Local firms in murky waters of campaign finance limits

By Marilyn Tennissen | Oct 17, 2014

Three of the biggest law firms in Southeast Texas have made large contributions to see their favorite judge reelected, donations that may exceed the legal limit.

As the Record previously reported, Provost Umphrey Law Firm LLP, Reaud Morgan & Quinn LLP and Reaud & Associates PC each made a $15,000 donation last November to the reelection campaign of Judge Donald Floyd of the Jefferson County 172nd District Court, according to reports from the Texas Ethics Commission.

Texas has a separate – and complicated – set of guidelines when it comes to making donations to candidates in judicial races. 

In 1995, the state passed the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act, which placed restrictions on contributions from law firms and attorneys.

Section 253.155(b) of the Act states:

“In connection with any one election, a judicial candidate or a specific-purpose political committee for supporting or opposing a judicial candidate may not accept a contribution of more than $50 from a member of a law firm's restricted contributor class if the total of all contributions already accepted from members of the law firm's restricted contributor class exceeds the following limits (or if the contribution would cause the total to exceed the following limits):

  • $30,000 for candidates for statewide judicial offices;

  • $30,000 for candidates for courts of appeals, district courts, statutory county courts and statutory probate courts if the population of the judicial district is more than one million;

  • $15,000 for candidates for courts of appeals, district courts, statutory county courts and statutory probate courts if the population of the judicial district is from 250,000 to one million; and

  • $6,000 for candidates for courts of appeals, district judgeships, statutory county courts and statutory probate courts if the population of the judicial district is less than 250,000.

Floyd’s district has a population of 252,273, according to the table available on the Ethics Commission site. That means the aggregate total contribution from a law firm to his campaign cannot exceed $15,000.

For individuals, the caps are also based on the district’s population. In the Jefferson County district, the limit a single attorney can donate to a candidate is $2,500.

That means that if six lawyers from the same firm each make an individual contribution at the maximum of $2,500, the total is $15,000. Their individual donations are counted toward the firm’s allowed maximum, and in this example $15,000 would bring the firm’s total to the legal limit.

As another example, attorney E. Hart Green of Weller Green Toups & Terrell LLP in Beaumont donated $1,500 to Floyd’s campaign. Another partner at the firm, Mitch Toups gave Floyd $2,500, the individual maximum. The law firm, Weller Green made a $2,000 donation. By adding the donations from Green and Toups, total $4,000, to the law firm donation of $2,000, the aggregate total is well below the $15,000 threshold.

However, the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act has a complicated caveat: it also considers the law firm an individual.

“To understand the restriction, it is useful to think in terms of a law firm's ‘restricted contributor class.’” It states on page 13 of the Texas Ethics Commission Campaign Finance Guide for Judicial Candidates and Officeholders. “’A law firm's restricted contributor class includes the law firm itself’ (emphasis from the original).”

The guide continues “It also includes any general-purpose political committee established and controlled by a law firm or by members of a law firm; any partner, associate, shareholder, or employee of a law firm; any person designated ‘of counsel’ to the firm or ‘of the firm’; and any spouse or minor child of one of the members of the group.”

The Texas Ethics Commission couldn’t clearly answer how a law firm could make a single donation of $15,000 if the firm is considered an individual that isn't supposed to donate more than $2,500.

Natalia Luna Ashley, Executive Director of the Commission and public spokesperson, said she was unable to make a determination about any specific donation.

In a 2012 blog entry for In Chambers, the official publication of the Texas Center for the Judiciary, authors Courtney Gabriele and Judge Alfonso Charles offered advice to fellow members of the judiciary when it comes to campaign donations:

“All judges understand that public scrutiny comes with the job and are prepared to handle attacks by media, opponents, and groups such as TEAB (Texas Ethics Advisory Board).

“However, in case you need a refresher, the following is intended to highlight some common mistakes judges make with campaign financing, as well as provide helpful tips for keeping your name out of the daily news alerts.

“Be careful,” the blog says. “ … ensure that you are aggregating contributions made by members of a firm correctly. A law firm is a ‘person’ for purposes of the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act (emphasis from the original).

“Thus, if a check is made on behalf of a firm, it cannot exceed the limits of Section 253.155(b). However, if contributions are made on behalf of individual members who are affiliated with the same firm, you can receive up to six times the limit of Section 253.155(b),” the bloggers wrote.

But the blog continues, "If you realize that you have inadvertently accepted political contributions from individual members of a firm, or from the firm itself, that exceed the permissible amount, Section 253.155(e) allows you to return the excess amount by the last day of the reporting period or the fifth day after the contribution is received."




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