District Judge Lonnie Cox defended his use of campaign funds to pay his legal fees in a lawsuit against County Judge Mark Henry as above board, despite allegations raised in a recent complaint that the spending could violate state campaign finance laws.
Cox paid Galveston attorney Mark Stevens about $17,500 for representing him in a nearly three-year legal battle against Henry out of campaign donations raised for his district judge race, Cox said. He also used the account to pay about $3,000 in court fees, he said.
The lawsuit stemmed from the firing of a court administrator, but Cox has said it was at heart a dispute of separation of powers between the county’s executive and judicial branches.
Last year, the Texas Supreme Court sided with the county on an issue of employee salary, stating the commissioners court has the authority to set the position’s salary. The county spent more than $1.2 million in taxpayer money on legal fees associated with the lawsuit.
Earlier this month, Friendswood attorney Greg Enos filed a complaint with the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, alleging Cox violated ethics rules and the law by receiving discounted legal fees — and sometimes even free work — from Stevens in the case, while Stevens continued to represent criminal and civil clients in Cox’s court.
The campaign spending could also violate campaign finance rules because Cox did not report an “in-kind” donation for the discounted legal services provided, Enos said in the complaint. Had the “in-kind donation” been reported, it would have exceeded the $2,500 per person donation limit for judicial races in Galveston County, Enos said.
Cox disagreed with the accusation he had violated campaign finance rules. Cox had sought the advice of the Texas Ethics Commission before using campaign money on the lawsuit and had assurances that the spending was allowed, he said. He denied that the per-hour rate he paid Stevens was a gift, which would need in-kind donation documentation.
He paid the same in legal fees as would be charged in a court-appointed case, which was the agreement between Cox and Stevens, Cox said.
“There is no question in my mind” that this was an appropriate expenditure, Cox said. “Of course, you can spend money for legal fights that pertain to your job. This was a challenge of the judiciary.”
A spokesman and general counsel for Texas Ethics Commission had not responded to questions about Enos’ complaint by late Friday.
In his complaint regarding campaign finance rules, Enos cited an ethics commission ruling against Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. Hecht had paid legal fees from campaign funds but did not disclose a $163,226 discount the law firm gave him in the reports, Enos wrote.
In 2008, the commission ruled the law firm’s discount was an in-kind contribution and should have been reported. The commission assessed a $29,000 civil penalty, Enos said. Hecht filed suit to appeal the fine, Enos said. Hecht settled by paying $1,000 without admitting he was at fault, Enos said.
Hecht is chief justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
In interviews with The Daily News, Cox had not disclosed he was paying for the legal fees from his campaign fund and in a guest column Cox wrote and which appeared in the Jan. 18 edition of the newspaper, he said: “I paid the entire bill from my bank account.”