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Appropriateness of judge's Alaskan cruise questioned

Galveston County probate judge responds trip was for continuing education

GALVESTON, Texas – Some Galveston County leaders are questioning why a probate judge used public funds to take a seven-day cruise to Alaska.

Galveston County Probate Judge Kimberly Sullivan responded the trip was for continuing education and there was nothing "inappropriate" about the expense.

"Of course I was quite shocked. I had no idea she had done such a thing," said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who is the presiding officer of Commissioners Court. "I can't imagine somebody in her position would think it was OK to go to Alaska."

According to paperwork filed with county, Sullivan spent $1,963.15 on the cruise, which included a veranda stateroom. The cruise was presented by the TexasBarCLE, an organization providing continuing legal education for attorneys. Both judges and attorneys are required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year. Records filed with the county show Sullivan's husband accompanied her on the cruise, but his portion of the trip was paid for privately.

According to a TexasBarCLE registration form, the seven-day cruise aboard the MS Oosterdam offered three half-days of continuing legal education, but added "class times are scheduled around the port visits, so you won't miss a minute of the port activities." The cruise featured stops in Juneau, the Hubbard Glacier, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, British Columbia.

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According to Galveston County Auditor Randall Rice, the judge was reimbursed for the trip from a dedicated fund derived from statutory probate court filing fees. Texas law allows statutory probate courts to collect fees on probate, guardianship, mental health or civil actions filed in the court. According to the statute and information provided to KPRC by the Office of Court Administration, those fees are sent to the State Comptroller for deposit in the state judicial fund. Kevin Lyons with the State Comptroller's Office said these are considered "state funds."

The money derived from these fees "is to be used for court-related purposes for the support of the judiciary," according to the statute.

Rice said out of the fees collected, the comptroller sends $40,000 a year back to the county to be deposited into a "contributions fund." In an email to KPRC, Rice wrote money from this fund "can be for any court-related purposes as directed by the probate judge." Rice added this includes continuing education and "Commissioners Court does not have control over, nor do they budget the expenditures of the fund."

"Certainly if I thought I had an option I would not want to reimburse for a cruise in Alaska," Henry said.

However, Sullivan, who earns more than $160,000 a year according to county records, defended the expense.

"In this case, the continuing legal education course was offered as part of a cruise by the State Bar of Texas. Ship accommodations were a part of the cost. I have not sought reimbursement for travel to or from the destination. If the destination had been in some city in Texas, I would have been entitled to reimbursement for travel to and from as well as hotel accommodations," Sullivan wrote in an email sent to KPRC by her court coordinator.

"It should be noted that the expense for this trip was paid from a dedicated fund. This fund, in part, was created to improve court administration, including continuing legal education. This dedicated fund, from which reimbursement was sought, is funded by probate court filing fees, and not state nor local taxpayer dollars," the email read.

We then asked Sullivan why she felt it necessary to go on an Alaskan cruise to obtain continuing education hours. TexasBarCLE notices showed continuing education hours were offered in Austin in September and in Sugar Land in October. The Texas College of Probate Judges also offered continuing education during its annual meeting in San Antonio in August and the Texas Association of Counties offered continuing education during a "Probate Academy" in Lubbock in May.

"In response to your latest request, there is nothing inappropriate in how I chose to fulfill my CLE obligations. It is now time to move on to more important judicial endeavors," Sullivan wrote.

Still, some Galveston County residents were surprised to hear state law makes the cruise expense perfectly legal.

"I don't get to justify where I go on a cruise with government funding, why should you?" Christine Drake said as she was leaving the Galveston County Courthouse.

Maria Barillas added that maybe a rule adjustment was needed.

"Those rules need to be looked at and they should be modified, or changed, they should be changed, it can't be like that," Barillas said.

Henry said he is also hoping someone in Austin will take another look at the rules when the Legislature goes back in session.

"It's the difference between buying an economical car or a Mercedes," Henry said. "One you need and one you want."

Prior to this issue coming to light, Sullivan sued county commissioners. The issue was a yearly $5,000 payment to Sullivan as the county's local administrative statutory probate judge. State law allows for judges to elect one of their colleagues to also serve an "administrative judge," which, in addition to regular duties, handles efficient movement of court caseloads, dockets, budgets and other tasks. Texas law states the judge is to be paid a supplemental fee for this work.

Henry said the $5,000 payment was originally cut form the budget during a time of deficit and since Sullivan is the only probate court judge in the county.

"So she's asking to be paid to administer herself," Henry said.

Court documents state Sullivan argues cutting the payment illegally reduced her salary and added the payment was given to other local administrative statutory probate court judges prior to her being elected to the bench. Sullivan won the right to have case go to trial, but Henry said Commissioners Court voted to reinstate the payment, rather than continue fighting the lawsuit.

However, there is still pending litigation the case.

"I can't speak for what she still wants, I don't know," said Paul Ready, an attorney for the county.

Sullivan declined to comment.

"Please note that litigation is still pending on this case and it would therefore be inappropriate for me to discuss the issues involved," Sullivan wrote.

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