Have Gavel Will Travel

Campaign cash carries a retired judge around the world

On the road in that time, he spent at least $3,500 in campaign funds -- about twice that much the following year for a continuing legal education "seminar on the Danube River." Munich Germany and Salzburg Austria were out of the question, at least until his seminars there the next year.

While the market was taking care of his contributions handily, Sullivan wasn't greedy. In 1995, other judicial candidates were corralling attorneys for contributions. Sullivan sent a different message: Please don't contribute to him. The next year, he sent every licensed attorney in the Houston area a brief note explaining his situation and that he didn't want money -- he was only soliciting their endorsing signatures on return postcards.

Not surprisingly, the Republican was unopposed as he served out his years, retiring at the end of his term in 1998 at age 69. His only lingering verdict, it seems, is how to dispose of that all loot generated from the campaign funds.

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.

Texas election law states plainly that interest and all other income produced from campaign contribution investments have to be treated just like they were donations themselves. And that it is a Class A misdemeanor offense for any candidate to convert contributions to personal use. Such spending is defined as a "use that primarily furthers individual or family purposes not connected with the performance of duties or activities as a candidate for or holder of public office."

Translated, that generally limits spending to a few basics. A candidate can give the funds to the state treasury, donate to non-profits such as churches or schools or charities, contribute to other political candidates or causes, or cover expenses related to their profession or office. That last option is somewhat vague -- and it also the one used extensively by Sullivan.

Sarah Woelk, an attorney with the State Ethics Commission, says spending is permissible for fees such as bar dues and required continuing legal education courses and seminars, because an officeholder needs those to keep in good standing as an attorney and judge. However, if Sullivan outright retires and severs his ties as a judge -- if he doesn't fill in as a visiting judge, for example -- then there would be legitimate legal issues about such spending, Woelk says.

Sullivan's reports reflect a variety of contributions to local candidates and Republican Party organizations, as well as considerable charitable donations. In October 1998, he gave 50 shares of Chrysler stock, valued at about $2,400, to the George Bush Presidential Library. In 1996, the Sigma Nu Foundation Heritage Trust got $26,250. And a variety of Houston organizations and institutions -- from the Houston SPCA to the Museum of Natural Science to St. Martin's Episcopal Church -- benefited by at least four figures from his philanthropy.

Sullivan defends his preferences for the Continuing Legal Education courses. There's a wide range of local courses available. Most are low-cost, no-frills offerings, such as brown-bag lunch sessions put on by law schools, judges and the Houston Bar Association.

He points out that he only went on one county-paid trip to a conference, early in his career. Sullivan says he was appalled to notice that a cohort from Harris County took the taxpayer funds but never showed up at the conference. From then on, Sullivan paid his own way.

He's managed to steer clear of the controversies stirred up by some local officeholders. State Senator Jon Lindsay, when he was county judge of Harris County in 1993, was indicted for perjury involving the spending of $190,000 in campaign cash on his son's scuba-diving boat in Honduras. Lindsay successfully argued he was simply investing the money in a business -- rather than personally enriching his family. The case against him fell apart when County Commissioner Jerry Eversole had similar charges of mishandling $88,000 in campaign funds dismissed because of the vagueness of campaign reporting laws.

Sullivan's kept comparatively meticulous spending records, although some of those reports raise eyebrows about the latitude allowed in spending campaign money. Several entries simply list "political dinner" for up to six unnamed guests. In 1998, there was $314 paid to an Italian airline for "emergency airfare to catch cruise ship for North Carolina bar seminar." Two years ago, he paid $152 at Dillard's Post Oak store for a "wedding gift for campaign supporter."

He's tapped his account for $122 for judicial license plates, a $25 robe repair, $620 for wife Lorelei's "airfare to Italy," $200 for investors' guides and $100 at the Kroger's on San Felipe for "cash for cabs and miscellaneous expenses" for the bar convention in Toronto. Sullivan's account paid more than $400 in costs so he could be on hand at Chrysler's stockholders' meeting in St. Louis in 1995.

He says his travel spending is not a loophole in the law, but rather a legitimate expense for judges to comply with educational requirements and improve their skills. As part of the conferences and seminars, he and others enrolled have had lunches and sessions with the highest court officials in places such as Australia, Italy, Germany and France, he says.

Some of his comments draw chuckles from campaign reform activists. "So he's learned about Turkish law?" one asked. "I'm sure that's going to help him in his next supermarket slip-and-fall case. Just tell me what international law has to do with being a civil court judge in Houston?"

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