District Judge Mary Roman has returned $1,200 in questionable campaign contributions in response to an allegation the money came from a defendant who was sentenced in her court and was intended to influence her decision.
There's no evidence that Roman knew about any such deal, but the 175th Judicial District Court Judge is refunding the money as her reelection battle against Republican Kevin O'Connell comes down to the wire.
When Martha Garza's husband Anthony Lopez was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one of retaliation, they hired attorney Humberto Saldaña to take his case. Lopez was facing years in prison, but Garza said their lawyer suggested they give a campaign contribution to Judge Roman.
"When Saldaña gets on the phone, he tells me, madre, you know, I think this is really good for Anthony," Martha said, recalling the phone call. "And I think once we do this donation on behalf of Anthony, he says of course I'm not going to give her the check, I'm going to give her cash and let her know it's coming from Anthony Lopez. And I said: Saldaña, are you sure? Is this guaranteed? And he said no."
On July 13 Garza said her husband wrote a check to Humberto Saldaña for $400. The note on the bottom said "MR contribution." Two weeks later the judge reported a $400 contribution from the lawyer to the Texas Ethics Commission. The money was given just days before Lopez was set to be sentenced.
I started asking people around the courthouse about the contribution, and Roman filed a new campaign report October 28, showing she'd just returned $1,200 in contributions from Saldaña.
In an email last week Roman said, "It was brought to my attention recently, that the contributions from Mr. Saldaña might not have come from Mr. Saldaña. The contributions were returned in an abundance of caution." At the bottom she added, "p.s. thank you Brian for doing such a great job. I appreciate your fairness."
As for Lopez, he did not get probation. His lawyer and the DA's office agreed to a plea bargain that included four years in prison. Roman cut the sentence down to three years behind bars.
I asked the judge why she reduced Lopez's plea bargain, and she emailed back: "As judge my decisions must take into account all aspects of a case ... it is my responsibility to ensure that the sentence is appropriate, fair and in the interests of justice."
Garza filed a complaint against Saldaña with the Sate Bar, but said Monday she received a letter clearning him of any wrongdoing in the matter. Humberto Saldaña has not returned calls for comment.