Commissioners Respond to ‘Extortion’ Complaints
But discuss only cost of Williamson County Domestic
Relations Office, and claim need for judges to buy in
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 3 in a Series
Posted Tuesday April 26, 2016 4:03pm
After months of hearing from parents who claim they are being ripped off by racketeering in the family courts of Williamson County, Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman briefed the Commissioners Court about research she had done to explore the possibility of establishing a Domestic Relations Office (DRO). That is a goal advocated by the Texas Association for Children and Families (TACF).
Birkman described the duties of the professionals who are appointed by courts to assist in making decisions about child custody. The person appointed will interview the children, parents, and others and report to the judge, she said. In Williamson and most other Texas counties the person appointed would be an attorney or other licensed professional in private practice.
She noted that the Family Code allows the Commissioners Court to establish a DRO, such as the one operated by Travis County. Among other services provided by the Travis County DRO, it has employees qualified to be appointed as guardian ad litem to advise the court on the best interests of children.
“There's only a few counties that do it that way and it's expensive,” Birkman said. (Actually there are eight such counties in Texas, per the Texas Association of Domestic Relations Offices.)
Birkman cited cost figures for three DROs:
• Harris County (Houston) has 42 employees and a $3.3 million annual budget.
• Tarrant County (Fort Worth) has 83 employees and a $7.2 million budget.
• Travis County (Austin) has 51 employees and a $3.6 million budget.
“The way we do it in Williamson County, and most counties in Texas, is the parents bear the cost,” Birkman said.
Judges not yet responsive
Parents Demand Halt to ‘Extortion’
Texas Association for Children and Families and
parents demand reforms under threat of lawsuit
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Monday April 18, 2016 9:12pm
Tomorrow morning the Williamson County Commissioners Court is scheduled to hear yet again from the Texas Association for Children and Families (TACF) about alleged corruption. The organization claims that for years a “racketeering enterprise” has been operating right under the noses of family law courts in Williamson County, wrecking the lives of children and parents, and ruining them financially.
The court-appointed professionals named by the TACF as being involved in the alleged scheme who were reached for comment have denied any wrongdoing.
This will be the fourth time representatives of the TACF and parents have appeared in person since last December 1 to complain about alleged injustices and plead for help. Previous appearances have yielded only disclaimers that these problems are beyond the power of the Commissioners Court to remedy.
This is a last-ditch attempt to get a so-far resistant Commissioners Court to establish a Domestic Relations Office, similar to one operated in Travis County for decades. This office would provide essential services focused solely on achieving the best outcomes for Williamson County parents going through divorce and child-custody disputes.
Joseph Gale, TACF’s executive director, will tell commissioners that parental rights are being abused and children are being damaged by a number of professionals involved in family law cases in Williamson County, who are allegedly more interested in extracting fees than achieving the best outcomes.
TACF and these parents seek the Commissioners Court’s cooperation in initiating a remedy. If that assistance is not forthcoming by June 1, TACF says Williamson County will be named as a defendant in a lawsuit.
Gale will deliver signed letters to the Commissioners Court on behalf of TACF, four mothers, and one father. These and possibly other parents are expected to be plaintiffs if a lawsuit is necessary. The parents claim their families and their children were and are being harmed by the failure of the Commissioners Court to supervise the judges and court appointed professionals.
‘Racketeering enterprise’ alleged
A Tale of Two Counties
Child custody cases get help in Travis County but in
Williamson and most other counties you're on your own
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 1 in a Series
Posted March 15, 2016 1:22pm
In the State of Texas in 2013 there were 76,423 divorces involving 59,135 children, according to statistics provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Center for Health Statistics. Some of those divorces resulted in amicable arrangements for child custody in which the parents rose above self-interest and focused on sharing their responsibility to shepherd happy and well-adjusted children into adulthood.
But there is all too much evidence of divorce cases in which the bitterness bestowed by bickering parents pervades every aspect of their children’s lives. In those cases, money may be the least of concerns in the combat for control and custody of children borne out of love and delivered into the war zone of a contentious divorce.
