Alberto Gonzales, White House General Counsel

Controversy Surrounds Texas Justices Acceptance of Donations and Rulings for Cheney Firm

By Nathan Newman, Yale Law Campaign for a Legal Election, nathan@n...

This Sunday, December 17th, Bush nominated Alberto Gonzales, a man Bush put on the Texas Supreme Court in 1999, to be the new White House Counsel.. Yet Justice Gonzales has been a focus of ethical controversy in Texas, with the organization Texans for Public Justice noting that Gonzales like other Texas Supreme Court Justices have taken large amounts of money from the Cheney-run Halliburton companies, then ruled in favor of the company in cases that came before the Court.

Cheney's Halliburton corporation, through its executives and its separate subsidiaries, was the second-largest corporate contributor to Texas Supreme Court races in the last three election cycles, contributing over $79,000 to the Justices. Five times in the past seven years, cases involving Halliburton have come before the Florida Supreme Court, and each time the Court has either ruled for the company or refused to hear an appeal of a favorable verdict for the firm from a lower court.

In 1999, a Halliburton employee had won a $2.6 million trial verdict due to allegations that a company supervisor framed him to test positive for cocaine, only to see the verdict overturned by a Texas Court of Appeals. Just before the Texas Supreme Court ruled on the case, Halliburton gave a number of contributions to the Justices, including $3000 to Alberto Gonzales. None of the Justices recused themselves from the case and the Court refused to hear the appeal against Halliburton.

Making the Gonzales conflict even more controversial is the fact that before being appointed to office, Gonzales had been a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins, L.L.P. in Houston which had Halliburton as a major client. And Gonzales worked in the section where Halliburton was represented where he had a strong relationship with the firm.

With bitter feelings among many voters that Bush used a conservative US Supreme Court to engineer his election as President, it is shocking that he would appoint as White House Counsel a man embroiled in controversy for taking contributions from Bush's Vice President's firm and favoring that company in judicial decisions.

Bush has a history of using the courts to favor his corporate supporters and the appointment of Gonzales shows that he has no attention of abandoning that tradition he established in Texas. As his first legal-related appointment as President-Elect, it shows that Bush has the intention of continuing his use of the courts to undemocratically engineer victories for himself and his corporate supporters.

Following are excerpts from The Fort Worth Star-Telegram of July 29, 2000 with more details: "When a personnel dispute between Dallas-based Halliburton Co. and a fired employee reached the Texas Supreme Court last summer, something else landed in Austin as well: $5,000 in campaign contributions to three justices.

During the four months that the case was before the nine-member high court, a Halliburton subsidiary and a top executive made four donations, records show. They were the company's only donations to the court in 1999, according to an analysis by a judicial reform group.

In December, the court decided not to hear the case, letting stand a lower court ruling that erased a $2.6 million verdict against Halliburton..

The Cheney/Halliburton campaign-money trail paints part of the political picture. The Star-Telegram analyzed campaign records in databases managed by the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Texas Ethics Commission and the Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based nonpartisan group that advocates for judicial reform.

Halliburton's pet cause has been the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. The firm and its executives have made 55 contributions, totaling $44,000, since 1993, according to records of Texans for Public Justice.

Brown & Root and Dresser Industries, two of Halliburton's largest Texas-based divisions, added another $35,600 in Supreme Court donations. Combined contributions from the three company branches would rank Halliburton second among all corporate donors to the Texas Supreme Court races during the past three election cycles.

During the past seven years, Halliburton has had at least five cases before the court. Each time, the court either declined to hear a case or ruled in the company's favor, according to Texans for Public Justice researchers who track campaign spending.

"They've methodically flooded the Supreme Court with money at the same time they've had cases pending before the court," said Cris Feldman, staff attorney for the organization. Barry Brin represented Carlos Sanchez, a Halliburton field worker in Laredo who won a $2.6 million jury verdict upholding his allegation that a company supervisor framed him to test positive for cocaine.

The verdict was overturned by the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, and Sanchez appealed to the Supreme Court. The case reached the high court on July 26, 1999, and was disposed of Dec. 2. During that period, Halliburton executives made four contributions - $1,000 to Justice Priscilla Owen; two totaling $3,000 to Justice Alberto Gonzales; and $1,000 to Justice Nathan Hecht.

"I think, in general, it's just hard for anybody in that position to totally take out of their minds the money of the people supporting their campaigns," Brin said.