HOUSTON – A Harris County judge has been suspended following her indictment on allegations of wire fraud.
Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, of Houston, is the presiding judge for the 164th District Court for the State of Texas and has jurisdiction over Texas civil cases located within Harris County.
Her suspended status is pending the criminal matter.
A federal grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas on Oct. 24, which was unsealed Friday as she surrendered to federal authorities, U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick and Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner, of the FBI - Houston Division, said in a news release.
"The defendant in this case is a judge, whose responsibilities are to make sure the law is followed and carried out," Turner said. "She was entrusted to serve the citizens of Harris County with duty and honor. However, the allegations contained in today's indictment show that the judge put personal enrichment over this duty and honor."
Smoots-Thomas allegedly embezzled campaign contributions individuals and political action committees had made to her reelection campaigns. The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas repeatedly solicited campaign contributions on the premise the money would be used to help facilitate her reelection campaigns in both 2012 and 2016.
She allegedly used campaign funds for noncampaign expenses to include monthly home mortgage payments, private school tuition payments, personal travel expenses, personal luxury items and cash withdrawals. Smoots-Thomas concealed this spending from both her campaign treasurer and the Texas Ethics Commission by filing false campaign finance reports, according to the charges.
Read the indictment below.
"The fact that few if any state court judges ever appear in this building I really think speaks volumes about how this case is an outlier," said Brian Wice, KPRC2 legal analyst.
Judge's attorney speaks
Kent Schaffer, Smoots-Thomas' defense attorney, said his client has reimbursed most of the charges. Schaffer added his client never denied spending the money, and he tried to negotiate a compromise, including a pretrial diversion program, considering the rarity of a state judge being charged under these circumstances.
"I said just enter into an agreement like that we'll do it in writing," Schaffer said. "If she owes money back she can pay the money back. And what they came back with was, 'No, because it comes from the top that there will be no such agreement.'"
Schaffer said federal investigators' inability to consider his suggestion is indicative of a partisan, political smear campaign to tarnish Smoots-Thomas' reputation.
KPRC 2 contacted Patrick's office regarding Schaffer's claim. A spokesperson said the office would not comment on opinion and stood behind the facts as outlined in the indictment.
Smoots-Thomas, who is battling breast cancer, pleaded not guilty. A pretrial conference has been scheduled for Jan. 6.
Each count of wire fraud carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison, as well as a maximum $250,000 fine.
Smoots-Thomas, a rising figure in the Harris County Democratic Party, still maintains her seat on the 164th District Civil Court.
Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter issued the following statement:
"The Harris County Democratic party takes campaign finance laws seriously and considers adherence to them to be a necessary part of a thriving democracy. The federal indictment of Judge Alix Smoots-Thomas involves serious charges. Like every Texan, Judge Smoots-Thomas deserves the assumption of innocence and the opportunity to defend herself. At the same time, Harris County citizens deserve a full-time judge serving their needs. Last year, Judge Smoots-Thomas was diagnosed with cancer and has been undergoing treatment. Should these serious legal challenges along with her ongoing health concerns result in Judge Smoots-Thomas being unable to run for reelection, I am certain that Harris County voters will choose a competent and highly qualified Democratic judge in the 164th District Court."