Divorces are emotionally exhausting and can leave parting parents drained, both emotionally and financially. When minor children are involved, the romance may have ended but the parents remain connected to jointly look after their custody, housing, education, medical care, and emotional well-being until they come of age.
Even long after the divorce is final, the ties that bind divorced parents together over issues of child custody may fray and grow contentious.
Divorced parents may continue to struggle for control over critical issues: Where will the children live? Where they will be educated? In which extracurricular activities will they participate? What kind of medical care will they will receive? Not the least of these stressful issues is which parent will pay for these and the myriad other expenses involved in raising children?
When one parent’s behavior appears to threaten or endanger the children—or for whatever reason becomes unacceptable to the other parent—the deadlocked former mates may jump to hire lawyers and seek to air their grievances in a court of law.
The children’s welfare—the thing that should be uppermost in the minds of deadlocked parents—may get shoved aside, become a casualty of family warfare. At that point the overriding goal of looking out for the children becomes a concern for the court. The judge may choose to appoint someone to look after the best interests of the children.
Whoever’s appointed has to come in and objectively examine the circumstances and then make an informed recommendation to the court about what’s best for the children. That person is usually an attorney ad litem or a guardian ad litem. Translated from the original Latin, ad litem means “for the lawsuit.”
The key difference between the two types of ad litems is explained in an informative guide for parents published online, along with a lot of other information important to divorcing couples, by the Travis County Domestic Relations Office:
The Guardian Ad Litem, who is often a licensed professional counselor, focuses on the child's best interests in making recommendations to the court, even if that is not what the child says he or she wants (emphasis added).
An Attorney Ad Litem is appointed by the court to represent the child's best interests and wishes. However, if the child's best interests are different from the child's wishes, the Attorney Ad Litem will represent the child's wishes (emphasis added).
Typically a given custody case would involve one or the other of these kinds of ad litems and not both.
Once appointed, the ad litem will investigate, complete written reports for the court, and testify in court hearings.
County Judge Dan A. Gattis from Office
County Attorney Jana Duty Alleges Unlawful Hiring
and Payments, Incompetence, Official Misconduct
© The Austin Bulldog 2010
Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty previously stated she had obtained a commitment for a special prosecutor who would pursue criminal charges against Williamson County Judge Dan A. Gattis and Round Rock Attorney Mike Davis if an independent investigation provided evidence that the law had been broken.
Duty instead used an entirely different tactic and filed a 140-page civil lawsuit on December 22 (Cause Number 10-1428-C26). The lawsuit, obtained today by The Austin Bulldog, asks the court to suspend Gattis and appoint another person to perform the duties of county judge until final judgment and, upon trial by jury and a final judgment, to remove Gattis from his position as county judge.
Duty was on out of town today and did not immediately respond to an e-mail and voice mail requesting comment.
A lawyer to defend Gattis against Duty’s lawsuit has not yet been retained, Connie Watson, public information officer for Williamson County, said today. Authorization to hire an attorney to represent Gattis may be placed on the agenda for next week’s Commissioners Court meeting, she said.
Gattis issued a statement this afternoon, which says, in part, “The overwhelming majority of the allegations now being made by Ms. Duty have been examined by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, the Texas Rangers, the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, and the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office ... and the result has continuously been that there has been no misconduct or violations of the law of any kind.”
However, the only matter addressed in Duty’s lawsuit that actually may have been investigated, according to press reports, was the inappropriate payments made to Mike Davis for representing Judge Don Higginbotham of Williamson County Court at Law No. 3 for alleged sexual harassment.
The Austin Bulldog reported November 30 that both the Texas Rangers and the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office said they had discussed the matter with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, but both said they did not participate in any investigation. The Attorney General’s Office would not comment.
Attorney Jason Nassour of the Austin law firm of Keel and Nassour L.L.P. assisted Duty in preparing the lawsuit to remove Judge Gattis.
Nassour says, “What agency comes out and does an investigation and doesn’t issue a statement? All we have is the word of John Bradley, who says he did an investigation and found no wrongdoing.”
