In the War of Attrition Waged by the Texas Attorney General Against Robert O'Donnell, There Were Unintended Consequences
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.
More shocking are O'Donnell's charges of political payback on the part of Abbott against one of O'Donnell's most ardent allies, Republican state Representative Ken Paxton from McKinney, who told multiple sources including O'Donnell that Abbott was out to get him for his legislative support of GAL.
Strickland strongly denies these allegations and adds that both Robert and Bob O'Donnell "have consistently demonstrated little or no regard for the truth."
On March 27, 2009, the OAG filed contempt motions against O'Donnell in the family courts of Judges Garcia and Lori Hockett. Both judges declined interviews. Each judge had signed an order removing GAL from their court dockets and only allowed it to continue receiving payments in past cases in which written consent from the custodial parent had been obtained. O'Donnell says he got that authorization where needed, but the OAG claimed those authorizations were obtained through "deceptive, confusing, misleading or illegal means."
O'Donnell had hoped to surrender his company, hand over his caseload to the OAG and simply walk away, but it wasn't that easy.
Today in front of Judge Garcia, the OAG also is complaining that the data from O'Donnell's cases is unusable, even though his father had built a customized computer program so the OAG could sort the information to its liking. "What was provided today was a little short," argues Jeff Graham, an assistant attorney general whose condescending attitude toward the O'Donnells is obvious.
"We're closer than we have ever been," counters Bob, now 78, as his son looks on from the gallery.
Although the OAG would not be placated, Garcia does not act on the contempt motion. She continues the case until February 1 unless the two sides can settle their differences before then, which seems unlikely given their disdain for each other.
O'Donnell leaves the courthouse in a profanity-laced tirade and later vents six years of frustration in an interview at his home just a short walk from his vacant former office in downtown McKinney. "I've got either an ignorant, a vindictive or an absent attorney general whose bureaucracy or him is chasing my ass for reasons unknown to me," he says.
The agony of losing his life's work has prompted O'Donnell to tell his side of the tale—his exposé of a bureaucracy run amok with Abbott at the helm and his staffers thwarting O'Donnell's efforts to stay afloat. But he insists that he's not a conspiracy theorist. "This is a cautionary tale," where the real victims are the children and those parents who are trying to support them, he says. "The mothers that [the OAG] does not service and extends false hope to—those are the ones that are damaged not only financially but psychologically because they're told that their bureaucracy is going to help them, but it doesn't."
When 49-year-old Dallas resident Lisa McDaniel divorced the father of her three children in June 1999, O'Donnell's company handled the collection of her child support. For a $10 monthly fee split between the two parties, GAL used state-of-the-art computer software to keep a real-time balance of the account and ensure payments reached McDaniel in a timely fashion. And when her ex-husband lost his job and began missing payments, one of GAL's attorneys (Bo Brown) filed a motion for enforcement in September 2008 seeking the overdue payments, interest and attorney's fees. She credits GAL for convincing him to pay off half of the debt.
"Guardian showed concern toward mothers receiving child support money," she says.
On January 30, 2009, McDaniel received a letter from Judge Garcia informing her that GAL no longer had the court's authority to act on her child support case. Garcia sent letters in more than 3,000 cases in her court, and Judge Hockett sent similar letters in the more than 2,000 GAL cases in her court. Garcia also attached her January 12 order, which only terminated her court's relationship with GAL "absent the explicit authorization or consent of the obligee [custodial parent]." Garcia, however, stressed that recipients of the letter were not required to sign consent forms. McDaniel had already signed a GAL consent form, but felt she had no choice other than to switch to the OAG.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, how political is this?' And we're caught in the middle," McDaniel says.
Now with the OAG, her checks arrive erratically—often two to three weeks late. "Sometimes my utilities and house payments are delayed because I can't pinpoint when the money is going to be in my account. So, heck, it affects you," she says. "Or just personal stuff that I need to do for myself and my child. It affects your livelihood."
When she was using GAL and didn't receive a check, McDaniel says, she could reach a live representative able to provide direct responses to her concerns. With the OAG, she is forced to use its call center, an automated system that requires customers to enter various numerical prompts before placing them on hold in order to wait to speak with an available representative. When she does reach someone, she says they're unable to answer certain questions. And although her ex-husband got his job back in early 2009 and his wages are garnisheed, she says he owes her back support from his period of unemployment. But to recoup the money, she says the OAG told her to seek her own attorney, which she can't afford.
Like McDaniel's ex-husband, 29-year-old Dallas resident Joshua Maydon's wages are garnisheed and sent to the OAG, which in turn forwards his payments to the mother of his young daughter 500 miles away in Harlingen, Texas. Yet he says his ex-girlfriend calls him regularly, complaining that she doesn't receive her child support on time.
