Thursday, January 27, 2005

When White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was a Texas Supreme Court justice running to stay in office in 2000, he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies that had business before him and he did not recuse himself from voting on their cases.

As Texas judge, Gonzales heard donors' cases

Practice legal, but still faces criticism

By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff | January 27, 2005

WASHINGTON -- When White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was a Texas Supreme Court justice running to stay in office in 2000, he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies that had business before him and he did not recuse himself from voting on their cases.

The practice is legal in Texas, and Gonzales was not the only judge to benefit from it. But his record in 2000 -- when he raised $539,000 for the Republican primary, outraising his opponent by a 1,047-to-1 ratio -- drew special criticism from an Austin-based group that tracks the influence of money on government.

Gonzales's nomination to be US attorney general was approved yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted 10-8 on party lines to send his confirmation to the Senate floor. Criticism of his nomination has focused on his role in formulating the Bush administration's policies on torture and interrogations.

But to government watchdog groups, his record of declining to recuse himself from cases involving campaign contributors is also worthy of scrutiny.

''It raises questions about the integrity of his decision-making process," said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a public corruption watchdog group. ''When you have people come before the bench from whom you have accepted campaign contributions, and you don't recuse yourself, that raises questions."

Gonzales had been appointed to the bench in 1999 by then-Governor George W. Bush, but had to run in 2000 to keep his seat. That year, he accepted $2,000 from an insurance company after the court heard arguments -- but before it issued a decision -- as to how much the company should pay a man injured in a car accident. In a similar case, he voted in favor of another insurance company whose law firm gave his campaign $2,500 just before the court heard arguments.

Both cases involved whether insurance companies had to pay interest to plaintiffs whose final awards were delayed because the case went to court. The watchdog group said the decisions were ''a costly slap in the face to Texas consumers."

The group sarcastically called the donations ''prejudgment premiums" collected by Gonzales and another justice who voted in favor of the insurance industry.

While the group singled out those two donations as particularly egregious, it also criticized Gonzales for taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from law firms with clients before the Texas Supreme Court and business interests who wanted to clamp down on large personal injury awards.

After Gonzales's confirmation hearing two weeks ago was dominated by questions about the Bush administration's detention and interrogation policies in the war on terrorism, Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, sent a written follow-up question to Gonzales about his judicial campaign finance record.

Feingold asked him whether the reports were accurate and asked, ''[Did he think] it is ethical or appropriate for a judge to accept campaign donations from parties appearing before him?"

Gonzales sent back three sentences in reply: ''In Texas, the voters elect the justices of the Supreme Court. My contributors, as well as those of every other justice, are a matter of public record. I am confident that during my service as a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas, I complied with all legal and ethical requirements regarding acceptance of campaign contributions."

The White House press office declined to make Gonzales available for further comment yesterday. But he was more forthcoming in a response attributed to him by Texans for Public Justice in their 2000 report: ''In the whole scheme of things, $2,000 isn't going to have any kind of influence on me."

The widespread practice of state and local judges accepting campaign contributions from entities who come before them has been widely criticized by public corruption watchdogs.

Many such watchdogs yesterday assailed the system as creating an egregious conflict of interest that breeds public cynicism and raises questions about judges' impartiality.

Among them were Fred Wertheimer, the founder of Common Cause who is now president of a similar group called Democracy 21; Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Justice at Stake, a group ''dedicated to keeping courts free from special interest pressure;" and Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Scott Harshbarger, the former Massachusetts attorney general and a former Common Cause president, said that even though accepting such contributions is legal, it creates a serious ethics problem.

''Here's a person who is about to become attorney general of the United States -- you would like to believe that he would at least see that there was a potential problem," Harshbarger said.

''Saying it's the system and everybody did it only gets you so far," said Andrew Wheat, the research director of Texans for Public Justice.

One of Gonzales's friends and former colleagues on the Texas Supreme Court, former chief justice Tom Phillips, has become an outspoken proponent of changing the Texas system to reduce the need for campaign donations. But he said it's not fair to single Gonzales out for doing what he felt was necessary to get elected.

Phillips, who was on the court from 1998 to 2004, noted that Gonzales lost to his unfunded primary opponent, Rod Gorman, 56 percent to 44 percent, in eight media markets where Gonzales did not buy television ads. In the 11 larger markets where Gonzales did buy ads, he surged to 59 percent on election day after a week of last-minute ads. That gave him a landslide victory.

''Had he not run a campaign, there is no way he could have won," Phillips said, adding that Republican primary voters would be reluctant to vote for little-known candidates with Hispanic surnames.

Phillips declined to comment on whether Gonzales should have accepted the contributions, other than to say that it can be difficult to keep track of every company and law firm that has or may have business before the court.

Common Cause's Pingree was unsympathetic. ''What's really unethical is to accept money in a campaign and allow it to influence a future decision, but even to have the appearance of that happening undermines the confidence of the public," she said.