The ex-wife of a Fifth Circuit judicial nominee alleged during their divorce proceedings that he instructed her to make a political contribution on his behalf after his confirmation, a violation of the code of conduct for federal judges.
The allegation, made in a 2009 deposition obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, concerns Trump judicial nominee Halil "Sul" Ozerden. Ozerden’s ex-wife, Denise Dunaway Ozerden, told lawyers in sworn testimony that shortly after his confirmation to the district court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Ozerden pressured her to write a check to fellow Mississippian Trent Lott’s political action committee. At the time, Lott was the Senate minority whip.
Federal Election Commission records show a $1,000 contribution from Dunaway Ozerden to that committee, the New Republican Majority Fund, in late May of 2007—a month after Ozerden’s confirmation to the district court. It is the only political donation on record in her name.
It is unclear whether senators on the Judiciary Committee, who have twice delayed a vote on Ozerden’s nomination, had access to the deposition, which is under seal. It is customary for committee members to have access to the FBI background report on nominees, though not to the underlying materials and evidence.
The code of conduct for federal judges dictates that judges should "refrain from political activity," a guideline that includes a prohibition on political donations to candidates and political organizations as well as to events sponsored by candidates and political organizations.
Dunaway Ozerden listed Lott as a witness in their divorce proceedings and told lawyers, "He’s on there because Sul is a—is a Judge." After Ozerden’s nomination, she said, he "wasn’t supposed to give out any contributions and, yet, he did. Of course, he made me write out the check."
Asked whether she wished to make the contribution, Dunaway Ozerden said, "No, sir. It was not my idea to make the contribution. I didn’t make any contributions. I didn’t control that account. Even though it was a joint account I didn’t control it. I didn’t have the checkbook. I was given a check if needed, and that was it."
"It is our understanding that all materials from Judge Ozerden’s divorce have been placed under seal by the court, as is standard for family court matters," a Department of Justice spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon. "We therefore cannot comment on what may or not be alleged in such materials, if they exist."
Ozerden did not respond to requests for comment. Erik Lowery, the attorney who represented Dunaway Ozerden in the divorce proceedings, sent a letter instructing the Free Beacon to "destroy" the document, because it was sealed in divorce proceedings, and declined further comment. Dunaway Ozerden could not be reached for comment.
Hours later, Chancery Court Judge Jennifer T. Schloegel sent an unsolicited letter to the Free Beacon advising that "use or dissemination of these records … may result in a finding of contempt."
The revelations are likely to further endanger Ozerden’s elevation to the circuit court, which has already hit some snags. Ozerden is a close friend of White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who championed his nomination over the objections of leading conservative groups and the White House counsel’s office.
Since his nomination in June, Senators Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) have said they plan to vote against him, and the Judiciary Committee has twice delayed a vote on his nomination. In particular, conservatives, including Hawley, have cited Ozerden’s 2012 opinion dismissing a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate, as a matter of particular concern.
While conservatives have voiced skepticism about him from the outset, Mulvaney and one of Ozerden’s home-state senators, Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), have been full-throated champions of the nomination. But with two Republicans on the Senate Judiciary opposing his nomination, Ozerden now needs at least one Democratic vote to receive a favorable recommendation from the committee and get a vote on the Senate floor.
Mulvaney, who was a groomsman in Ozerden’s 2003 wedding, was pushing the nomination long before he joined the White House as acting chief of staff. He repeatedly pressed former White House counsel Don McGahn to tap his pal from his perch at the Office of Management and Budget. While McGahn resisted his entreaties, White House counsel Pat Cipollone green-lighted the nomination shortly after his arrival in the West Wing in December 2018.
Depositions are sworn testimony given outside of a courtroom. The 2009 document indicates that Ozerden himself and his attorney were present when his now ex-wife gave her testimony.
Dunaway Ozerden also alleged that Ozerden made false statements to the FBI during the background investigation conducted in connection with his 2007 nomination to the circuit court.
In language that was at times tentative, she claimed that Ozerden procured a prescription medication in his father’s name in order to hide the fact that he was taking it.
"I want to say that they were antidepressants. And I want to say, at that time, he said that, no, he wasn’t … they were in his father’s name or something like that," Dunaway Ozerden said. "But he was trying to hide the fact that he wasn’t, you know, taking anything at the time."