Texas earns ‘F’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Texas:

Strengths:

Texas asks its Supreme Court justices to disclose at least some information in each category the Center analyzed. Unlike most states, Texas judges must report investment income, transactions and the number of shares they own in an individual company’s stock. Justices must also disclose their real estate interests.

Weaknesses:

Texas’ financial disclosures are notable for a couple of key loopholes. While judges are required to disclose their family members’ financial interests, the reporting instructions advise judges to report information about their spouse and dependent children only if the filer has “actual control over that financial activity.” That “actual control” language has been the subject of controversy. For example, state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown did not disclose that she was driving a $56,000 Mercedes-Benz — provided to her husband by a state contractor in exchange for accounting services — because her husband possessed “actual control” of the car. If “actual control” was not included as a caveat in the state reporting requirements, Texas’ score would have been 18 points higher, according to the Center’s calculations.

Judges are required to report gift amounts only if they are in the form of cash or a cash equivalent, such as a gift certificate. Additionally, judges do not report the exact value of their investment holdings. Instead, they indicate the number of shares they own in six ranges. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the Center that while it would be difficult to report in exact amounts — “If the media finds you off 10 cents, they might make a big deal of it” — narrower value ranges might improve the form. “I do think the [value] categories are pretty broad,” Hecht said.

Highlights:

One now-retired justice reported a stock portfolio as vast and diverse as the Lone Star State itself. In 2012, Wallace Jefferson disclosed owning stock in more than 200 publicly-traded companies, ranging from Texas-based oil-and-gas titan ExxonMobil to wholesale club Costco. Though many of the companies featured in Jefferson’s stock portfolio could potentially appear before the Texas Supreme Court, Jefferson said the argument to recuse in each instance is “far-fetched.” Jefferson — who retired from the bench in October — told the Center that while he disclosed those more than 200 stocks individually, they are part of a retirement account managed by Merrill Lynch, which he acquired while in private practice before he joined the court. “I don’t know what I’m doing in the financial arena, so I let the experts do it,” he said.