Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Under a microscope

I know Justice Paul Green, I believe he is one of the most ethical attorneys I have ever met and believe that these questions will be found to have a reasonable answer.

Having said that I also believe organizations like Texas Watch play a vital role in a democracy such as ours.

Texas justice's ethics in question
Janet Elliott: Express-News

AUSTIN — A judicial watchdog group said Monday it will pursue an ethics complaint against Texas Supreme Court Justice Paul Green over his use of political contributions for mileage reimbursement despite Green's denial that the costs were for commuting.
Green said the group Texas Watch is mistaken in assuming that his frequent travels between Austin and San Antonio were for commutes. He said he has lived in an Austin apartment since March 2005 and his travels to his former hometown were for meetings and speaking engagements.

The Texas Ethics Commission said in a 1993 advisory opinion that appellate judges cannot use their campaign funds to pay for commuting expenses between their hometowns and the city where the court sits. Judges are allowed to use their political funds for campaign travel and travel related to their jobs.

"This is a bit of a surprise," Green said about the allegations by Texas Watch, a group that monitors the Texas Supreme Court and civil justice issues.
"I'm invited, as we all are, to go to various places to speak at seminars," said Green, who served on the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio before winning election to the Supreme Court in November 2004. He started his six-year term in January 2005.
"Coming from San Antonio, I get lots of requests from the local bar, young lawyers, law school, any number of school groups to come in and visit," he said.

Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, said the information from Green won't change his plans to file a complaint today with the ethics commission.
"That as an explanation does not allay my concern about the potential that Judge Green violated the ethics statute," Winslow said. "The volume of trips between Austin and San Antonio, literally several times a week, raises doubts in my mind that he's going to speak to the Rotary Club. I find that very hard to believe."

Winslow said Green paid himself $16,761 for 272 separate trips between Austin and San Antonio over the past three years.

Green said he still owns a house in San Antonio, where his ex-wife lives. He said he is aware of the advisory opinion against charging commuting costs to his campaign.

Green is the second Supreme Court justice to come under scrutiny for possibly violating a state law that prohibits elected officials from converting political contributions to personal use.

The San Antonio Express-News reported Saturday that Justice David Medina charged his campaign nearly $57,000 since 2005, at a time he was commuting between his Houston-area home and Austin. Medina's Spring home burned last June in a suspicious fire.
Also Monday, an attorney for Medina said the judge will repay his campaign fund money that he improperly spent to commute between Houston and Austin.
Terry Yates said Medina relied on bad advice from an accountant that he could use his political fund for the commuting costs.

"It turns out that is not permissive. He's in the process of paying the campaign back that amount of money that was improperly deducted," Yates said.

As of his most recent campaign expense report, filed Jan. 15, he had paid back $2,000. Yates said he did not know how much Medina would return and said that amended campaign finance reports are being prepared.

Winslow said Texas Watch doesn't plan to file an ethics complaint over Medina's mileage reimbursements because his reports are vague about where the trips occurred. Medina claimed between $1,000 and $3,000 for unspecified mileage for most months in 2005, 2006 and the first half of 2007.

"We could not pinpoint which of the reimbursements were for commuting expenses," he said.
In Green's case, the justice listed each trip individually. Many said they were for a round trip between San Antonio and Austin on a specific day.

Other mileage reimbursements don't say where the travel occurred but are for similar amounts. Green said that he used the state comptroller's mileage reimbursement calculator to determine the amounts.

In his most recent campaign finance report, filed Jan. 15 with the ethics commission, Green listed his address as a post office box in San Antonio.