Judge Bruce Priddy says he didn't raise a dime before last year's election because he wanted to avoid ethics problems. But now he owes $10,500 to the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to file campaign finance reports.
Judge Priddy, who presides over a Dallas County civil court, is one of 10 North Texas political candidates listed as delinquent filers by the ethics commission, which enforces state laws regarding campaign contributions. They were fined between $500 and $11,500, mostly for filing their reports late.
The required disclosure is intended to show the public who donates money to public officials and how the candidates spend their money.
"We think it's more important for the judiciary than perhaps any other form of government," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks donations. "Texas' unique judicial election system, which allows judges to take campaign money from the parties in their courtroom, creates huge conflicts of interest."
Judge Priddy agrees and said that's why he didn't raise money. But he misread the requirements related to candidates who take in less than $500 and is now trying to fix the problem, he said.
"It's ironic that I'm now branded as a campaign finance violator," he said. "My trouble with the whole system is the fact that judicial campaigns are run mainly by asking attorneys who practice before you for money. It is something that has always been a big conflict for me."
Like Judge Priddy, many candidates raised less in their campaigns than the amount they are now being fined.
Other local candidates with hefty fines on the list include:
- Heath Harris, chief gang-crime prosecutor for the Dallas County district attorney's office, who lost a Democratic primary for criminal district judge. He was fined $11,500 for filing most of his reports after the November general election. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said he declined to comment.
- Fred Burns, a grand jury prosecutor, who lost the Republican primary in the same judicial race. He was fined $10,000 for being late on his July report but was removed from the list last week after paying penalties. He also declined to comment.
- Jack Borden, a retired salesman, who ran as a Democrat against state Rep. Dan Branch in the district representing parts of Dallas and the Park Cities. He was fined $11,000 for filing all his reports in October. He said he has been trying to get the issue resolved since then.
Even Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing is on the commission's list. She was fined $500 for being late on her July report.
Ms. Ewing said she thought she had filed it electronically on time but later found out it didn't go through because of a computer error. She added that she has been trying to get the penalty waived since August.
"They don't really look at the circumstances," she said. "It was a software problem, No. 1. I thought I filed it, No. 2. And I reported zero contributions, zero expenditures and zero cash on hand."
Natalia Ashley, general counsel for the ethics commission, said that the state ethics law requires candidates to file and that fines are automatically assessed when reports are late.
"We don't come up with the amount of the fine," she said. But "the commission typically reduces and waives fines based on the circumstances."
The statute allows candidates to opt out of regular filing if they don't intend to raise or spend more than $500. But candidates still must file a report every six months.
"I was under the impression that I could skip all of them," said Judge Priddy, the only local election winner on the list. "I'm going to talk to the Texas Ethics Commission and get it definitively resolved and try to figure out if it was my mistake."
He said he first received a letter in October regarding his July report and recalls being told by the commission not to worry because he was exempt. He said he received another letter last week.
But in an effort to remain above board, he doesn't want to use county time or resources to call the commission.
Judge Priddy did raise money during his 2002 run for county court judge but decided not to in 2006. He hasn't decided whether he will do so in 2010.
"I'm torn ethically with the raising of the money and the self-preservation that one has to do to win re-election," he said.
Mr. McDonald of Texans for Public Justice said despite Judge Priddy's intentions to avoid conflicts of interest, he is feeding into skepticism about the system by not filing his reports.
"The public is already cynical about judges," he said. "If he didn't raise money, all he needs to do is file a report and tell us."