Judge’s biggest donor is lawyer for a Harris County GOP bigwig with a case in her court

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HOUSTON — The Hotze brothers are fighting in Harris County civil court over the operation of a family business. If campaign contributions make any difference, one brother, Steven, a controversial and high-profile Republican standard-bearer, might have the upper hand.  

Hotze’s new attorney in the case is John Zavitsanos. He is a successful trial lawyer and also a prolific campaign donor to Judge Fredericka Phillips, who is hearing the case.

Zavitsanos and members of his law firm, Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing, donated $20,790 to Phillips in the months leading up to her election in 2016. That’s nearly 20 percent of the total campaign contributions that she collected in 2016.

Zavitsanos’ law firm also sponsored two fundraisers for Phillips, supplying food, drink, and of course, members of the firm to write personal checks.

Together, Zavitsanos and members of his firm were Phillips’ biggest donors. The runner-up was the Buzbee Law Firm and its attorneys, providing $15,800 in campaign cash.

There is nothing illegal about this, and many in Texas and around the United States believe that having voters elect judges is superior to an appointed judiciary, providing more say from the people.

But when so much money comes from one source, it raises questions of conflicts, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who has studied political corruption.

“There is an unavoidable conflict of interest when judges are elected and their campaigns are funded largely by donors who may appear in front of them,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s definitely problematic.” Governments move to non-election systems to choose judges, he said, because  “they want to keep the partisan process out of the judicial process.”

Zavitsanos called the issue a “non-story.”

“I don’t know if Dr. Hotze thinks he hired me because we happened to have thrown her a fundraiser,” Zavitsanos said. “I can’t speak to that. I am nobody’s monkey.”

Zavitsanos said it’s unlikely he will have much sway with Phillips since the case will be decided by the jury, not the judge. He also said that he contributed to both Phillips and her opponent, then-incumbent Erin Lunceford.

“We contributed both to Judge Phillips and to Judge Lunceford, both of them during that election,” he said. “We have thrown fundraisers for a number of candidates, including Judge Lunceford.”

Records show that Zavitsanos’ law firm contributed almost $16,000 to Lunceford’s campaign in 2016. Attorneys contributing to judges’ campaigns are common, he said.

“Most contributors to most judges are lawyers,” Zavitsanos said.

Zavitsanos argues that Hotze picked him because of his qualifications.

“Our firm tries more commercial cases than any firm that I know of,” he said. “I’m a trial lawyer and I think I’m a pretty good one.”

He also said that his firm contributes to judges because it wants qualified jurists on the bench.

“Judge Phillips is the first African-American female to occupy this bench,” Zavitsanos said. “She is an extraordinarily conscientious person, as is Judge Lunceford, by the way.”

Hotze did not respond to a request for comment. The request was made through someone representing Hotze. A message seeking comment left for Phillips at her chambers was not returned.

In 2016, Steven Hotze’s brother, David, sued Steven and the other Hotze brothers, as well as the Hotze-controlled company that was passed down to the brothers.

It was after “substantial losses” occurred at one of the Hotze companies that David sued his brothers, court records show.

The case is scheduled to be heard in September, Zavitsanos said.

Rottinghaus is concerned that the court system in Texas is broken, and an overhaul is needed.

“There are a couple of ways to fix it,” Rottinghaus said. “You can change the structure of the selection of judges to have it done in a more nonpartisan way or to have the governor select the judges and have them ratified by the legislature. Another way is to have a nonpartisan board select the judges, and then have the public vote on retention so that the citizens can have a say.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Just as with Harris Co. Family Court Judge Lombardino. I sat in his courtroom and watched nbhin horror as our daughter was falsely accused and lied about over and over…and all because she reported her children’s outcries against her ex (their dad). Judge Lombardino sat on the bench and declared outwardly in front of the entire courtroom that he sides with the dads! He definitely has his pet attorneys who pay big bucks to win cases in his court! Our daughter never had a chance because her ex retained one of Lombardino’s pets for his attorney! I am voting Democrat this year. Time for a change!

  2. Just as with Harris Co. Family Court Judge Lombardino. I sat in his courtroom and watched in horror as our daughter was falsely accused and lied about over and over…and all because she reported her children’s outcries against her ex (their dad). Judge Lombardino sat on the bench and declared outwardly in front of the entire courtroom that he sides with the dads! He definitely has his pet attorneys who pay big bucks to win cases in his court! Our daughter never had a chance because her ex retained one of Lombardino’s pets for his attorney! I am voting Democrat this year. Time for a change!

  3. Influence always exists. If judges are appointed, for example, the influence moves to those who do the appointing and is separated by another step making it less clear. The beauty of our system in Texas is that most of this influence is immediate to the judge and easily viewable. It is generally self-disclosing.

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