Williamson County Commissioners Court

Commissioners Respond to ‘Extortion’ Complaints

 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

Lisa BirkmanAfter 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’

 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

Williamson County Commissioners Court. Judge Dan Gattis (center) and Commissioners (left to right) Lisa Birkman, Cynthia Long, Valerie Covey, Ron MorrisonTomorrow 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 GaleJoseph 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

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Lawsuit Seeks to Remove Williamson County Judge

Posted Wednesday December 29, 2010 10:00pm
Lawsuit Seeks to Remove Williamson
County Judge Dan A. Gattis from Office

County Attorney Jana Duty Alleges Unlawful Hiring
and Payments, Incompetence, Official Misconduct

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Jana DutyDan GattisWilliamson 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.”

County Attorney Steps Up Payments Investigation

Posted Tuesday November 30, 2010 10:45pm
Williamson County Attorney Steps Up
Investigation of Improper Payments

District Attorney’s Claimed Investigation
Not Confirmed by Agencies He Named

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Dan GattisMike DavisFor 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.”

Abuse, Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Alleged

Posted Tuesday November 23, 2010 10:34pm

Federal Lawsuit Alleges Verbal Abuse,
Sexual Harassment, and Retaliation

Former County Court at Law No. 3
Judge Don Higginbotham Accused

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Don HigginbothamWhat 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.

Gregg RosenbergAttorney 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.