"It's always erratic when it shows up," he says. "How come they can't set up a payment schedule like clockwork that gives it to her automatically on the day that she's supposed to have it?"
Maydon claims he's had to take several days off work for unplanned trips down to Harlingen to resolve issues because the OAG continues to botch the processing of his payments.
"It's like you almost have to baby-sit another kid because it seems like they don't understand what you're trying to accomplish," he says. "I'm trying to pay on time and trying to get money to my daughter."
While he admits that the benefit of the OAG is that its service is provided at no charge to him, he says paying a fee for services similar to O'Donnell's would be appealing if it ensured his payments arrived on time. "My main concern is that my daughter has her stuff and that they're not waiting for money to pay their rent," he says.
That's not to suggest that GAL didn't have its own problems.
Darlene Ewing, a Dallas family lawyer for more than 30 years, says O'Donnell's payment records were difficult to read, and his policy was to apply payments toward outstanding GAL fees and attorney's fees first before paying off overdue child support to the custodial parent. "The guardian program always took their fees off the top, and I didn't like that," she says.
"Well, you cannot prosecute someone for free," O'Donnell counters.
Ewing also claims that rather than bringing non-paying parents before the judge who could throw them in jail for violating the court's support order, GAL would often strike side deals, allowing them to return to court again and again. "It was a better operation than the attorney general, but it had no teeth," she says. "There was nothing hanging over their heads."
Jeff Coen, while serving as an associate family court judge in Dallas from 1994 to 2002, dealt with some of the program's shortcomings. He claims judges often struggled to make sense of O'Donnell's computer printouts; rumors circulated that O'Donnell had office space rent-free at the Dallas County courthouse; O'Donnell couldn't back up his high collection rates with supporting data; and GAL had no clear policy regarding how it handled unclaimed child support money—payments from an unidentified parent or for a parent who couldn't be located.
O'Donnell, with his characteristic brashness, says such accusations are utter nonsense: He never heard from judges saying they couldn't read his printouts; the rooms he used at the courthouse were ones set aside for attorneys; any unclaimed money was sent back to where it came from; and his collection rates were always supported by accompanying data. That's what enabled him to grow his business, because when he started, child support collection rates were absolutely abysmal.
Then-Judge Bob O'Donnell recalls getting a phone call in 1985 from John Roach in response to a paper he wrote for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare chronicling Dallas County's appalling 17 percent child support collection rate. Roach, then a district court judge in Collin County and now the county's district attorney, wanted to run for Texas Attorney General in the 1986 Republican primary and hoped to tout what he thought was his own court's high collection rate. But after O'Donnell performed a statistical analysis for him, "He was dismayed when he found out what the hell that was," O'Donnell says.
It was somewhere between 20 and 25 percent, Roach recollects, even though he had spent a lot of court time handling contempt motions to enforce child support. After finishing third in the Republican primary, Roach enlisted Judge O'Donnell's help to increase the collection rates in his court. "It just seemed to me that there had to be a better way to get this thing to work," he says.
Through his research, O'Donnell had discovered Michigan's "friend of the court" law. Established in 1919 and still used today, the law was created to appoint individuals to protect children, including the enforcement of any payments awarded to them in court. O'Donnell essentially copied this model by creating GAL, which would serve as an officer of the court.
In the meantime, his son had been finalizing the development of software aimed at revolutionizing child support collection. A computer geek and student at the University of Texas at Dallas, Robert knew the value of such technology from his father's experience as a family court judge. It would be the first computerized system in the nation, and he tried to sell it across the country, but surprisingly, there were no takers. States expressing interest such as Colorado and Tennessee said he needed to prove his software worked. Roach's court became the testing ground.
"Once the program got going, we were collecting 80 or 85 percent of our child support cases," Roach says of implementing GAL in 1987 after a six-month pilot program. "So it not only saved the court work, we collected more money for the people who were deserving of it."
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.
Before the court date, Lily Matheson, policy director for the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appeared to side with O'Donnell in a March 1, 2004, e-mail to her boss, Commissioner Sherri Heller. "It is a state law issue to resolve whether a Court can order payments to go through the GAL without the custodial parent being given an option not to have payments go through the GAL," she wrote. "As long as the payments must first be sent to the SDU, we would not dictate what is permissible for court activity in this regard." Heller declined to comment to the Dallas Observer.
The case of O'Donnell v. Abbott was wrapped up in a one-day bench trial on November 12, 2004, but it would take more than a year for Judge Lee Yeakel to render a decision. In the meantime, state Representative Ken Paxton, a big supporter of the GAL program in Collin County (and the beneficiary of $8,500 in campaign contributions from O'Donnell from 2003 to 2008) worked with Heller and other legislators to craft two House bills that would resolve the conflict over the consent issue between the OAG and O'Donnell and enable GAL to continue to receive payments from the SDU. While HB 1238 allowed signatures on divorce degrees to constitute written consent, HB 2668 enabled private entities such as GAL to operate as local registries capable of receiving child support payments if appointed by a court.
