Harris County judge accused of misspending campaign donations on mortgage, Prada purse and private school tuition
A Harris County judge has been indicted on federal corruption charges that accuse her of using campaign donations for personal expenses, including for mortgage payments, private school tuition, a Prada handbag and travel.
Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, is charged with wire fraud, according to federal prosecutors. She turned herself in on Friday to U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Bray, S.D. Tex., appearing before him with chains wrapped around her waist and ankles.
Smoots-Thomas, who has breast cancer and reportedly underwent a round of chemotherapy Thursday, kept her head down for most of the arraignment.
Her attorney Kent Schaffer alleged that the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Ryan Patrick was targeting Smoots-Thomas because she is a black female Democrat in a county where few judges are Republicans. His is confident his client will be able to enter into a pre-trial diversion process, effectively dismissing the charges after completing a series of conditions, including repaying the campaign funds. She has already reimbursed most of the payments from a personal account, he said.
“This is a purely political prosecution,” Schaffer said. “She has not defrauded anybody.”
Patrick’s office declined to comment beyond the indictment.
A federal grand jury on Oct. 24 returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas, who presides over the 164th District Court and has jurisdiction over civil cases within Harris County. The indictment was unsealed on Friday.
“The defendant in this case is a judge, whose responsibilities are to make sure the law is followed and carried out,” Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner of the FBI’s Houston Division said in a news release Friday. “She was entrusted to serve the citizens of Harris County with duty and honor. However, the allegations contained in today’s indictment show that the judge put personal enrichment over this duty and honor.”
The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas solicited campaign contributions for her re-election bids in 2012 and 2016, prosecutors said. She filed false campaign finance reports to the Texas Ethics Commission to hide her crimes, according to the charges.
Scott Krist, a Houston attorney who is among the judge’s top contributors since 2012, called the allegations “a little bit disturbing.”
“I have a strong interest in getting an ethical judiciary on the bench in Harris County, and I do give generously to these races,” Krist said. “I am very disheartened to hear about that. That breaches every duty one could imagine to the voters, much less their donors.”
Between January 2016 and March 2017, Smoots-Thomas is alleged to have misused $24,892 in campaign funds. The expenses include: $11,809 for a home mortgage, $9,942 for tuition at The Regis School of the Sacred Heart, $1,162 for a Prada handbag and $761 for a ring from Zales. Each of these purchases was made using a debit card connected to the JP Morgan Chase account the judge used for her campaign.
The judge previously used the surname Smoots-Hogan, which still appears on her campaign finance reports.
The indictment said Smoots-Thomas concealed the scheme from her campaign treasurer. Since July 2011, the judge has listed Houston attorney Natasha Sadeghian de la Garza as treasurer on campaign finance reports. De la Garza, however, said Friday she only served that role during the 2012 campaign and last spoke with Smoots-Thomas in 2013.
In addition to tuition payments to The Regis School that prosecutors say were illegal, Smoots-Thomas’ reports show she used $15,250 in campaign funds to sponsor several events at the Catholic all-boys campus. One of the payments, $2,500 in February 2017 for “annual gala benefiting the students,” was made the same week prosecutors say the campaign paid an identical sum to the school for tuition.
The judge’s two sons had attend The Regis School, her campaign website states. Annual tuition for fifth- through eigth-graders is $24,013, according to the school’s website. A school spokeswoman said the boys are former students.
The judge is currently on medical leave, her court coordinator said, and whether she will remain on the bench is unclear. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the authority to suspend any judge from office upon being indicted by a grand jury, according to the organization’s procedural rules for the removal or retirement of judges.
Smoots-Thomas pleaded not guilty on Friday to the charges, and the magistrate set a pre-trial conference for Jan. 6.
She could face a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison as well as a maximum $250,000 fine.