Monday, March 30, 2009

Keller's poverty pleas draw new scrutiny to high criminal court

Under normal circumstances, the media ignore the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is Texas' highest criminal court. More attention is usually paid to the Texas Supreme Court, which hears only civil cases. But a series of high-profile squabbles with and smackdowns by the US Supreme Court over the death penalty, followed up by official misconduct charges against Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, have focused more scrutiny on the court than perhaps at any time in living memory.

Good for the public, bad for the court. Judge Keller, in particular, appears unprepared for more intense scrutiny, as evidenced by a story by Steve McGonigle in today's Dallas News titled "Judge Keller's disclosures omit nearly $2 million in real estate, public records show."Whoops!

This comes on the heels of Judge Keller's sworn statement last week that her legal bills to defend against judicial misconduct charges would be "financially ruinous." But that assertion, says her lawyer, was based on her publicly disclosed assets, not the ones she concealed from the Ethics Commission:

[Keller's attorney Chip] Babcock, a partner in one of the largest law firms in Texas, said that the proceeding could cost Keller several hundred thousand dollars and that it could consume most if not all of her income and assets.

He said he based his prediction on the resources Keller listed on her latest personal financial report to the state and had not asked to see any other financial statements from his client, a member of a well-known Dallas family.

Andrew Wheat from Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group on campaign finance issues, put it well when he told McGonigle: "It leaves one speechless to see so much left out of her personal financial statements on the one hand and then on the other hand to see her making her claims that hiring a private attorney would be financially ruinous."

How much do you wanna bet every other judge on the CCA is busy today checking whether they need to update their own ethics commission filings?

These are folks who are not used to having others question their actions or check the veracity of their public declarations as rigorously as other statewide politicians. For a variety of historical reasons dating back to Reconstruction, the CCA has mostly flown under the radar and avoided public attention. Judge Keller has changed that, maybe for good. Do you think the court is ready?

UPDATE: From Texans for Public Justice:

Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) filed complaints today with prosecutors and the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller illegally failed to disclose millions of dollars worth of real estate holdings in sworn personal financial disclosure statements. TPJ's complaints follow up on revelations reported Monday by the Dallas Morning News.

Read the full media release
View the Texas Ethics Commission complaint
View the complaint letter to Travis County Attorney


Daniel said...

Which real estate holdings did she leave off? I hope it was the strip club!

Anonymous said...

I hope the other judges on the CCA realize it's evolve or perish.

Once the radar picks you up - especially when you're in the state with the biggest population increase (by numbers) in the USA - I think the days of subverting the constitution and justice are over

doran williams said...

I'm dubious that Judge Keller omited such a huge asset from her disclosure. Its possible, I guess, that she is so arrogant or stupid enough to do so, but it just seems unlikely.

It is much more likely that the real estate is in some kind of trust, of which Judge Keller is either a beneficiary or the trustee, or both.

If she is one or both, then her name could show up on the Appraisal District and County Tax Assessor Collector's records as "owner". But that would be just a convention, not necessarily an accurate statement of fee ownership.

Unknown said...

Doran, you are an expert (props to you, too, Scott!), so I'll ask you: What would be more accurate and appropriate? A statement on her actual income from the property and/or trust that holds the property?

doran williams said...

Elizabeth, I've never laid eyes on the disclosure form required by the Ethics Commission to be fully completed and filed, so I don't know if your alternative would be appropriate. I don't know that there is a trust. I was just speculating.

What I can say with some certainty is that it is really not appropriate at all for Judge Keller, or anyone else, to fail to disclose something that should be disclosed in order to comply with the law. I don't know if that is what is going on here or not.

It does seem to me that if Judge Keller is only a trustee of a trust, and not a beneficiary, then she does not "own" the trust and there would be no need to include it among her assets.

If Judge Keller is the beneficiary of a trust, then one would have to study the trust instrument in order to determine how to value the interest she has as a beneficiary. It may be a contingent interest: I haven't any idea of how to value something like that. It may be an interest that does not vest until she reaches 65 or 75: How you assign a value to that kind of interest is beyond me.

I would like to know the source for Mr. McGonigle's assertion that Judge Keller omitted $2 million in assets from her required disclosure of assets. What are the public records he refers to?

j said...

All these attacks on Keller to cover up TDS's malpractice. My, my.

Anonymous said...

A big part of the complaint seems to be that Keller did not disclose her affiliations as an officer or director in family companies and trusts.

Anonymous said...

She should be prosecuted for perjury and/or false entry in a government record - whatever the highest crime is- a la her ruling in vasilas v state and other cases where she has gutted out jurisprudence, in para materia, specific statute governance over general statute -

It's time she faced the full brunt of what she hath wrought to the accused of this state

Anonymous said...

What I can say with some certainty is that it is really not appropriate at all for Judge Keller, or anyone else, to fail to disclose something that should be disclosed in order to comply with the law. I don't know if that is what is going on here or not.Condominiums Mississauga