Ruby is Best for Texas 6th Congressional District

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Justice facing criminal and ethics probes in Austin - Hecht accused of accepting discount legal work from a high-profile firm

By CLAY ROBISON - Houston Chronicle - Aug. 9, 2007

AUSTIN — Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, under investigation by Travis County prosecutors after being accused of accepting an illegal contribution from a law firm, also is facing questions from the Texas Ethics Commission.

Hecht has declined to comment on the case, which involves a discount he received for personal legal services from the Jackson Walker law firm.

But he has retained attorney Wayne Meissner of Austin to represent him, and Jackson Walker has hired lawyer Roy Minton.

"Justice Hecht is responding to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation, and we hope to resolve the matter as soon as possible," Meissner said Thursday.

The district attorney's office acknowledged last month that it was reviewing a complaint filed by Texas Watch, a government watchdog group, against Hecht.

The group also filed complaints with the Ethics Commission and the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, but neither agency, citing confidentiality laws, will discuss the case.

An attorney with the Ethics Commission, however, has directed Hecht to respond in writing and under oath to allegations that he failed to report the lowered fees as an in-kind political contribution and that the discount exceeded the $30,000 limit on judicial donations from a single law firm.

The Houston Chronicle got a copy of the Ethics Commission's letter from Texas Watch.

The controversy stems from Jackson Walker's successful defense of Hecht last year in a dispute with the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The judicial commission admonished Hecht for promoting President Bush's short-lived nomination in 2005 of Harriet Miers, a longtime friend of Hecht's, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It said Hecht had violated a rule prohibiting Texas judges from publicly endorsing other candidates for office. Hecht appealed and, represented by Jackson Walker, won a dismissal of the admonition from a three-judge panel last October.

Hecht solicited contributions from lawyers to help pay his legal fees, and, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission, paid Jackson Walker $342,416 from his political fund.

Chip Babcock, a Jackson Walker partner who handled the case, said Hecht's bill was reduced by 25 percent because the case involved a key public issue — freedom of speech.

Babcock said the discount was legal and denied the law firm was trying to curry favor with a Supreme Court justice.

Alex Winslow, Texas Watch's executive director, said it is illegal for state judges to accept gifts, except for campaign contributions, from parties the judges know are likely to appear before them. A violation is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by as much as one year in jail and a $4,000 fine, he said.

The Ethics Commission could assess a civil fine against Hecht if it determines he violated reporting requirements.

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