Keller's attorney says her omissions in disclosure form were unintentional
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
By STEVE McGONIGLE / The Dallas Morning News
The failure of the state's highest criminal court judge to disclose all of her real estate holdings was unintentional and not an attempt to hide assets, her attorney said Tuesday.
Sharon Keller's repeated omissions from sworn financial statements she was required by law to file appear to be the result of a "clerical error" and the judge not knowing that her father had put properties under her name, attorney Ed Shack said.
Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, began reviewing her holdings after The Dallas Morning News reported Monday that she had not disclosed at least seven properties valued at $1.9 million. When the review is complete, she will file an amended financial report, Shack said.
"It's absolutely an inadvertent error," Shack said. "Unfortunately, she made it, and she's going to try to correct it."
Keller already faces ethics charges by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct stemming from allegations that at 5 p.m. she closed the court to a last-minute death penalty appeal. The condemned inmate was executed a few hours after being shut out.
The judge has asked the state to pay her attorney's fees, claiming that the costs of her defense could be financially devastating.
On Tuesday, a liberal watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, filed new civil and criminal complaints accusing Keller of violating ethics laws by failing to disclose her assets in a series of sworn statements filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
The group contended that Keller did not list 11 properties in which she may have had an interest, nor did she list herself as an officer or director of three family corporations.
"It seems like she doesn't take public service as seriously as Texas' highest judge should," said Craig McDonald, executive director of the Austin-based organization.
The complaints were filed with the ethics commission and the Travis County attorney's office. If upheld, they could subject Keller to fines of up to $10,000 per violation or a possible jail term of up to six months.
The News found Keller had not disclosed seven residential and commercial properties in which she was listed as owner in tax and deed records. Among the properties were two homes in the Keller family compound on Garland Road worth about $1 million.
Other omissions included a vacant commercial lot in Euless and an occupied commercial property adjacent to Keller's Drive-In, a well-known hamburger restaurant on East Northwest Highway operated by her father, Jack Keller. Together, the two commercial properties are valued at $823,000, records show.
Shack said the judge told him that she had listed the Garland Road homes on her annual financial statement through 2002. After that time, he said, the two properties "dropped off somehow, and she doesn't know why."
Some of the other omitted properties may have been listed in records under her name by her father without her knowledge, Shack said. She, her father and his attorney are trying to determine which of those properties should be disclosed, Shack said.
Jack Keller, whose nickname is Cactus Jack, made a fortune through his restaurant business along with property investments and oil speculation. Records show he, his wife and four children have extensive property holdings worth tens of millions of dollars
The News also reported that Keller did not disclose she was an officer, director or beneficiary of two family corporations and a family trust. Those entities are listed as owners of property worth more than $3 million, records show.
State law does not require an officeholder to disclose assets held by corporations in which they have less than a 50 percent interest. Keller did not list the corporations on her annual statements and did not disclose their property holdings.
Shack said he did not know about those omissions and couldn't comment.
Keller, a former Dallas County prosecutor, has been on the appeals court since 1995, and has been presiding judge since 2001.
Keller also faces possible impeachment in the Texas House related to her role in allegedly denying court access to death row inmate Michael Richard in 2007. State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said he believed the latest disclosure about Keller's financial statements increases the chances that his impeachment proposal will receive a hearing.
Keller has denied any wrongdoing. In a response to the ethics charges filed with the judicial conduct commission, her attorney in that case claimed the charges were unconstitutional because the commission had refused to pay for his legal services.
Lawyer Chip Babcock said Keller's defense costs could be "financially ruinous." He said he based his assessment on Keller's $152,500 salary and some rental income. He was not aware of the full extent of her holdings, he said, until told by The News.
On Tuesday, Babcock said his legal position on Keller's costs had not changed. But he referred calls about the latest ethics complaints to Shack.
Shack is a former attorney with the Texas secretary of state whose clients have included state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Justice Hecht is appealing a ruling by the state ethics commission that he received an improper gift of reduced legal services from Babcock's law firm.
Texans for Public Justice has accused Dewhurst, one of the state's wealthiest officeholders, of failing to make full disclosure of assets in a blind trust. The complaint against the lieutenant governor is pending.