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Texas State Judge and the Devil Wears Prada

Audit Texas : Between January 2016 and March 2017, Harris County Texas Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas is alleged to have misused $24,892 in campaign funds.

LIT COMMENTARY

Breaking news  (which we’ve added above the original article related to Smoot-Thomas’s indictment last year) is that she is still in the game, with a run-off in May scheduled to decide the best candidate for re-election.

Texas Voters Support Suspended Texas Judge, Who’s Also Been Indicted

The judge was suspended from the bench in November 2019 after she was indicted on seven counts of felony wire fraud.

March 9, 2020

Although she’s under felony indictment, 164th Civil District Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas earned enough votes in the Democratic primary to advance to a runoff election for her bench.

In a three-way race in the March 3 Democratic primary, Smoots-Thomas earned 33% of the vote, while Cheryl Elliot Thornton earned 41%. Thornton and Smoots-Thomas must now compete in a runoff on May 26 to determine who becomes the Democratic nominee. Whoever wins the runoff will compete in November against Republican candidate Michael Landrum.

Smoots-Thomas, who has been suspended from the bench since November 2019, has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of wire fraud in a case that alleges she embezzled over $26,000 in campaign contributions and used them for personal expenses.

Kent Schaffer, Smoots-Thomas’ criminal defense lawyer, said that her prosecution is political, and he thinks she will beat the charges.

“I don’t think the average voter had any idea that Judge Smoots-Thomas was under indictment,” said Schaffer, a partner in Schaffer Carter & Associates in Houston. “I didn’t hear it mentioned at all.”

Thornton, a senior assistant county attorney in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said she chose not to discuss her opponent’s indictment much on the campaign trail.

“I didn’t want to be perceived as the one with the ax to grind,” explained Thornton. “I just want an educated populace out there voting for the most qualified person.”

If she wins, Thornton said she would use a different style on the bench, compared with Smoots-Thomas.

“My style will be not quite as flippant, and again, more empathetic towards the people who are coming before you,” Thornton said. “One side has to win, one has to lose, but both sides should leave there with their dignity intact.”

Thornton added that she did run across educated voters who were well aware of Smoots-Thomas’ charges.

The government alleged in Smoots-Thomas’ indictment that she engaged in a scheme to defraud donors by soliciting contributions for her campaigns. It alleges she spent more than $26,000 on her mortgage, her children’s private school tuition, personal travel, a designer handbag and jewelry. She allegedly hid the misuse of campaign funds by filing false campaign finance reports and concealing her spending from her campaign treasurer, according to the indictment.

Days after her indictment, the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended Smoots-Thomas from her position without pay.

Her attorney, Schaffer, said he will be ready to defend Smoots-Thomas at her trial, currently scheduled for Sept. 15.

The case was originally scheduled for trial on Jan. 14, but has been reset twice, according to court records. Once, the judge’s defense team asked for a delay because it was still waiting on discovery data from the government.

Another time, Schaffer asked for a continuance because he was scheduled for trial in another case, and he had hired an expert consultant who wasn’t yet done researching the financial transactions at issue in Smoots-Thomas’ case. Schaffer asked Judge Lynn Hughes of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to designate the case as a complex case because of its financial records and campaign-related documents.

The discovery in the case spans multiple years, involves a number of witnesses, and raises complex legal issues that will be argued in motions, Schaffer told the Texas Lawyer.

Schaffer said, “She is still presumed innocent, and I think she should win [reelection].”

Harris County judge accused of misspending campaign donations on mortgage, Prada purse and private school tuition

Nov. 8, 2019 Updated: Nov. 9, 2019 9:45 a.m.

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.

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