TPJ Campaign Complaint Leads Back to WilCo

Texans for Public Justice says Chief Justice Kenneth Law has engaged in illegal fundraising practices – but that's not all

Kenneth Law
Kenneth Law

On Sept. 17, public interest nonprofit Texans for Public Justice announced it had filed criminal and civil complaints against Texas 3rd Court of Appeals Chief Justice Kenneth Law, alleging illegal and unethical fundraising practices and calling for $235,000 in penalties. TPJ's criminal complaint, now under review by Travis Co. Attor­ney David Escamilla, alleges Law did not renew a 2002 treasurer's designation with the Texas Ethics Commission, as required, until Jan. 22, 2008, almost seven months after he began raising "tens of thousands of campaign dollars in violation of Texas law." The complaint also claims that Law accepted a $1,000 donation from the Washington-based KochPAC (affiliated with Kansas-based Koch Corp.) but did not comply with disclosure statutes for out-of-state PAC contributions.

In all, TPJ's complaints (the civil complaint is filed with the Ethics Commission) cite six apparent violations:
accepting approximately $66,850 without a designated campaign treasurer;
not filing a sworn declaration of intent to comply with expenditure limits;
reimbursing himself for an estimated $21,575.81 in campaign expenditures without having officially indicated the expenses were subject to reimbursement;
accepting $10,000 (twice the legal limit) from one donor (Harold Simmons, the energy tycoon who helped pay for the "Swift Boat" attacks against John Kerry and is now involved in similar attacks on Barack Obama);
accepting the KochPAC donation without full disclosure; and,
failing to provide "name, employer, or job title" of 47 contributors.

As it happens, one inadequately identified contributor was Williamson Co. Commissioner Lisa Birkman, and the WilCo connections raise additional questions about potentially improper influence on a case heard by Law's court. Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, who is representing Constable Gary Griffin in a lawsuit against the county commissioners (which alleges the Commissioners Court violated the Texas Constitution by eviscerating Grif­fin's 2005 budget in midyear), believes Law's campaign finance trail reflects an institutional conflict of interest. Aleshire pointed out that County Attorney Jana Duty, who represented the county in the lawsuit, and Sheriff James Wilson, who testified against Griffin, helped organize a Dec. 13 fundraiser for Law (see "Appeals Court Rules Against WilCo Constable," Dec. 21, 2007). The fundraiser was announced in a letter signed by Duty and Wilson (among others) and dated Nov. 28. That was the same day Law, writing for a three-judge panel, upheld a WilCo district court's granting of summary judgment against Griffin and in favor of the county.

To Griffin, the financial connections between the Law campaign and county officials provide evidence of apparently unethical conduct and potential collusion. "They didn't hold a Law fundraiser on the steps of the courthouse," Griffin said last week. "They held a 'Gotcha, Gary Griffin Party.'" According to Texans for Public Justice, on Dec. 10, Birkman also made a personal contribution of $100 to Law's campaign, even though the case was still live because Griffin had 30 days to file a motion for a rehearing in Law's court (he did so on Dec. 11). Griffin commented, "If I'd said, at any time, 'Hey, let's contribute to Law's campaign,' Aleshire would have had my head examined" – on the presumption that a contribution would be seen as an attempt to influence the court. Apparently, the county officials had no such misgivings.

On Sept. 17, the court withdrew its Nov. 28 ruling and replaced it with a new opinion, drafted by Law, that reaffirmed the summary judgment for the county and overruled Griffin's motion for a rehearing. In this decision, Law acknowledged that "each elected county official has a delegated sphere of authority that cannot be invaded" – the exact basis of Griffin's claim – but continued, "In the case of a constable, however, that sphere is fairly narrow." The revised opinion reaffirmed WilCo's claim that the Commissioners Court may alter a constable's budget, year-round, "in the public interest." Aleshire, who said he will soon file a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court, strongly disagrees: "If commissioners can chop an elected official's budget midyear ... there is no remaining 'sphere of authority.' The court's opinion creates a little group of five courthouse boss-hogs from whom no one is safe." Noting that Law's second ruling occurred the same day TPJ announced its complaints against the judge, Griffin commented wryly, "What goes around, comes around."

Commissioner Birkman did not respond to requests for comment. In an e-mail response, Duty answered angrily, shrugging off the apparent conflicts of interest as commonplace among lawyers. "Not that any of the facts below will ACTUALLY be reported accurately," she wrote, "but ... I did not 'plan' a fundraiser for Judge Law, I was simply asked to be a sponsor, which means my name [was] listed on the invitations as being on the host committee (i.e., that I am a supporter of his). Lawyers help judges raise money all the time. How about you do some investigative reporting by taking a look at other Judges' financial supports and I guarantee that you will find TONS of lawyers (even lawyers who have pending cases) on the judges' contributors lists. It is very common. I have no personal knowledge about the allegations against Judge Law, as this is not my case, it is David Escamilla's case."

Law's spokesman, Brian Roark, dismissed the TPJ allegations as "politically motivated." "Apparently, the allegation that some contributions may have exceeded the legal limit is based on incorrect conclusions," Roark wrote to the Chronicle (apparently referring to the contribution from Simmons), "resulting from the fact that a contribution was listed twice on the same report, even though there was only one contribution. This is a clerical type of error and not a legal violation. Innocent mistakes ... will be corrected if they have occurred. ... Contrary to the insinuations by political opponents, this politically motivated complaint does not relate to public funds in any way."

On Sept. 23, the Ethics Commission notified Law that he must respond to the complaint with any admissions, denials, and relevant documentation within 10 business days. Meanwhile, Travis Co. Attorney Escamilla announced he would be appointing a special prosecutor in the criminal case, to avoid any appearance of partiality. (Escamilla is supporting Law's Democratic opponent, Woodie Jones.)

TPJ Executive Director Craig McDonald commented that while only Law may be held legally accountable for fundraising improprieties, the "deep, intertwined web of conflicts of interest involved in the whole affair" is representative of a larger problem, even echoing Duty's shrug that this kind of fundraising is commonplace. "What happened in WilCo was clearly unethical, with public officials raising money for a judge who's ruling on a case in which they are involved, but, sadly, this happens day in and day out." How elected judges are placed in office must change, he said, adding, "We need to get money out of the courtroom."

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Kenneth Law, Texans for Public Justice, Texas Ethics Commission, Harold Simmons, Jana Duty, Lisa Birkman, Gary Griffin, Bill Aleshire

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