By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Robert O'Donnell stands rigidly in the courthouse hallway, his arms folded across his chest, trying to keep his rage in check. Like some Americans, O'Donnell is fed up with big government, but his simmering anger has nothing to do with Wall Street bailouts or health-care plans. After more than six years of squabbling and litigation, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) in Texas ran his child support collection company out of business, and if that wasn't enough, today, its attorneys are trying to toss him in jail.
Taking his mind off the pending showdown, he stares out a fourth floor window of the George L. Allen Sr. Courts Building and watches a group of lawyers race across Commerce Street, clinching their trench coats at the neckline as they brave frigid mid-December temperatures. O'Donnell, dressed in a mustard-colored blazer and blue jeans, grows anxious nevertheless, waiting for the proceedings to start, a hearing that could put him behind bars for up to two years. The irony doesn't escape him. He was once a courthouse fixture, and his business was part of the system employed by family court judges to collect child support from noncustodial parents, throwing the deadbeats in jail, if necessary, for violating the court's child support orders. Now he's the one facing contempt charges, accused of violating the court orders of Dennise Garcia, one of the same family judges with whom he had worked. The judge was mopping up what was left of O'Donnell's business after the state's attorney general, his chief competitor in child support collections, had challenged his right to pursue his livelihood.
"I'll kiss your ass right down there if this fucking thing ends today," he tells a courthouse observer. O'Donnell finally settles down after the arrival of his attorney, who is also his father, retired Dallas family court Judge Bob O'Donnell.
In 1986, father helped son start Guardian Ad Litem, a child support collection agency that was unlike any other. Sure, there were agencies that would charge financially strapped parents outrageous fees of up to 30 percent of what they recovered in back child support. And there was the OAG's child support division, a bureaucratic nightmare for some parents who were subjected to countless delays, callous staffers and marginal outcomes.
Robert and his partner, family lawyer Bo Brown, offered the courts a service that avoided the inefficiencies of the government and the unjustness of private collection. And they made a small fortune doing it. Courts that used GAL would appoint O'Donnell as the guardian ad litem, empowering GAL by the divorce decrees they entered to closely monitor child support payments through its sophisticated computer program. Rather than wait a year or more for arrearages to mount, making their payoff by delinquent parents more onerous (as the OAG and private collectors often did), GAL, through its attorneys, would prosecute parents when they fell behind after only 90 days.
"This was Judge O'Donnell's brainchild," says veteran family law attorney Brian Webb, "and it was based on the idea that a man who owes $800 can pay whereas a man who owes $8,000 can't."
In its heyday in the 1990s, GAL collected more than $40 million annually in child support payments through its use in 12 courts in Dallas and Collin counties, employed 20 people and posted staggering collection rates, above 80 percent, for its 10,000 clients. Judges would order parents to use GAL's services and pay the company a flat fee of $10 a month, specifying as much in their divorce decrees.
Despite claims of nepotism, complaints about the accuracy of its record-keeping and concerns over whether O'Donnell distorted its track record, GAL operated with impunity for years. But the issue of whether parents had actually consented to using GAL sparked the bitter legal battle with the OAG, which contended that parents hadn't given their consent simply by signing their decrees, as GAL alleged. The OAG claimed that without the signed, written consent of the custodial parent, GAL placed at risk millions of dollars of federal funds used in the state's child support collection process.
For the OAG and Attorney General Greg Abbott, child support collection is big business, with a sizable portion of his staff (more than 2,600 employees) and budget (more than $320 million) dedicated to it. No doubt when Abbott nears his November reelection campaign, he'll remind voters that in 2009 alone, the OAG collected and dispersed $2.78 billion in child support payments, and that in July 2005, the National Child Support Enforcement Association named Abbott as State Leader of the Year. But the OAG's big numbers also represent a much lower collection percentage than GAL's reported rates. The OAG reported collecting 64 percent of current support due from September 2008 to August 2009, and that plummets to approximately 20 percent when unpaid arrearages are added to the total. O'Donnell claims that GAL's rates were around 85 percent and that included arrearages, though OAG spokesman Jerry Strickland says O'Donnell's numbers are "skewed."
O'Donnell cites his higher collection rate as one reason why the attorney general was hell-bent on eliminating the competition. "We were better, stronger and faster and didn't need to rely on taxpayers' money to get the job done," he says. So the OAG did everything in its formidable power to put him out of business—and did.