EP County fee reports not filed for 13 years

Louie Gilot (lgilot@elpasotimes.com; 915-546-6131)
July 10, 2007
El Paso Times (TX)

El Paso County was 13 years late in complying with a corruption-fighting order to disclose the fees ordered paid by probate judges to court-appointed attorneys.

A newspaper report by the Houston Chronicle found that El Paso was one of six Texas counties that failed to fully comply with a 1994 Texas Supreme Court rule meant to fight favoritism.

County clerks around the states must retrieve the fee information from each probate file, make a list of any fee above $500, put it in a monthly report available at the county courthouse and send a copy to the Office of Court Administration in Austin.

The El Paso County Clerk’s office only started doing so in April and only going back to January.

El Paso County Clerk Delia Briones, who took her post in January, said she ordered the reporting after she found a notice from the Office of Court Administration about the probate fee reporting requirements.

“It was dated April 2006, but to my knowledge there was no action taken,” she said.

Her predecessor, Waldo Alarcon, now at the city’s Central Appraisal District, said he did not recall the notice.

Carl Reynolds, executive director of the Office of Court Administration, said his office does not have enforcement authority. There is no penalty for non-compliance.

Reynolds’ office does not review the information. It just gets filed for the public to see.

El Paso’s county clerk has now caught up with the reports and so far, the county’s two probate judges, Yvonne Rodriguez and Eduardo Gamboa, have ordered $102,159 paid to about 40 individuals and groups, with a median payment of $779. The money can be public money or private savings depending on the ability of the elderly or disabled client’s ability to pay for guardianship, wills and other matters.

The Houston Chronicle investigation found that at least $1.8 million in probate court-ordered payments went unreported from 2003 to 2005 or were awarded to people not identified by name in El Paso, Travis, Denton, Bexar, Hidalgo and Galveston counties.

Former Probate Judge Max Higgs, who was the only probate judge in El Paso until this year, said he knew about the clerk’s office reporting shortcomings.

“I offered to pay for the clerk staff to go to seminars where they would have learned these things,” he said. “In my recollection, they were only allowed to go once.”