The Insider

Ad Litem Alibi?
Harris County juvenile court judge and Texas Protective and Regulatory Services (TPRS) officials are on a collision course with regard to the judge's tactics in trying to speed up the adoption of children in the custody of the state agency. Judge Pat Shelton is critical of the slow pace of adoptions here, and has begun appointing ad litem attorneys to monitor the performance of child-welfare workers in finding adoptive parents for their charges.

TPRS counsel Rock Owens contends the judge's actions are illegal and unnecessary, and amount to giving favored attorneys ad litem fees when there is no real legal work to be done. In a first round of appointments last December, Shelton farmed out most of the 20 cases to attorneys George Clevenger and Evan Glick. Clevenger got 11 cases and Glick got six.

Attorney Clevenger is one of the larger contributors listed on Judge Shelton's most recent campaign-finance report, filed last week. From March 1 to the end of June, Clevenger gave two contributions to the Shelton campaign totaling $1,250.

As The Insider went to press, the judge was considering opening another batch of old cases for which he may appoint ad litems. One courthouse observer estimates that, at $150 to $250 each for a simple pro forma appearance, participating attorneys could reap several thousand dollars for minimal legal work.

Owens, an assistant county attorney, says he will object to having any money paid to the new ad litems appointed by Shelton in cases in which final decrees had already been entered. According to Owens, the Texas Family Code allows judges to continue the services of ad litems appointed before TPRS assumes managing conservatorship, but does not provide for a judge reopening a case to appoint a new attorney for the child.

Owens says the judge's stated motives in trying to speed up adoptions of children in foster care are laudable, but misplaced.

"His explanation is that TPRS is too slow in going through the adoption process," says Owens, "but there isn't a thing that a lawyer can do, in a legal sense, that would speed that up."

Judge Shelton insists he has the power to appoint lawyers to represent children and ride herd on child-welfare workers. "The adoption time frame can be speeded up by somebody to aid and assist TPRS in doing their job, " says Shelton, who says children are languishing for years in foster care when homes are available. He figures lawyers can provide the extra impetus to help a child in custody find permanent parents. "The case is not closed till adoption," comments the judge. "I'm required to review every six months the efforts these agencies make in pushing for adoption. Who is looking at them to make sure they do their job? Nobody." Shelton says he appoints ad litems as needed outside observers in the child-placement process.

The judge met with TPRS officials last week in his court chambers and claims they could not provide statistics to explain what he feels are excessively long stays in custody by adoptable children. Owens counters that the meeting was more of "a setup" to allow the judge to justify his policies, and that TPRS would need time to compile the statistics requested by Shelton.

According to Owens, there is no easily determined average time for an adoption because some children have medical or psychological conditions that make finding new parents very unlikely.

The judge says the agency itself claims all children are adoptable, and he intends to press for the data as a basis for improving adoptive services in Harris County for state wards. He also vows to continue reopening cases and appointing ad litems if he feels a child's situation merits scrutiny.

TPRS Austin spokeswoman Marla Sheely finds the timing of Shelton's push curious, particularly since recently passed state legislation has many of the same goals as those stated by the judge. According to Sheely, TPRS has already sent a team of specialists to Houston to work with local authorities in streamlining the process of getting a child from state custody to a new home.

"We respect where we think the judge is coming from, a concern over what's happening with these kids," comments Sheely, who adds diplomatically that "we're just addressing our concerns in a different way than he is."

If nothing else, Judge Shelton has found a good political issue for use in his current re-election campaign against Democrat Theresa Ramirez, and some nice ad litem appointments to keep a few supporters happy.

Party Poopers
It's not every day that the secretary of a political party calls to complain about the behavior of one of the candidates on the ticket, but that's exactly what Democratic official Francisco Sanchez did last week when he phoned The Insider.

Sanchez was irked that state Representative Debra Danburg had suggested to his boss, party chairman Sue Schechter, that he be removed as secretary for refusing to allow his name to be used for an upcoming Hispanic fundraiser for veteran District 137 Rep Danburg. Sanchez says he hadn't refused, but had only asked that Danburg call him back so he could discuss the matter.

