Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has settled a long-running ethics case by agreeing to pay $1,000 — down from a $29,000 fine issued in 2008 after state regulators determined that he violated campaign finance rules by receiving a large discount on legal fees.
The settlement agreement, released Wednesday, ends Hecht’s appeal of the fine and specifies that neither Hecht nor the Texas Ethics Commission prevailed in the dispute.
And while the settlement acknowledged that the public has an interest in knowing about fee arrangements between public officials and their lawyers, “certainly things could have been clearer in the law governing such fee agreements,” the document said.
Watchdogs criticized the settlement, which must be approved by a district judge.
“Nathan Hecht is being let off the hook, pure and simple,” said Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, which filed the ethics complaint in 2007 that led to Hecht’s fine. “This saga makes a mockery of so-called ethics ‘enforcement.’”
But Hecht’s lawyer, Steve McConnico, said the written settlement between Hecht and the ethics commission includes language that should help lawyers and judges handle future billing arrangements.
The $1,000 settlement payment from Hecht will go into the state’s general fund and should not considered a fine, McConnico added.
“A fine is where some government agency said you violated this. This is a payment to settle a suit, it’s not a fine,” he said. “I think both sides just want to be done with the lawsuit, and this is the simplest way to get it settled.”
The Hecht saga began in 2006, when the State Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded Hecht for misusing the prestige of his judicial office when the White House tapped him to become a vocal advocate for the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of his longtime friend, Harriet Miers.
Hecht hired nationally recognized First Amendment lawyer Chip Babcock to challenge the decision, eventually winning when a special review court tossed out the reprimand.
But Hecht found himself in trouble again when Babcock’s bill included a $167,200 discount. Because Hecht paid his legal bill with campaign donations, the ethics commission determined that Babcock’s fee discount amounted to a political contribution that violated the $5,000 legal limit on donations from law firms and from individual lawyers.
Hecht appealed the ruling and fine to Travis County District Court in January 2009, where little action had been taken until last year, when the Texans for Public Justice watchdog group filed suit seeking to remove then-Attorney General Greg Abbott from the case, arguing that Abbott violated his duties by failing to pursue the case on ethics commission’s behalf.
“Hecht’s fine is seven years late and $28,000 light,” said Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice. “Hecht’s token fine is not just an immediate outrage, its a long-term blow against the ethics commission’s authority.