Government Transparency: A Murky Proposition

The Estate of Denial (EoD) News Archive features a great series on Texas probate courts and related issues written by Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle. In one article, Lise reported on a Texas Supreme Court ruling from more than 10 years ago which demanded that probate courts report fees of $500+ ordered paid by judges to court-appointed attorneys. This was to be a corruption fighting mechanism as probate courts sometimes degenerate into patronage-type systems in which judges and their friends or associates use probate cases to enrich themselves or others within their business/social circles. The article also discussed how many counties fail in adhering to this mandate.

This web site is committed to studying our probate system and the ways in which Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) can occur. IRA certainly takes place outside the realm of court, but instances continually surface in which court intervention might only shift the looting of assets to a new cast of court-appointed characters.

EoD is a great believer in transparent government. The Houston Chronicle stories started us to wondering – are the counties in our area filing these reports? Do we have probate judges with an identifiable circle of appointees to whom probate work is parceled out? Could improprieties accompany this practice?

A letter (Section 35) was sent to the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) requesting access to the reports of fees ($500+) ordered paid by judges in probate cases in Bell, Williamson and Travis Counties from January 1, 2004, to present. A prompt reply was received from Sandy Mabbett, a Judicial Information Specialist at the OCA, who said that they had electronic files for Bell County, reports for Williamson County most of which indicated no reportable activity and no reports for Travis County.

EoD questioned the lack of reports for Travis County after all, Travis is a Statutory Probate Court under the direction of Judge Guy Herman, the Presiding Statutory Probate Judge for the state! The highest arbiter of Texas probate law doesn’t follow the law – can you imagine that??!! The Chronicle story indicated that Travis County had not been submitting these reports and, after numerous requests, the county finally went back and filed the missing reports. The EoD requested reports overlap with the Chronicle’s information request, however, currently, for EoD, according to Sandy Mabbett of the OCA, they are not available.

Ms. Mabbett suggested that, as Bell and Williamson Counties were closer to our home base, it might be more convenient to contact each county directly with a request to see their reports. The suggestion was taken and a quest began to ascertain who within the Bell County government generated these reports. The contact name and number provided by the OCA was wrong. Except for a couple of individuals, the series of calls attempting to track down information regarding these reports were not confidence inspiring with regard to the administration of our county government. After numerous calls over a one week period, however, submission of a written request to Bell County Clerk Shelley Coston was suggested (Section 36). Ms. Coston, an affable-sounding woman, promptly contacted EoD and said that after reviewing the matter with the probate judge, they had determined this information request should be directed to the Office of Court Administration. Been there, done that, but that’s okay. We’ll go back.

Estate of Denial is tenacious and unafraid of hard work. Open government is not about taxpayer convenience. We know that and will go through whatever motions are required – telling our story on this web site – every step of the way. The idea of government being of, for and by the people is a passé concept. Government is about protecting itself and those who help perpetuate its influence and power – and doing so at you, the taxpayer’s expense! EoD is now working to set up an appointment for a document review session with Sandy Mabbett at the Office of Court Administration.

What’s happening in the probate court in your area? Let us hear from you. EoD always wonders if engaging or not engaging a local court “favorite” might make a difference in a case outcome. Share your thoughts at