On Their Honor: Judges and their assets
By JOE STEPHENS - Staff Writer
Date: 08/15/98 22:15
Two federal judges accepted free trips to Montana dude ranches from a conservative foundation but failed to list the gifts on their public disclosure reports.
Joseph E. Stevens Jr., a district judge from Kansas City, and James T. Turner, a claims judge from Washington, D.C., traveled to five-day seminars at resorts near Yellowstone National Park.
When questioned by The Kansas City Star, Turner said that he made a mistake and Stevens argued that he had no legal responsibility to disclose the trip. But both judges added the gifts to their reports.
The disclosure reports are designed to help the public sniff out conflicts of interest. Critics say the Montana seminars, which are sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, present serious potential conflicts for the scores of judges who have taken part.
Judges who acknowledge taking the trips have been attacked for accepting what critics say are unethical junkets designed to seduce judges into favoring property rights over environmental protection.
"It is just totally, totally inappropriate for a judge to accept a freebie trip," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said at a recent congressional hearing.
Judges countered that they saw no conflicts and said that the legal seminars presented balanced discussions about interpreting environmental law. Foundation officials agreed.
The Star identified the unreported trips, which Turner valued at $1,700 a person, after obtaining a list of seminar participants. The discovery comes at a time when judicial disclosure is under increasing scrutiny.
In April The Star used disclosure reports to show that federal judges across the nation violated ethics laws by presiding over lawsuits against companies in which they owned stock. The articles also showed that the judiciary makes it uncommonly difficult for lawyers and litigants to obtain the reports.
Last Sunday The Star reported that judges routinely fail to disclose some investments. News of the unreported Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment trips shows that judges also leave other important information off their reports.
Although federal law makes it a crime to deliberately drop information from
the statements, experts said they were unaware of a judge ever being prosecuted.
The foundation's seminars emphasize a libertarian interpretation of property rights and environmental law, along with recreation in the Rockies.
"Conference and travel expenses are paid," a letter from the foundation says, "and time is provided for cycling, fishing, golfing, hiking and horseback riding."
Stevens acknowledged that four years ago the foundation paid for him and his wife to visit the Diamond J Ranch.
Stevens declined an airline ticket and instead drove the 2,000 miles to Bozeman, Mont., and back. The foundation paid for mileage, lodging and Stevens' meals; it also may have paid board for his wife.
"Honestly, I don't remember that far back," he said.
Stevens did not believe federal law required him to list the trip on his annual report. "That was a business trip, and I'm not required to disclose it," he said.
Stevens added that he had taken other free trips he never disclosed. Those trips probably were paid for by taxpayers, he said, not private interest groups.
Federal law does not distinguish between trips taken for business and pleasure.
Filing instructions direct judges to "provide the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements such as transportation, lodging, food or entertainment.... A reimbursement means any payment...to cover travel-related expenses."
An example included in the instructions is remarkably similar to Stevens' situation. It shows a judge disclosing a free trip to a meeting underwritten by a foundation.
Four days after being contacted by The Star, Stevens filed an amended report disclosing the trip. He said he remained convinced he was not required to do so under federal law.
That argument puzzled legal experts.
"Virtually every other federal judge understands that travel reimbursements must be reported," said Steven Lubet, a judicial ethicist at Northwestern University in Illinois. "It appears Judge Stevens is a minority of one."
Stevens said he also was confident that he had no investments that must be disclosed on his annual report. Although he earns almost $150,000 a year, Stevens has reported for the past eight years that he owns no reportable assets worth $1,000 or more. Judges need not disclose some investments, such as their homes.
The Star examined scores of reports from judges across the nation and found no other judge who reported owning no assets. The judges disclosed stocks, checking accounts, life-insurance policies, mutual funds, pensions and retirement accounts.
Under federal law, judges also must disclose investments held by their spouses and dependent children.
"I have declared everything that in my view is appropriate under the statute and the rules," Stevens said, " and I'm not going to disclose my personal life any further."
While experts said it is technically possible for a judge to own no reportable assets, a leading textbook on judicial ethics notes: "Short of keeping money under the mattress, every judge engages in some sort of regulated financial activity."