Investigation of Improper Payments
District Attorney’s Claimed Investigation
Not Confirmed by Agencies He Named
Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010
For a while it looked like Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis and Round Rock attorney Mike Davis were out of the line of fire and would not be prosecuted for county payments to Davis for representing Judge Don Higginbotham of Williamson County Court at Law No. 3 against claims of sexual harassment.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said his office had conducted an investigation and found no criminal conduct in Davis inappropriately billing the county to represent Higginbotham.
Nor did Bradley find reason to prosecute Judge Gattis for possibly encouraging Davis to represent Higginbotham at county expense without getting authorization of the others on the commissioners court.
But Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty isn’t dropping the matter. She is seeking an independent investigation into whether the law was broken when Gattis allegedly arranged for attorney Mike Davis to defend Higginbotham.`
Duty has raised the ante by lining up an investigation by getting a commitment for a special prosecutor who would pursue criminal charges if the independent investigation provides evidence that the law has been broken.
“Bradley and Gattis may think I’m dropping it,” Duty told The Austin Bulldog. “They should know better. I’m not sweeping this under the carpet.”
Posted Tuesday November 23, 2010 10:34pm
Sexual Harassment, and Retaliation
Former County Court at Law No. 3
Judge Don Higginbotham Accused
© The Austin Bulldog 2010
What started out as a sexual harassment complaint against Williamson County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Donald Higginbotham has turned into a full-blown federal lawsuit that adds retaliation to the allegations.
Attorney Gregg Rosenberg of the Houston firm of Rosenberg and Sprovach filed the lawsuit, Kimberly Lee and Sharon McGuyer v. Williamson County, in federal court November 23.
The lawsuit lists more than a dozen instances in which Judge Higginbotham allegedly made comments that were insulting, demeaning, and abusive. Several of the alleged comments involved vulgarity or sexual references.
For example, in “November 2009,” the lawsuit alleges, “Plaintiff Lee was walking in the hallway when Judge Higginbotham turned to her and said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but in those pants you are wearing, you have the ass of a Ni**er.’”
“Also in November 2009, when Plaintiff Lee asked for a peppermint, the Judge said he had something for Plaintiff Lee to suck on,” the lawsuit alleges.
When he found court coordinator Amanda Vega’s vehicle in his parking space, according to the lawsuit, Higginbotham, neck veins bulging, hands clamped into fists, said, “You are nothing but a bunch of fu**ing pukes, nothing but a bunch of go**amn fu**ing pukes! Get out of here and move your car, move it, move it, move it!”
Higginbotham could not be reached for comment.
Posted Tuesday November 9, 2010 4:36pm
in Response to Request and Complaint
After the Fact Compilation
Now Open to Public Scrutiny
© The Austin Bulldog 2010
Georgetown Council Member Pat Berryman has at last provided a report of the expenses she claims to have incurred, and for which she was retroactively issued a payment of $13,600 by the City of Georgetown.
The 20-page report comes 10 months after Berryman was paid, a result of The Austin Bulldog’s open records request and subsequent complaints filed with several law enforcement agencies.
“The attached expense report is accurate to my recollection and has been verified by the research I have done with city staff, and my own records,” Berryman states in an October 15 cover letter.
“It was a difficult task because so much time has elapsed from this time period. I think it should be noted that the Georgetown City Council was not required by the city resolution to provide documentation of any kind. Therefore, it was not anticipated this would occur.
“None of the other council members have been or are being required to provide this in depth information regarding the reimbursement for expenses. I must say that it is unfair to be singled out in this manner.”
Berryman only state employee on council
The Austin Bulldog targeted Berryman because she was the only state employee serving on the council during the period covered by her $13,600 payment, July 2008 through December 2009. As a state employee, she was prohibited by Section 40(b) of the Texas Constitution from drawing a salary for service as an elected official. Berryman should prove her expenses are legitimate and not a means to circumvent the salary prohibition, according to opinions issued by the Texas Attorney General.