A Galveston County lawyer known for making ethics complaints that unseated judges in Galveston County, on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint against Lonnie Cox, presiding judge of the 56th District Court and candidate for Galveston County judge.
Friendswood attorney Greg Enos filed the complaint Jan. 4, and revealed it in a lengthy newsletter item published Tuesday morning.
The complaint centers on the relationship between Cox and Galveston attorney Mark Stevens, who has represented Cox in an ongoing dispute between the judge and Galveston County Commissioners. It accuses Cox of receiving discounted legal fees — and sometimes even free work — from Stevens in that case, while the attorney continued to represent criminal and civil clients in Cox’s court.
Cox and Stevens denied the allegations.
Enos claims the discount is a benefit that violates the Texas Penal Code.
“It appears that Mr. Stevens provided discounted and free legal services to Judge Cox at a time when Mr. Stevens was representing clients before Judge Cox, was being appointed by Judge Cox to represent indigent criminal defendants and was having his fee vouchers approved by Judge Cox,” Enos wrote.
He also accused Cox of making a civil judgment in favor of a Cox client at a time when Stevens was also working for Cox.
In a phone interview, he laid it out in simpler terms.
“You can’t give a judge a gift,” he said. “If my next door neighbor’s a judge, and I don’t have anything to do with his court, I can give him any present I want. But if I have an issue in his court, then the basic thing is you can’t buy him coffee, you can’t fly him around the world on your personal jet. You can’t do a gift if you have something in that court.”
Enos outlined his accusations in a 9,500-word article in The Mongoose, a legal affairs newsletter he has published since 2012. The newsletter has about 4,000 subscribers, most of them lawyers and judges, he said.
The accusations are based on public records requests, a review of court documents and a letter Enos received from Stevens responding to a draft version of the article.
In the letter, sent to Enos on Dec. 29, Stevens said that he routinely transferred cases out of Cox’s court, “if it appears to be contested beyond a plea bargain.”
He said he did represent criminal clients if they were taking plea deals, and that he informed his clients and prosecutors of his relationship with Cox.
“I do this to avoid any appearance of impropriety, but also to avoid having a client think he or she can get a ‘better deal’ through in Judge Cox’s court,” Stevens wrote.
State law doesn’t differentiate between cases with plea deals and contested cases, Enos said.
Stevens said Tuesday his billing practices were not irregular and that he, as a practice, charged different rates to different clients based on their circumstances and his own personal feelings about a case.
“Apparently, every time I try to save people money I’m a dirty S.O.B.,” Stevens said about Enos’ complaints.
Stevens said he spoke to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday and was planning to submit a statement about the criminal case.
Cox fired back against the accusations in written statement and specifically denied that his decisions on Stevens’ cases benefited the lawyer.
“I am not aware of any ‘free services,’” Cox said. “None of Mark Stevens’ services benefited me personally.”
Cox also specifically denied that he awarded any special judgments to Stevens in civil court. Enos’ complaint cites a June 2015 case when Cox ruled on a motion for a default judgment for one of Stevens’ clients for $140,000. Cox granted the judgment in favor of the client, because the person being sued did not respond to the legal complaint, Enos wrote.
Stevens was not awarded attorneys fees beyond the judgment.
The decision seems typical, but ethically, and possibly legally, Cox shouldn’t have heard the case, Enos said.
“There is always plenty for a good judge to do at a default judgment hearing, even if one side is not present to present a defense,” Enos wrote.
Stevens said the client in the case Enos referenced paid him on a retainer, which he said explains why he did not receive attorneys fees in the case.
Both men said they believe the newsletter article is politically motivated.
“This is simple crony politics and the politics of personal destruction,” Cox said.
Enos has represented Galveston County Judge Mark Henry as an attorney, he said in his newsletter. Enos said he’s a Democrat.
Cox is trying to oust Henry as the Galveston County judge during the March 6 primary election. Because there is no Democrat running for the position, the winner among the two men will be the county judge for the next six years.
Henry said he knew Enos was working on something related to Cox, and that the attorney had reached out to him for information that is included in the newsletter. He denied having anything else to do with the report.
Henry received a $200 campaign contribution from Enos last year, Henry said. Enos also once represented Henry in a divorce proceeding, he said.
Cox said Enos also had donated to his political campaigns in the past.
Enos said he had donated $250 to Henry, and had donated much more to Cox campaigns in the past.
Henry declined to comment on how he thought Cox should react to the accusations in the newsletter.
Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady confirmed Tuesday that his office had received a criminal complaint about Cox, but declined to comment further while the complaint is investigated.
In his newsletter, Enos requested that Roady recuse himself from investigating the case and appoint a special prosecutor because the district attorney’s office has cases pending in Cox’s court.
Enos has been responsible for the removal of Galveston County judges before. In 2013, he filed a complaint that started the investigation into County Court at Law Judge Christopher Dupuy.
Dupuy was indicted, removed from the bench, and ultimately pleaded guilty to perjury and abuse of official capacity.
He also filed an ethics complaint against Associate Judge Suzanne Schwab-Radcliffe, who contracted with Galveston County to hear child abuse cases. Schwab-Radcliffe resigned after it was revealed she was acting as a judge and a lawyer at the same time while working in the Galveston County area.
Enos said he had not yet sent the information he gathered to the State Bar of Texas or the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the bodies that investigate ethics complaints about lawyers and judges, respectively.
With his complaint about Dupuy, those groups didn’t act until after an indictment was filed, Enos said.