GALVESTON

A Galveston County probate judge this summer took an Alaskan cruise at public expense that offered continuing legal education courses.

Now some elected leaders are questioning the ethics of judges traveling to exotic locales for continuing education.

Galveston County Probate Judge Kimberly Sullivan attended a seven-day Alaskan cruise in August hosted by the TexasBarCLE that included 12 hours of ethics-related course work, according to an invoice obtained by The Daily News from the county.

The trip resulted in a $1,613.15 charge to the Probate Court Contributions fund — a public account provided to the court by the state and derived from county probate court filing fees, according to the county auditor’s office.

The fund can be used for court-related purposes as determined by the judge, as long as the expenses do not supplement the judge’s income, the auditor said.

Her husband attended as well, but his portion of the trip was paid for privately. Sullivan covered the air travel to Seattle, where the ship departed, with her personal money, she said.

Sullivan defended her use of the fund for reimbursement for the courses and ship accommodation as continuing education that improved the administration of the county’s probate court.

“The dedicated fund, in part, is to improve court administration, including continuing legal education,” Sullivan said in a written statement.

“I believe that such courses and reimbursement for them is a responsible use of the fund. The dedicated fund from which reimbursement was sought is not part of Galveston County funds created from taxpayer dollars, nor is it created by state funds, but rather from probate court filings.”

The county auditor’s office first raised the question about the expense to commissioners, but ultimately judged it was an allowable expense for the fund, County Judge Mark Henry said.

“If the auditor says it’s allowable, it is. But that doesn’t make it ethical,” Henry said.

“I don’t think it’s illegal, to be clear. I guess she can spend her travel money how she sees fit, but I think it looks bad, especially when there are continuing education classes she can get right here.”

SMOOTH SAILING

The TexasBarCLE, a continuing legal education organization for Texas attorneys, hosted the seven-day Alaskan cruise Aug. 20-27, according to its website.

The cruise — titled Smooth Sailing for the Modern Office: The Ethics Cruise — offered 12 hours of classes taught by Claude Ducloux, an Austin attorney in private practice, according to the Texas Bar website.

The courses offered included: Running the Ethical Office in the 21st Century; Cyber-Security in the Law Office — a Checklist; Paying and Receiving Referral Fees; Closing a Law Practice; Conflicts of Interest; Litigation Ethics: Survey of Judges; Handling Difficult Witnesses; The Psychology of Settlement; The Law of Privacy — Statutes and Forms; Managing Client Expectations; Shakespeare in Law; and Ethics Jeopardy, according to the website.

The trip also included ports of call stops where passengers could take excursions in Juneau, Alaska; Hubbard Glacier, Alaska; Sitka, Alaska; Ketchikan, Alaska; and Victoria, Canada, according to the website. The cruise fees also included meals, according to the website.

Sullivan was first elected Galveston County Probate Judge in 2010, according to her campaign website. Probate court is a specialized court dealing with the administration of estates — the property and debts of a person after they die.

EXPENSE ACCOUNTING

In April, Sullivan initially requested reimbursement from a county taxpayer-funded account that requires approval from the Galveston County Commissioners Court, according to an email sent by County Auditor Randall Rice.

“When I pointed out to Judge Sullivan the expense would have to be approved by the court or it would have to be repaid, she noted it was inadvertently coded to that fund and should have been coded to Fund 2216 — Probate Court Contributions,” Rice wrote in an email to Henry’s staff.

“This fund does not require Commissioners Court approval and the expenditure of funds is controlled by the Probate Judge.”

Sullivan then asked the auditor’s office to “correct the coding to reflect payment of the travel expense,” Rice said in the email. The auditor’s office changed it and recorded it on the date of the expense, which was June 9, according to the email. Sullivan was reimbursed for the trip before she took it.

The expense was recorded as “mileage,” according to the invoice.

CONTINUING EDUCATION

Judges are required to take 16 hours each year of judicial education after their first year on the bench, according to the Texas Center for the Judiciary. The first year on the bench requires 30 hours of judicial education, according to the center.

Texas judges who attend and complete judicial education conferences hosted by the center have those expenses reimbursed by state funding, according to the center. Those conferences are all hosted in Texas, according to the center.

The State Bar of Texas and other associations host additional continuing education courses and conferences in Houston and elsewhere around the state frequently, according to the center.

Asked if the courses offered on the cruise or similar courses were also offered in the Houston-area, in Texas or in the continental United States, Sullivan did not answer directly.

Sullivan said: “The continuing legal education course was offered as part of a cruise. Ship accommodations were a part of the cost. I have not sought reimbursement for travel to or from the destination.

“If the destination had been in some city in Texas, I would have been entitled to reimbursement for travel to and from as well as hotel accommodations.”

Marissa Barnett: 409-683-5257; marissa.barnett@galvnews.com

(13) comments

Walter Manuel

"The trip resulted in a $1,613.15 charge to the Probate Court Contributions fund — a public account provided to the court by the state and derived from county probate court filing fees, according to the county auditor’s office".

Seriously Judge Mark Henry???

Is this the CHEAPEST and I do mean cheapest campaign talking points that you can come up with in order to boast your re-election attempt???

I can assure you that $1,613.15 is NOT out of bounds for any judge including yourself when you consider that the trip was 7 days and 12 hours of that 7 days, Judge Sullivan spent in a classroom in order to not only fulfill her obligation of obtaining her required CEU's, but most importantly learning how to better meet the demands of the law and most importantly improve her courtroom competency and efficiency.