Although the OAG attempted to amend language in HB 2668 and questioned whether HB 1238 violated federal law, both bills passed the House and Senate in May 2005 without opposition and were signed into law by Governor Rick Perry. But none of that mattered—not after Judge Yeakel ruled against O'Donnell in September 2005, holding that divorce degrees don't amount to consent because the parties "were, in practical terms, ordered to accept the arrangement." Yeakel also held Paxton's legislation was of no consequence since the bills were not retroactive. O'Donnell appealed but got no help from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The bad news had only begun for O'Donnell. Margot Bean, who had replaced Heller on the federal level, sent a February 16, 2006, letter to Alicia Key, who had replaced Bryant on the state level, and wanted to know whether Paxton's bills complied with federal law. Despite previous statements from Heller and Matheson leaving the issue in the hands of the state, Bean said the bills in fact violated federal law.
Paxton sent letters to federal officials and marshaled a parade of powerful politicos to urge Bean to change her mind. "...[This] decision has the effect of decreasing competition and potentially decreases the likelihood that the custodial parent will receive their child support payment," wrote Governor Rick Perry in a letter to Bean's superior, Secretary Michael Leavitt.
Bean heard from State Senator John Carona from Dallas and six state representatives who together wrote that GAL was more efficient than any state government in the country and applauded it for not using tax dollars. "To say we are impressed would be an understatement."
Abbott even appeared to take Paxton's side: "We would appreciate your very serious consideration of [Paxton's] request and look forward to learning whether your decision in the matter has changed based on the further information provided with respect to the action of the Texas Legislature and the Governor."
But O'Donnell thinks Abbott's letter, which was short on substance and less supportive than others, was simply a ploy, and believes Abbott's subsequent actions belie his apparent support for the legislation. "At that point in our situation, he wasn't sure which way the tide was going to turn, and he just wanted to make sure that he had plausible deniability," he says.
On February 15, 2008, the OAG sent O'Donnell a letter instructing him to obtain consent forms in the many thousands of cases without them, citing the federal court ruling. O'Donnell says the OAG then began intercepting his clients, sending them letters with little explanation other than stating their payments would now come from the state as opposed to the guardian.
"I'm angry through this thing, and you can sense it in every meeting," O'Donnell says. "The water-cooler talk was, 'This guy's a prick,' and yeah, I'm a prick. I'm being attacked by my government."
Ten days later, Dallas County family court Judge Lynn Cherry signed a temporary restraining order blocking the OAG's effort to divert cases from GAL and issued the TRO despite the OAG's argument that the continuing use of GAL would jeopardize more than $300 million in federal funding. Cherry, a supporter of the program, refused multiple interview requests.
Her TRO caused the OAG to file a writ of mandamus against the seven Dallas and Collin County judges who still used GAL to force them to stop using the program immediately. The higher courts denied the mandamus, but on June 27, the Texas Supreme Court told Cherry to withdraw her TRO.
In May 2008, amid the flurry of state court litigation, Paxton and six other state reps tossed up one final Hail Mary, hoping to enlist U.S. Representative Ralph Hall from Rockwall to sponsor federal legislation to resolve the guardianship issue. Their letter cited "numerous bureaucratic roadblocks" by the OAG and federal child support enforcement officials. "To be perfectly honest, we are puzzled and frustrated by the OAG staff's repeated efforts to undermine GAL services (and the lives of thousands of children)," Paxton and his colleagues wrote.
At the Texas-OU football game played in the Cotton Bowl on October 11, 2008, O'Donnell claims, Abbott shared a suite with Paxton and other politicians. According to O'Donnell, when Abbott and Paxton were alone, Abbott said he'd "ruin" Paxton because of the support he had given O'Donnell. O'Donnell stresses that he knows this information only secondhand, but he says Paxton himself called him after the alleged threat.
"He had a quiver in his voice," O'Donnell says. "He was scared."
Multiple sources unwilling to speak for attribution confirmed to the Observer that Paxton told them a similar version of O'Donnell's story. Despite repeated attempts to reach Paxton, he refused to return phone calls and e-mails to the Observer.
Jerry Strickland, Abbott's spokesperson, denies that such a conversation took place and stresses that Abbott and Paxton have a good relationship. "Greg Abbott can't even remember the score of the game in 2008."