"It boggles my mind," says Sanchez, "how she is creating this pattern of being confrontational with people, and not dealing with them directly, and trying to lean on them through their supervisors or who she considers their higher-ups."

Sanchez was referring to Danburg's complaint to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee about the appointment of Andres Pereira, a potential Danburg rival, as Lee's gay community liaison [Insider, July 9].

Sanchez says he and Danburg then got together, and he agreed to participate in the fundraiser, though their conversation was a bit puzzling. "First, she tells me Hispanic elected officials approached her to do the fundraiser. Then she says she wanted to do the fundraiser and Marc Campos offered to help her. Finally, she says she went to Paula Arnold to do it. She told me three different stories in the one conversation."

After we traded phone calls, Danburg was ultimately unavailable for comment. She did leave a taped message saying that, as far as she knows, she has no problems with Sanchez, and he is on the sponsor list for her fundraiser. Schechter says Danburg simply asked her whether party officials had to support those on the ticket, and that Sanchez is blowing the matter out of proportion.

The organizer of the fundraiser, Campos, took a harder line. "Sanchez was wrong on this deal on Debra," says the consultant. "A party officer needs to support the ticket. If he can't respond in 30 minutes to support the ticket, he ought not be secretary. Debra is a damn good Democrat and the local party secretary should have said immediately, 'Sure, you can use my name.' "

Danburg certainly seems to be running scared for re-election in a district where she hasn't had a serious challenge in years. Factoring into her concern is the rapid residential redevelopment of Montrose, with an attendant influx of the so-called "empty nesters," affluent couples with conservative voting habits. After noting in a missive to supporters that GOP opponent Ben Dominguez actually got more votes in the March primary than she did, Danburg asked for some intelligence assistance.

"It is important that we know what our opponent is doing," declared the state rep. "We are told that out-of-state, right-wing organizations are donating as much as $200,000 to all races to beat Democratic incumbents and take over the Texas State House."

Would-be Danburg spies who hear from or receive mail from Republicans are advised to call (713) 52-DEBRA and spill your guts.

Who Killed Santa Claus?
A long-running legal fight between the father of a federal prisoner and state Representative Senfronia Thompson has concluded with the public reprimand of Thompson for professional misconduct as an attorney.

According to client Abelardo Campos, the representative took a $20,000 retainer fee from him in 1994 with the promise to use her influence as a state legislator to get his son paroled or at least transferred to Texas from a jail in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Dissatisfied with the lack of action in the case, Campos fired Thompson a year later and tried to reclaim part of the fee. Thompson refused, and Campos filed a complaint with the Texas Bar Commission for Lawyer Discipline.

The commission filed suit, claiming that Thompson had violated the state bar's Rules of Disciplinary Procedure by not depositing Campos's fee in a trust or escrow account as required. According to the pleadings, Thompson did not report the payment to the Internal Revenue Service until she received a subpoena from the state bar requiring her to produce such a notice of payment in September of the following year.

In an agreed judgment reached by the parties, Thompson will have to pay $3,000 to Campos, plus $1,500 to the Commission for Lawyer Discipline for legal fees, and take three hours of continuing legal education in the area of ethics.

Perhaps more embarrassing than the reprimand are the contents of a letter the state rep sent Campos back in 1995 when he was considering filing his grievance. Thompson virtually dared her client to take his case to the state bar.

"I discussed with you more times than I have fingers and toes that there were no guarantees in this life except death," declared the representative. "I do not have any magic crystal ball and I am not a palm reader or fortunate [sic] teller."

Warming to the subject, Thompson then told Campos that the federal government "will not be pushed around and I don't know anyone who is crazy enough to apply any kind of pressure in an effort to move your son to Texas." Thompson did not add that she had found someone crazy enough to give her $20,000 to try that.

And just in case Campos thought lawyers like her didn't do their job for free, the state rep imparted these words of wisdom:

"You may believe in Santa Clause [sic] -- let me be the first to inform you, I am not Santa Clause [sic]," wrote Thompson, who then concluded ominously, "Santa Clause [sic] is dead."

Thompson's reputation as a lawyer may not have expired, but it's certainly ailing among those who take public reprimands seriously.

Know something The Insider ought to know? Give him a call at (713) 280-2483, fax him at (713) 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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