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How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

Joy Powers woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and stripped of her rights. Months later, court-appointed fees drained her life savings

Photo: , License: N/A

A Bexar County court twice investigated whether Jack Hood was incapacitated when he contested a guardianship case involving his wife of 35 years.

Ross insisted the fundraising could make Rickhoff unfairly favor Smith, who he says has an interest in seeing Dahlman appointed a guardian, and Bailey in the guardianship case. "As it turned out half the lawyers that were in her case were on this informal committee for Rickhoff," Ross said. "But Judge Peeples said there wasn't enough smoke to see if we needed to look for some fire." Rickhoff was allowed to stay on the case.


Peeples and Ross might have looked to fees awarded in Rickhoff's court for more smoke.

The state Office of Court Administration began collecting electronic reports on fees for the first time in 2009, following a state Supreme Court initiative to boost accountability in light of long-standing claims about judges' alleged favoritism toward particular lawyers practicing in their courts. Each year thousands of people's lives and deaths end up in the hands of probate judges in Texas, who hold sweeping power over their liberty and assets. And naturally those probate fees can be controversial, as they're often drawn from the private accounts or estates of the people the courts are charged with safeguarding.

Advocates like Debby Valdez allege the system makes it too easy for attorneys to drain estates through long, drawn-out litigation, with judges scratching the backs of attorneys who helped them get re-elected.

"Every court, whether it's probate or some other court, the judges are going to make sure they've taken care of their own," one local longtime probate attorney told the Current.

In the cases of Dahlman and her brother, who was also investigated as to whether he could take care of himself, Smith's firm reaped nearly $140,000 from Dahlman's trust between January 2011 and May 2012. Rickhoff appointed Bailey roughly $40,000 for his investigation into

Dahlman, which argued against the testimony of three forensic psychiatrists, and $18,000 for an investigation into Dahlman's brother.

According to OCA and Bexar County records, Bailey was also awarded $124,000 in fees for two other probate cases between September 2011 and June 2012, making him by far the largest recipient of the $401,647 in fees Rickhoff paid out so far this fiscal year (the next highest-paid attorney got $17,000 from Rickhoff across multiple probate cases).

When reached by phone last week, Rickhoff said he couldn't comment on Dahlman's case, but insisted there's no favoritism in how he appoints attorneys. "I think there were only three (attorneys) that didn't support me, so they're all contributing, they all support me," he said, adding, "What can you do about it?" He also said there are "some really reliable, heavy-hitters who are real trustworthy," like Bailey, who come through his court, that he assigns to complex cases.

In a fax he later sent to the Current, Rickhoff wrote, "Since I pay lawyers the least of all probate judges in the State of Texas, I am surprised that any of them support me or that I am criticized for paying too much."

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