AUSTIN (AP) – Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht said Wednesday he used campaign cash to pay for dozens of flights to his hometown last year because he was campaigning, even though he's not up for re-election until 2012.
Hecht, who is elected statewide, is the third of nine Supreme Court justices to face similar campaign finance questions recently, in addition to Justices Paul Green and David Medina.
According to campaign finance reports, Hecht reported 42 payments to airlines for in-state trips last year and acknowledged that "a good bit" of them were for travel to his hometown of Carrollton, where he still owns a home and attends church. There were also six other payments to airlines for trips outside the state, primarily to Washington, D.C.
Using political contributions for personal use is against state law, and the Texas Ethics Commission has interpreted the law to ban appellate judges from using campaign donations to pay the costs of commuting between the judge's home city and the city where the court is located.
"Justice Hecht hasn't provided the public with enough information to determine whether he's toeing the line or crossing it," said Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a group that monitors the Texas Supreme Court and civil justice issues.
Texas Watch said it plans to file a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission on Thursday.
Hecht told The Associated Press that his homestead has been in Travis County for 20 years, but he has a lot of friends in Carrollton.
"I feel like it advances my campaign to go up there and I almost always work when I'm there," said Hecht, who was re-elected to a six-year term in 2006.
Out of 25 in-state flights reported since July 1, other campaign expenditures such as hotels or cab fare indicate that only four of them were not to Carrollton, according to Hecht's most recent campaign finance report.
Earlier this week, Texas Watch accused Justice Paul Green of improperly using campaign funds to reimburse his mileage expenses between his home in San Antonio and the court in Austin.
Green said Monday that he has lived at an Austin apartment since March 2005, but he drives to San Antonio often on different types of business. He said he still owns a house in San Antonio. He said he was aware of the ban on using campaign funds for commuting.
On Monday, Supreme Court Justice David Medina's lawyer said the judge will repay political funds that he used for commuting between Houston and Austin. Attorney Terry Yates said Medina had received incorrect advice from an accountant when he used the campaign funds. Medina also is under criminal investigation for an arson fire at his suburban Houston home in June.
Hecht refused to produce documents proving that trips to Carrollton were business related.
"I think this is a waste of time," he said.
Winslow called the explanation "highly dubious."
"Texans deserve to know the truth and judges on our state's highest court must be held to the highest possible standard," Winslow said. "Ultimately, the authorities are going to have to investigate to determine whether or not Justice Hecht has once again improperly used campaign contributions from entities with business before the Texas Supreme Court for his own personal use."
Hecht is a pianist and teacher at the Cornerstone Christian Church of Dallas. He said he doesn't attend church there every Sunday, but "a lot of Sundays."
Hecht also came under fire last year, but successfully fought a sanction by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that alleged he abused his office to promote Harriet Miers for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Travis County District Attorney's office is looking into the propriety of discounted legal fees Hecht allegedly took from the law firm that defended him in the case. Several of the state's top law firms that often represent clients before the state's high court donated to Hecht's legal defense fund.