A Harris County judge is facing federal charges that accuse her of using campaign donations for personal expenses, including for mortgage payments, private school tuition and travel.
Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, is charged with wire fraud charges, according to federal prosecutors. She turned herself in to U.S. Magistrate Peter Bray, appearing before him with chains wrapped around her waist and ankles.
She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the magistrate set a pre-trial conference for Jan. 6.
Wearing a gray and black suit, she kept her head down for most of the arraignment. Smoots-Thomas has breast cancer, and had a round of chemotherapy on Thursday, attorney Kent Schaffer said.
Schaffer denied the charges after the proceeding, alleging that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, under Ryan Patrick, was targeting Smoots-Thomas because she is a black female Democrat.
“She has not defrauded anybody,” he said.
Patrick’s office has been contacted for comment on Schaffer’s allegations.
A federal grand jury on Oct. 24 returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas, who presides over the 164th District Court and has jurisdiction over civil cases within Harris County. The indictment was unsealed on Friday.
The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas of soliciting campaign contributions on the premise the money would be used to help facilitate her re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2016, prosecutors said. She concealed the expenses from her campaign treasurer and the Texas Ethics Commission by filing false campaign finance reports, according to the charges.
Obviously, this is bad and upsetting. She is of course innocent until proven guilty, but federal prosecutors tend to prefer bringing charges in cases they feel confident about winning.
Judge Smoots-Thomas was first elected in 2008. She was known as Alexandra Smoots-Hogan then; I know she had gotten divorced, and I presume remarried. There’s always a question about whether elected officials who are accused of crimes should resign when that happens. This is where I point out that Ken Paxton is still Attorney General, and I have not called for his resignation because he has not yet been convicted of anything. I’m inclined to believe that Kent Schaffer’s allegation about Assistant US Attorney Ryan Patrick is more defense lawyer strategy than anything else, but if all it took was an indictment to force someone out of office, then it’s certainly possible to imagine a politically motivated prosecutor filing sketchy charges as a partisan tactic. Plenty of people have been unjustly prosecuted in other contexts, after all. It’s a terrible look and I’m sure Republicans are rubbing their hands with glee over the potential attack ads, but even public officials get their day in court.