Saturday, May 2, 2009

The state's top criminal appeals court judge has amended her personal financial statement to disclose more than $2.4 million in property and income that she had not previously reported to the state, as required by law. Read the article at the Dallas Morning News

Sharon Keller amends financial report to include $2.4 million in assets

Saturday, May 2, 2009

By STEVE McGONIGLE / The Dallas Morning News

The state's top criminal appeals court judge has amended her personal financial statement to disclose more than $2.4 million in property and income that she had not previously reported to the state, as required by law.

In a sworn statement filed in Austin earlier this week, Sharon Keller said she omitted more than two dozen properties, bank accounts, income sources and business directorships because her elderly father in Dallas had not told her about them.

"My father, Jack Keller, over a number of years has acquired and managed, without input from me, all of these properties," Keller wrote in a filing with the Texas Ethics Commission meant to correct the annual report she made in April 2008.

Her attorney expanded on her explanation Friday, saying that Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 2001, misinterpreted what she had to disclose and lost track of holdings she had disclosed in earlier financial reports.

"We're not saying she is excused. She is at fault," Ed Shack said. "But she wasn't trying to deceive anybody."

Keller's revised financial statement was compiled after The Dallas Morning News reported in March that she had not disclosed nearly $2 million in commercial and residential properties, including two homes in a family compound on Garland Road.

The judge faces a civil and criminal complaint alleging she violated state ethics laws by failing to fully disclose her financial assets. Shack previously has described her omissions as inadvertent.

The News began reviewing Keller's finances after she cited undue financial stress in trying to dismiss ethics charges stemming from allegations that she refused to allow a death row inmate to file a last-minute appeal to stave off execution.

Keller faces a hearing before a special master in August on her handling of Michael Wayne Richard's unsuccessful appeal in September 2007.

She could be removed from office if she is found to have violated the state's judicial conduct code.

In addition, Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, has vowed to push for a House vote on his bill to convene a special committee to examine whether Keller, a Republican, should be impeached.

Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin watchdog group that filed the complaints over Keller's nondisclosures, suggested that the judge would not be swayed by others' pleas of sloppiness.

"If a defense attorney in a death penalty case before Judge Keller's court filed briefs as carelessly as Keller filed her financials, the client in question already would have been executed," he said.

Keller, a former Dallas County prosecutor, is part of a well-known East Dallas family that operates a popular chain of drive-in hamburger restaurants.

Her father has formed more than a dozen real estate companies. Ownership of many of those companies is divided among his four children, with their father serving as business manager.

"Her father completely controlled a huge aspect of her financial life," Shack said.

Keller put together the corrected report after much discussion with her father, Shack said. He said he is confident "we did get this one right."

Jack Keller did not return a phone call made to his home Friday.

Three properties Keller failed to disclose were acquired and managed by Jack Keller without his daughter's knowledge of her interest, Mr. Shack said. The properties – two fast-food restaurants and a bank – are worth about $1 million.

In October 2007, Sharon Keller signed a plat record for the bank property on North Collins in Arlington, which listed her as co-owner with her parents, according to records on file with the Tarrant County Clerk's office.

"Even though she might get a check, even though they might be a source of income, I don't think she was aware that she owned the underlying real estate," he said.

Shack gave a similar explanation for why Keller did not make the required disclosure of her position as an officer or director in three family-owned businesses.

"She did not think of these as positions that she held," he said. "Certainly, at some time she may have been aware of them, but it was certainly not at the front of her mind."

Three other omitted properties – the two homes on Garland Road and a 1.5-acre commercial tract in Euless – just "dropped off" Keller's previous reports, Shack said. Their combined value on county tax records is $1.1 million.

"They usually made copies of these reports and just made alterations on them from year to year," he said. "Apparently those just didn't copy, or they just fell off. I don't think she intended that they not appear. They just didn't get copied."

Other omissions Keller corrected included ownership of 22 certificates of deposit in four banks and at least $110,000 interest derived from those investments. She did not list the value of the CDs, Shack said, because she was not required to do so.

Shack said Keller did not realize that an ethics commission form calling for disclosure of bonds, notes and commercial paper included certificates of deposit.

"I had to educate her to that effect, and that's why she included them now," he said.

He called the requirement to report CDs an example of "how nonsensical the forms can be."

Shack, a former attorney for the ethics commission, said even he was unaware that CDs were viewed as a type of commercial paper.

None of the omissions was an attempt to hide assets, Shack said.

"It's not like she's a legislator and some vote that she might take would have impact on her ability to raise money," he said. "Here she is, a criminal court of appeals judge. None of her property has anything to do with her business, with her office."

He said he expects Keller will be more careful in future reports.