That $1,613.15 would certainly be within line with someone else going to El Paso Texas for example for their training when you consider travel expense reimbursement, hotel for 6 nights, meals and other ancillary services incurred while traveling on county business.

So what the trip happen to be in Alaska rather than in Texas? Judge Sullivan paid out of her own pocket for her travel expenses to and from Alaskan. Period!

Perhaps someone needs to look deeper into Judge Mark Henry's expenses with regards to use of county taxpayer expenses because it's usually the one who screams the loudest who ultimately has many skeletons in their own closet.

::::Move on folks, there's nothing here except typical CHEAP campaign talking points:::[yawn]

Ron Shelby

Come on Walter, this was just plain wrong. For 12 hours of training, she wouldn't have 6 nights of hotel and meal expenses. And remember, just because it may be argued to be legal...does not mean that it ethical. This training was clearly a way to structure a cruise at taxpayer expense for all of the participants. Doesn't mean it smells right. And it doesn't matter who points it out.

Ron Shelby

So if she covered the airfare herself, then she knew something was a bit wrong with the trip being charged to the public. Airfare would have been a normal expense. She needs to reimburse the probate fund for the difference between the cruise price and a 12 hour ethics course that would have been more proper. Its ironic that this was an "ethics" course and that this even has to be discussed. Question: Was this in either the 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 budget filed with Commissioners Court with the annual budget?

Ron Shelby

I wonder what the State's Probate Administrative judge thinks of a cruise being posted to the Probate Fund. GDN should ask. especially since a 12 hour ethics course on a multi-day cruise is clearly ancillary to the trip itself.

Ron Shelby

This will be a great example to use in Public Finance Ethics course discussion's here at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Public Policy. Thanks Judge.

Bill Lowe

Good points Walter. Judge Henry seems to be up to his usual antics.

Walter Manuel

Come Ron, you can't be serious? Right?

This is simply a campaign publicity smoke and mirrors stunt on Judge Mark Henry's part and really is making a mountain out of a mole hill obviously.

I seriously doubt that any professor at any major college will spend much time debating on whether Judge Sullivan's "ethics" played a role in her choice of paying for her own travel expense to and from a conference whether it was at a Marriott Hotel in Dallas or an Alaskan cruise.

Ron you worked for the county for many years and I'm sure that you were privy to information that the public did not have access to and it's only when someone wants to discredit others do they start slinging mud when they know that they are potentially just as guilty as the next person.

Perhaps the GDN needs to file an Open Records request for Judge Mark Henry's travel expenses and then we'll all see just how clean his hands are?

Oh wait, never mind.... You hardly ever hear anything about Judge Mark Henry going any where nor making public appearances and co-mingling with those that he represents like Judge Kim Sullivan and many other elected officials quite often do.[whistling]

Ron Shelby

Very serious. This is "abuse" of the system no matter who does it. Can't believe your in total support of taxpayers paying for a 7 day Alaskan cruise for 14 hours of ethics training that could be handles in state. Remove the personalities. Its bad public policy and mistreats taxpayers.

Ron Shelby

consider IRS Publication 463
"Trip primarily for Personal Reasons
If your trip was primarily for personal reasons, such as a vacation, the entire cost of the trip is a nondeductible personal expense. However, you can deduct any expenses you have while at your destination that are directly related to your
business.
[Key]
A trip to a resort or on a cruise ship may be a vacation even if the promoter advertises that it is primarily for business. The scheduling of incidental
business activities during a trip, such as viewing videotapes or attending lectures dealing with general subjects, won’t change what is really a vacation into a business trip."
This says that most of the cost of the trip needs to be treated as taxable salary and the County Auditor needs to consider this appropriately. If its treated as salary, then the Probate Judge has effectively received a salary increase through supplementation by her Probate funds.

Ken Hufstetler

Mark Henry was asked for his opinion by the reporter. He gave his opinion - not illegal, but questionable as to whether ethical. How is that being political?
Fund "is not part of funds ... created from tax dollars". Although designated for use by a specific court, they are county funds and not the Judge's funds.
Interesting that the reimbursement was recorded as "mileage".
The State of Texas typically pays for continuing education for all Judges. My question is: why was reimbursement not requested from the state rather than using local funds? Maybe the state should be asked if they would reimburse the cost to the county? That would answer the ethics question and put it to bed.

Ron Binkley

$1,613.15 is cheap! I have to take continuing education courses every year in my business and I sometimes take them in conjunction with conventions and professional meetings in different parts of the country. She did the right thing by paying a big part of the expenses out of pocket. The biggest benefit to taking educational courses away from your home town is the networking possibilities that come with the trip. "How can I do a better job at home"? The answer is getting ideas from others in your field. I was always told "The best ideas are stolen"! Give the lady a break!

Michael Moriarty

These types of training are not uncommon and the people who put on these courses, for profit, generally, know putting them on in this manner helps to fill the class. What is additionally interesting beyond the cost is that a similar seminar of 12 hours might be split up into two days, two days out of the office at taxpayer's expense, but for training. In this case the out of office was significantly more. Was it vacation?

Mark Aaron

An 'ethics cruise?' Some people clearly have no sense of irony.

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