Have Gavel Will Travel

Campaign cash carries a retired judge around the world

Maybe it seemed like retired judge Tom Sullivan was just another tourist when he got off the airliner in France and began taking in the sights of Paris in 1999.

Or when he checked into the Ciragon Palace Hotel in exotic Istanbul the previous year. Or aboard a cruise ship sailing the islands of Greece. Or exploring the mysteries of Rome -- and even those old pyramids in Egypt.

But looks can be deceiving.

Sullivan had so much campaign loot at one point that he asked lawyers not to contribute any more.
Deron Neblett
Sullivan had so much campaign loot at one point that he asked lawyers not to contribute any more.

The longtime Harris County civil court jurist wasn't just on vacation junkets. Technically, his travels could be considered part of the campaign trail. Sullivan was technically spending campaign contributions, even though he retired from his court bench in 1998. It might seem from his itinerary that the only office he's seeking these days is one operated by travel agents. If he's running, it is merely to catch his next flight.

More than a year and a half after he left his judgeship, Sullivan still has a six-figure campaign war chest that might rival those of the hardest-charging judicial politicos in Harris County. Over the past 11 years, federal capital gains taxes on the account have totaled almost $80,000 -- about as much as many local judges have collected for campaigns during their entire careers.

Texas campaign finance laws strictly prohibit politicians from converting campaign contributions for personal use. Sullivan's tapped his account to visit much of the world through far-flung legal seminars and conferences, and he's funded many Houston nonprofits in the process. And all of it is within the limits of state law because it is considered continuing education to be catching one seminar or convention after another.

Critics view that as prime evidence that campaign regulations are in need of serious overhaul. "This is an area of the law that is porous and needs to be tightened up," says attorney Fred Lewis, director of the Austin-based reform group Campaigns for People. The group has the strange notion that political contributions should be restricted to campaign uses. "As it is now, candidates can keep funds for way too long, and are allowed to spend that money way too freely," Lewis says.

For Sullivan -- and others in his circumstances -- the money offers a gateway to travel the globe.

"I only wish the rest of us could have done what he's done," one state district judge says with envy. "Now that's the kind of retirement we'd all love to have."

Spooled on aging microfilm reels within the County Clerk's Office are the expense reports tracking 26 years of the personable Sullivan's career in public office. They begin with small handwritten entries, notable only for their brevity in the business of generating campaign funds.

His May 1974 campaign report, in the race for Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace, shows no contributions collected -- and total spending of $103. The Navy veteran won the election, though, and held that post until he ascended to the judgeship of County Civil Court-at-Law Number 2 in 1980.

Six years later, Sullivan transformed his biggest threat -- a re-election challenge -- into his greatest fiscal success. Pasadena attorney Roy Mease filed as his opponent, so Sullivan hit the campaign trail to load up on contributions.

County civil courts are hardly the high-stakes arenas of state district or appellate venues. They serve as the appeals courts for small claims cases and have dockets heavy in routine bad debt actions. These judges generally handle lawsuits involving $100,000 or less. But they also are the exclusive legal arenas for eminent domain cases, providing judges with lucrative appointment authority that helps to attract donations for their races.

Sullivan showed ample fund-raising skills in '86. He emerged with his judgeship and about $40,000 in leftover donations. So he socked the money away in what was then the little known mutual fund called Fidelity Magellan. The investment soared.

Then Sullivan used that campaign account to acquire more than 5,000 shares of the troubled Chrysler Corporation. That stock was selling for $18. The judge watched as it revved up to more than $90 at one point, split two-for-one and kept climbing.

"It's been magic," Sullivan says, still amazed at his alchemy in trading off his campaign largess. That golden touch became apparent even prior to the overall ascension of the stock markets, back before the public's discovery of Nasdaq and the dazzling dot-coms. By the early '90s, his campaign account sported a quarter-million-dollar balance. Later investments in a variety of stocks were also profitable.

However ironic, Sullivan displays the political truism that the more incumbents amass in their treasuries, the less likelihood that they will ever need the money for an election. Sullivan's penchant for travel was already apparent -- he didn't threaten to set any attendance awards while on the bench -- but no sane office-seekers would go up against anyone with that kind of loot ready to be unleashed against them. So it provided both an insurance policy against drawing opponents, as well as his funding for foreign travel for legal seminars.

For example, his campaign reports for 1993 reflect extensive junkets that consumed much of the last half of that year. He was off to Rome, then traveled Ireland and managed to get back for the American Bar Association convention in New York City.

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