GALVESTON

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.”

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

(16) comments

PD Hyatt

Wow, it doesn't seem to matter to Judge Cox about our money and the way that he spends it.... Sort of like it doesn't matter to Judge Cox about us being guaranteed that we have Freedom of Religion either.... I do hope that everyone who is going to vote legally this year will remember this as they go to vote and ask yourself if having a Judge that is against Freedom of Religion and for spending other people's money without caring about it, is the type of person we want running or ruining our County government....

Dwight Burns

Nonsense!

Carol Dean

Please explain your "Freedom of Religion" comment.

PD Hyatt

See his article about Freedom from what he calls the religious right

Carol Dean

Why don't you share the link for inquiring minds?

Ron Shelby

That's sounds like an incredibly improper way to use campaign funds. People didn't donate money to a candidate so that they can go and sue other members of the same party. This is not a campaign expense and it cannot be construed as a campaign expense in any way.

Carol Dean

Ron, keep your comments in Ga.

Ron Shelby

No thanks. I'll keep it where my property is: Galveston County.

Susan Criss

Actually Ron during the time that an elected official is not up, then by law the campaign fund becomes an "office holder account" and remains so until the officeholder is up for re-election. This is a legal use.

PD Hyatt

So from what you are saying is that campaign funds are just slush funds for politicians....

Carol Dean

PD, why don't you ask Ken Clark what he does with all of the money in his "war chest"? He seems to be very happy to share his money to support other candidate campaigns within the county.

Ron Shelby

I realize that. This is really an appearance issue.

Don Johnson

The Daily News needs to start annotating these stories with a PPA notice – as political attack advertisements. A few days ago the editor called the Daily News publication of these unsubstantiated claims (just before the primary elections) as “unfortunate”. Looks like someone in the news room did not get that memo. If these type of claims are fair game, then why doesn’t this newspaper say anything about Mark Henry transferring approximately $60,000 out of his campaign account into his own pocket or using Joe Nixon (a $450 an hour attorney from an international law firm hired with taxpayers funds) who is now being used to defend Henry’s personal ethics issues? These publications have been very one sided and obviously intended to distract voter attention away from the creditable facts. 1) Henry wastefully spent over $1.2 million (of taxpayer funds) fighting a simple TRO that could have easily been resolved for less than one tenth of what he spent. 2) All the state district judges signed a letter opposing Henry’s termination of a court employee and as the administrative judge, Judge Cox acted to protect the courts. 3) Cox could have taken money out of his personal savings or from his campaign account to pay for a legal issue that pertained to his job as the administrative judge. The Enos allegation is basically trying to say Cox should have taken money out of his right pocket instead of his left pocket – both accounts were his (a savings account and a campaign account) and either could have been used for this purpose. Ironically in years past it would not have been necessary for Judge Cox to personally pay for an attorney to represent his branch of local government. Commissioners historically funded both sides on several occasions to assure a fair balance of representation and hopefully encourage reasonable officials to settle issues without the necessity of going to the SCOTX. But in the Mark Henry administration, legal confrontations are obviously intended to be expensive and lengthy – to wear down and financially damage anyone that disagrees with the County Judge. Maybe the Daily News should publish a story on how much legal expenses have gone up during Mark Henry’s reign or is that something that has to be held until after primary voting is complete?

Carol Dean

Nope DJ7, an article exposing Henry needs to be published ASAP. Wait...is it possible that The County Judge and some of the Commissioners came into play in signing a contract with GCDN?

PD Hyatt

I just wonder how anyone could or would vote for Cox after the 2 articles that he wrote.... IMHO he shot himself in the foot with the first one and then proceeded to cut the foot off with the second one.... Sometimes it is better to let people think that you are a fool instead of opening your mouth and proving that you are one....

Carol Dean

Keep talking, Paul. You are clearly showing your inability to understand the facts. Keep talking!

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