But five days after the game, the Associated Press published a story about Paxton's investment in WatchGuard Video, a company that secured a lucrative contract with the Legislature to provide in-car video patrol cameras to police departments throughout Texas. The piece reported that Paxton voted on an appropriations bill that resulted in the $10 million contract for WatchGuard, suggesting such an action "might violate the state constitution" because the constitution prohibits lawmakers from directly or indirectly benefiting from a state contract authorized by the Legislature.
After interviewing Paxton about the story a couple weeks later, McKinneyNews.net staff writer Brett Ryder wrote: "[Paxton] also told me he was the victim of a hatchet job, and the reporter who wrote the piece may have been working on behalf of someone who, well, wanted to carve him into tiny political pieces." O'Donnell says Paxton blamed Abbott for the story and indicated that the attorney general was "making good" on his threat.
Jay Root, the AP reporter who wrote the story, says it's not his policy to reveal his sources, and he stands by his article.
Strickland denies that Abbott had any contact with Root, but O'Donnell maintains that these events are inextricably linked to the OAG's "bureaucratic power grab," which was cemented months earlier when Bean, despite Paxton's efforts, refused to change her mind, deciding that federal law restricted anyone other than the SDU and custodial parents from receiving child support payments.
One day after the AP story was published, Abbott penned a letter of his own to Congressman Hall, blasting Paxton for "inaccurate assertions and factual omissions." The nine-page letter cited GAL's "steadfast refusal to comply with the law" and chastised it for relying on judges to order parents to use its services without consent. Hall did not return phone calls seeking comment, but the federal legislation benefiting GAL never gained any traction.
O'Donnell's fall from grace continued in December 2008 when Dallas County completed an audit of his company and faulted GAL for numerous record-keeping and accounting omissions as well as retaining attorney's fees prior to the disbursement of past-due child support and using courthouse space rent-free.
Shortly afterward, on January 12, judges Garcia and Hockett signed orders discontinuing the use of GAL in cases without written consent. O'Donnell contends that he was getting the consent forms signed. "We did this 10,000 times if we did it once on 10,000 cases, and I have them all," he says.
But Strickland says none of the consent forms O'Donnell supposedly had signed was legitimate because they weren't blessed by the Texas Department of Banking, which requires that all private collection companies register with the state agency before transacting business. O'Donnell stresses that doing so would have restricted his ability to serve as an officer of the court.
On March 27, 2009, the OAG filed contempt motions against O'Donnell for violating Garcia and Hockett's orders, alleging he had obtained written consent through "deceptive, confusing, misleading or illegal means." Attached as an exhibit to each motion was a letter he sent to clients, urging them to sign the consent forms: "Please do not delay as we may have money waiting for you now," he wrote.
Because his father had represented Garcia in the OAG's mandamus petition, O'Donnell filed a motion to have Garcia recused from the case. During an April 15 hearing on the motion which was denied, O'Donnell felt he finally had gone through enough. He agreed to the OAG's demands: He would close down his business by June 1.
"It was made clear to us that they were going to run us out of business," he says.
It's 10:30 in the morning on February 1, the continuation of the contempt hearing that could put Robert O'Donnell behind bars. But the courtroom is nearly empty; O'Donnell hasn't shown up yet, and even Judge Garcia is gone—jury duty. Then Bob O'Donnell and Assistant Attorney General Jeff Graham enter the courtroom, engaged in the kind of lighthearted banter that reveals the animosity between them may have ebbed. The parties have reached an agreement, and they discuss how to proceed in the judge's absence. "If something can go squirrelly with this case, it will," Graham says to O'Donnell, explaining why, despite their agreement, he still made the trip from Austin.
Associate Judge Mary Brown soon takes the bench, subbing for Garcia to hear the terms of the settlement, which essentially drops the contempt charges against Robert in exchange for him surrendering all the data he possesses on his clients, and the computer program his father built to read and manipulate that data. Brown quickly realizes that this is no ordinary contempt hearing. "It's not a mom and a dad and some child support," Brown says. "This is something different."
"They have now produced everything," Graham assures Brown. The war, it seems, is finally over.
Outside the courtroom, Bob reflects on his son's decision to sue the attorney general over the consent issue, seeing that as what motivated the OAG to force his son out of business. "If you're gonna shoot at the king, you better goddamn well kill him," he says.
But it doesn't seem as though Robert is ready to stop firing. He later says he may file wrongful prosecution, prosecutorial misconduct and harassment charges against Greg Abbott. "We're going to review them all and pick the one that we're going to be the most successful in pursuing, or perhaps pursue them all."
While he expresses relief that this chapter in his life is over, O'Donnell says it soured him on government and the judicial system. "I don't think what happened to us is right, and I don't think the attorney general of Texas should be able to go on a personal vendetta against individuals," he argues. "They shouldn't be allowed to use their power in an unjust way."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.