How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable
Published: September 5, 2012
Dahlman once got $20,000 a month income from her mother's trust, but early this year, when Judge Rickhoff's court began investigating whether she was fit to manage her money, Falcon Bank cut her disbursement to $5,000 monthly, leaving her in a bind, Dahlman's attorney Phil Ross says.*
The income wasn't enough to pay for property taxes on her estate, let alone insurance bills and medical expenses. Then, the Friday before Memorial Day, Dahlman's daughters applied to have the court appoint a guadian. "It looked like they were going to freeze all of Mary's assets," Ross said. "They were going to freeze all her cash, her accounts, property, and tie her hands so she couldn't pursue litigation."
Ross filed a motion to recuse Rickhoff from the case — thus allowing Dahlman time to breathe — and in the process shone a spotlight on a dirty little secret underlying the whole system: judges who pay attorneys who help them get elected.
Lawyers who do probate work depend on judges to assign them to cases that can often pay out substantial fees — in the case of guardianship, sometimes as long as the ward is alive — sometimes on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And those probate judges rely on many of those same lawyers to chip in and support their campaigns when election time rolls around. It's a practice that's common and legal, but one that critics argue casts a pall over the whole system, encouraging judges to favor attorneys who help boost turnout at the ballot box.
When Ross tried to recuse Rickhoff from Dahlman's case, he pointed to the judge's relationship with attorneys William Bailey, appointed to investigate Dahlman's finances, and Mark Stanton Smith, representing Falcon Bank and therefore present throughout Dahlman's guardianship case.
At a late May recusal hearing before Administrative Law Judge David Peeples, Ross put Smith on the stand. Smith testified to a 2010 meeting where he, Bailey, and other probate attorneys gathered at a law office around two bottles of scotch and cases of beer. Rickhoff dropped by the meeting armed with a list of attorneys' names who could be swayed into donating cash to the re-election effort. Smith and Bailey both testified they had contributed to Rickhoff's campaign, though Bailey groused on the stand that his fundraising for Rickhoff wouldn't have any affect in court.
Smith testified to two such meetings in 2010 and others in 2006, at least one of which played host to U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith.
When the Current called the Bexar County elections office to review campaign finance records for the 2010 election, the office said everything filed prior to July 2010 for Rickhoff's campaign had been shredded. The county is only required by law to keep such records on file for 22 months, the office said. However, the county still had records on file for Bexar County Probate Court 1 Judge Polly Jackson Spencer going back to 2009.
> Email Michael Barajas