By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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A majority of Collin County's judges followed suit and joined the program, and then it expanded into Dallas County in 1988, with Judge O'Donnell becoming the fourth Dallas County judge to use GAL. Rumors of nepotism and conflict of interest spread throughout the courthouse and even led to several investigations of Judge O'Donnell, including one by the FBI. As Robert points out, his father named attorney Bo Brown as the guardian in his court, and then Brown contracted with Robert's software company, Child Support Systems of Texas, to handle the accounting.
"Is the relationship close? Yes. Is it illegal? No," he says. "Not a single time had they ever come back and said we were doing anything wrong."
Robert continued trying to sell his software, but despite its local success, there still weren't any states showing much interest, and Texas was no exception.
During a meeting in Austin with then-Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox in 1990, Robert says Mattox told him that there simply wasn't a place for private enterprise in the child support collection business. After Mattox passed on his software proposal, Robert decided to prove the government wrong by outperforming it.
He claims while the OAG handled five contempt cases in a day against delinquent parents, GAL could take care of 200. "They just couldn't figure out how we could get it done," he says. "We systematized it. We computerized it. We invented stuff and got it all blessed by the courts. We rocked and rolled and were a shining example."
Coen also saw GAL's advantages: The guardian program filled a void, replacing an archaic system that was done by hand. Every time a payment was made, county employees had to put the paying parent's punch card into a mechanical adding machine.
"When [GAL] came into business, they revolutionized the child support collection industry in Texas and maybe even the nation," he says. "Their stuff was just cutting edge."
There was some resentment among the Dallas family law bar at first, recalls lawyer Lisa McKnight, because they felt this was Bob O'Donnell's son and it was being forced on them. Some courts made using GAL optional, but others made it mandatory. "You would come to court to prove up a divorce and a judge would write in your decree that child support would be paid through the Guardian Ad Litem," she says. "Lawyers pushed back at first but then saw that it did provide a valuable service."
Coen, however, says that GAL may have "outlived its usefulness" since with a change in federal law, the OAG has adopted many of GAL's methods. Many family lawyers still find it the better option. "If I had to pick one over the other, I would rather GAL enforce my client's child support payments," McKnight says. "It was just more customer-service oriented."
But when Coen served as a family court judge from 2002 to 2006, he refused to use GAL because he noticed an "almost schizophrenic" relationship between the OAG and O'Donnell. "There was just too much push and pull," Coen says. "When you're looking at the best interests of the kiddo, you're looking at the person receiving the child support, and they shouldn't be in the middle of a policy fight between the guardian and the attorney general."
If there's one issue the OAG and O'Donnell can agree on, it's the document that set the stage for the epic battle between them: a November 25, 2002, missive from then-Deputy Attorney General for Child Support Cynthia Bryant to O'Donnell, which detailed the OAG's plan to implement the State Disbursement Unit mandated under a 1996 federal law as part of welfare reform.
No longer would each county collect and disburse child support for parents who had divorced there. A statewide SDU would handle that now, and it was mandated to do that quickly and more accurately.
Bryant's letter told O'Donnell that federal and state law prohibited the SDU from sending payments to anyone other than the IV-D agency (the OAG) or the obligee (the custodial parent) without written consent from that parent.
This was a "180-degree policy change," O'Donnell says, and it came just one week before Abbott was sworn into office. Abbott succeeded John Cornyn, with whom O'Donnell says he had a good working relationship. He cites a December 21, 2000, letter from Bryant's predecessor, Harold Baldwin, as evidence that Cornyn had no concerns about sending money from the SDU to GAL.
"As we have previously discussed, the SDU can forward all payments made on GAL cases to the GAL for distribution to the custodial parent," Baldwin wrote. "This will allow the GAL to continue functioning and processing payments in the same manner as before implementation of the SDU."
O'Donnell also maintained that the divorce decrees of his clients constituted consent since they were signed contracts that were entered into voluntarily. The OAG argued that since the courts had ordered the divorcing parties to use GAL's services, they had no choice in the matter and didn't consent. To resolve the issue, O'Donnell sued the OAG in Travis County state court in November 2003, but the case was moved to federal court at the request of the OAG.