Have Gavel Will Travel
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?"
Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause in Texas, says the leftover campaign cash poses much broader issues statewide. Her group is one of several pressing for changes to restrict how departing officeholders can use remaining funds. Their point is that contributions are sought and received by candidates for the purpose of financing campaigns for those candidates -- and not for all sorts of other ventures and expenses coming much later.
Woodford's primary concern is legislators who "leave with this sack of [unspent campaign] cash," only to return and use it to lobby for special interests.
Sullivan says the law requires him to empty his campaign coffer within six years of leaving office. "So I've only got four-and-a-half years to go." Even that provision is vague, however. Woodford believed the six-year limit had been established -- now she notes recent rulings that enable former officeholders to continue spending the cash indefinitely, as long as they keep a designated "campaign treasurer" on file with the state.
"We think the six years ought to mean six years," she says. "Instead, it is open-ended."
Sullivan says he just follows the laws. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't refund the contributions at this point. There's a one-year limit on returning money -- and donors can't get more than they originally contributed, he says. "I've always said this, 'I've always played by the rules. If they change the rules, I'll follow the new ones -- just as long as I know what they are.' "
In the meantime, he's excited over a new stock for his campaign fund -- GeneMedicine of the Woodlands, which was recently acquired by a California company. And Sullivan's also eagerly anticipating upcoming bar conferences in New York and London. He explains that he has side trips to Amsterdam and France sandwiched between them.
Sullivan will be paying for the side trips with personal money. The rest comes courtesy of that magical campaign account.
E-mail George Flynn at email@example.com.
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