DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Builder's PAC aided judge
Justice says help needed for his legal bills even as firm's appeal neared
By WAYNE SLATER
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
AUSTIN - A political committee funded by Republican homebuilder Bob Perry contributed $16,000 to help Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht pay his legal bills as the court was preparing to hear arguments in a case against Perry's company.
Justice Hecht solicited donors in February to pay the cost of defending himself against charges of violating judicial ethics. The state's judicial-conduct panel admonished Justice Hecht last year for using his office to promote the failed nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. The sanction was subsequently overturned, but Justice Hecht owed $340,000 to his lawyers.
Hillco PAC, an Austin-based committee whose primary funder is Mr. Perry, donated $16,000 to the justice. And the contribution came days before the Texas Supreme Court heard an appeal by Perry Homes seeking to overturn a string of unfavorable rulings.
The case involves a retirement-age couple, Bob and Jane Cull of Mansfield, locked in a 10-year legal battle with the Houston-based homebuilder over structural problems with their house.
An arbiter awarded the couple $800,000, but Perry Homes has refused to pay.
Attorneys for Perry Homes say the couple waived their right to arbitration.
The arbiter and lower courts disagreed.
The donation violates no laws or ethics rules. And Justice Hecht is not required to report campaign contributions until July, so it's unclear whether he received more from Mr. Perry or other donors with business before the court.
Mr. Perry has given more than $1 million to Hillco PAC for distribution to statewide and legislative political candidates since 1991. Mr. Perry has also contributed to candidates in his own name, including more than $300,000 to all nine current Supreme Court justices, either directly or through political committees, over the years.
Justice Hecht has said he raised enough to cover his legal bills but didn't know the identity of the contributors. Hillco PAC directed questions to Perry spokesman Anthony Holm, who declined to discuss the matter.
The political committee contributed $16,000 to Justice Hecht in February and $20,000 to a second Supreme Court justice, Don Willett, in March.
Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign contributions, criticized Justice Hecht for soliciting donors with cases before the court.
"Taking the money when he did to pay for his personal legal expenses, at the very least, calls his impartiality into question with regard to the Perry Homes case," he said.
Justice Hecht said there was nothing inappropriate about the fundraising. He said he was wrongly accused by the judicial-conduct panel and left with a large legal bill.
"Take any judge, you can't pay the legal fees out of your own pocket. You don't make enough," said Justice Hecht, whose salary is $150,000 a year. "So your choices are either to take the injustice and say its part of being in public service or quit."
Justice Hecht initially asked two legislators to sponsor bills for the state to pay his legal bills, but the measures were withdrawn after The Dallas Morning News reported that the judge had solicited campaign contributors.
MONEY TO THE BENCH
Nov. 30, 2006: Bob Perry gives $40,000 to Hillco PAC
Feb. 3, 2007: Justice Nathan Hecht writes to political donors, asking for help paying his legal bills after being accused of violating judicial ethics.
Feb. 6: Hillco contributes $1,000 to Justice Hecht.
Feb. 15: Hillco contributes an additional $15,000 to Justice Hecht.
Feb. 20: The Texas Supreme Court hears oral arguments in an appeal by Bob Perry Homes in a case against homeowners Bob and Jane Cull.
Feb. 26: Bob Perry gives $50,000 to Hillco PAC.
March 7: Hillco contributes $20,000 to Supreme Court Justice Don Willett.
Although candidates need not file contribution reports until July, Hillco PAC files monthly with the Texas Ethics Commission. Its most recent filings show that it has collected $134,000 since the November elections - $115,000 of that from Mr. Perry, including $50,000 in February.
Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News