Add Paul Green to the list of State Supreme Court justices facing questions about campaign finances.
A judicial watchdog group said Monday it will pursue an ethics complaint against Texas Supreme Court Justice Paul Green over his use of political contributions for mileage reimbursement, despite Green's denial that the costs were for commuting.
Green said the group Texas Watch is mistaken in assuming that his frequent travel between Austin and San Antonio were for commutes. He said he has lived in an Austin apartment since March 2005, and his travels to his former hometown were for meetings and speaking engagements.
The Texas Ethics Commission said in a 1993 advisory opinion that appellate judges cannot use their campaign funds to pay for commuting expenses between their hometowns and the city where the court sits. Judges are allowed to use their political funds for campaign travel and travel related to their jobs.
Green said he knew about the ban on using campaign funds for commuting expenses, and was surprised about the allegations by Texas Watch, a group that monitors the Texas Supreme Court and civil justice issues.
"I'm invited, as we all are, to go to various places to speak at seminars," said Green, who served on the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio before winning election to the Supreme Court in November 2004. He started his six-year term in January 2005.
"Coming from San Antonio, I get lots of requests from the local bar, young lawyers, law school, any number of school groups to come in and visit," he said.
Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, said the information from Green won't change his plans to file a complaint today with the ethics commission.
"That as an explanation does not allay my concern about the potential that Judge Green violated the ethics statute," Winslow said.
"The volume of trips between Austin and San Antonio, literally several times a week, raises doubts in my mind that he's going to speak to the Rotary Club," said Winslow. "I find that very hard to believe."
Winslow said Green paid himself $16,761 for 272 separate trips between Austin and San Antonio over the past three years.
Green said he still owns a house in San Antonio where his ex-wife lives. He said he is aware of the advisory opinion against charging commuting costs to his campaign.
Meanwhile, Justice Medina is dealing with his financial questions:
Terry Yates said Medina relied on bad advice from an accountant that he could use his political fund for the commuting costs.
"It turns out that is not permissive. He's in the process of paying the campaign back that amount of money that was improperly deducted," said Yates.
Medina paid himself nearly $57,000 for mileage reimbursement over the past three years. As of his most recent campaign expense report, filed Jan. 15, he had paid back $2,000. Yates said he did not know how much Medina would return and said that amended campaign finance reports are being prepared.
Winslow said Texas Watch doesn't plan to file an ethics complaint over Medina's mileage reimbursements because it could not determine from his reports where the trips occurred. Medina claimed between $1,000 and $3,000 for unspecified mileage for most months in 2005, 2006 and the first half of 2007.
"We could not pinpoint which of the reimbursements were for commuting expenses," he said.
Medina's monthly mileage reimbursements stopped after his Spring home burned last June in what fire investigators later said was a suspicious fire.
Not a campaign issue, but certainly problematic:
In addition to the questions raised about Green's and Medina's use of campaign funds, Justice Nathan Hecht is facing a criminal investigation by the Travis County District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit for accepting a discount on legal expenses arising out of his appeal of a State Judicial Conduct admonishment in 2005.
"There is a cloud of scandal hanging over the Texas Supreme Court," Winslow said.