texas Watch filed an official complaint.

While it isn't illegal to use campaign cash for legal expenses, the commission concluded that the discount Hecht received was not a standard reduction in fees, but in fact a campaign donation -- and one that far exceeded the $5,000 cap on donations from individual lawyers and their firms. In part, it seems that Hecht was done in by the language he chose to use in an email to supporters, wherein he explained that Jackson Walker not only reduced his bill, but also "agreed to designate a large part of the fees as an in-kind contribution to my campaign." Oops! His bad! Indeed, Hecht wrote in an affidavit that he "misspoke" there, "in the haste of finishing the letter."

Hecht told reporters that he was "disappointed," with, but respects the Commission's decision. Whether he'll appeal their finding to district court remains to be seen.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Courts, Texas Ethics Commission, Nathan Hecht, Texas Supreme Court, Texas Watch

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