Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Judge who didn't report campaign finances fined - Democrat who has said he opposes fundraising must pay $38,000

By MICHAEL GRABELL - The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Dallas civil court judge has been sanctioned by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to file campaign finance reports in the 2006 election. And now the Texas attorney general and a state judge are demanding that he pay $38,000 in fines and court fees.

Judge Bruce Priddy, one of 42 Democratic judges elected in Dallas County in November, has said that he is philosophically opposed to the idea of judges asking people for money. He did not return calls Tuesday, but he said in February that he didn't think he had to file reports because he didn't raise any money.

The judge has since held a fundraiser in which lawyers were invited to hear a polka band and dance the hokey pokey. It's unclear how much he raised at that event because he didn't file the report due Monday, according to the ethics commission.

"Our concern here is the fact that he owes this money to the state of Texas and the fact that he has ignored a judge's order," said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott's office.

Elected officials and political candidates are required to file campaign finance reports to show the public who gives them money and how they spend it.

Because Texans elect their judiciary, it's important for judges to comply with the law, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks campaign donations.

"Half or more of their money historically comes from people who have cases in their courtrooms, which presents a horrible conflict of interest," he said. "Disclosure is the best tool we have for accountability."

Judge Priddy was fined $30,500 for failing to file four reports between July 17, 2006, and Jan. 16. The attorney general sued him in Travis County in April.

But Judge Priddy never responded to the lawsuit, and State District Judge John Dietz granted the state a default judgment, ordering the Dallas judge to pay the $30,500 fine and $7,500 in attorney's fees and court costs.

Tim Sorrells, spokesman for the ethics commission, said Judge Priddy hasn't responded to state officials.

"We send a notice to file the report to all the filers, and if the report is late, we send them a late notice," he said. "If the report is still not filed, we'll send a notice saying that we're going to refer it to the attorney general's office."

The state has the option of freezing the judge's bank accounts if the fines aren't paid. And he could face discipline from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Judge Priddy's situation is similar to that of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Paul Womack, who said he raised so little money in his 2002 campaign that "the public interest was not significantly harmed by the delay" in filing seven required reports.

The judicial conduct commission publicly condemned Judge Womack after he told the commission he had attention deficit disorder and a procrastination problem.

During the campaign, friends and colleagues described Judge Priddy as one of the most ethical and upstanding candidates – someone who avoided almost all politicking to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In 2002, while still an attorney, he donated nearly $400,000 to agencies that help the homeless after winning a verdict for thousands of apartment residents who were overcharged for water, according to an article on the state bar Web site.

"I really think it's a philosophical issue with him," said Darlene Ewing, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "He thinks the judiciary should be totally free of campaign contributions."

Regardless of intentions, Ms. Ewing said, she expects all Democratic officeholders to file the reports.

Judge Priddy has had other problems since taking office. For several weeks in April, the State Bar of Texas, which licenses lawyers, listed him as suspended for failing to complete his legal education requirements.

But it turned out that the judge just hadn't filled out the correct form to change his status from lawyer to judge.

Despite the judge's statements against raising money, he did hold a fundraiser after the election.

His Web site invited the public to "blow out" the campaign season at "the one and only" fundraiser for Judge Priddy. The March 6 event at the Hickory Street Annex near Fair Park featured the polka band Brave Combo and "upscale festival food with cold beer."

"Where else can you mingle with the greatest legal minds in the area AND do the hokey pokey?" the invitation read. "Guaranteed to be the most fun you have ever had at a judicial candidate fundraiser!"

"Of course, any contributions would be appreciated, but $ is not necessary," the Web site said.
Staff writer Diane Jennings contributed to this report
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