Update: We were awaiting comment from attorney Peter Bergman, who is the lawyer mentioned in McDermott's letter, but not named in the original post. Bergman told us Tuesday morning that he could not recall if he ever met with the woman from McDermott's letter, but would get back to us once he checked his records. We have not heard back.
We've been at it for a little while, and we still can't figure out what kind of business is being run out of suite 609 at 1314 Texas Street and what services their low-income clientele are getting for the hundreds they fork over. And we think that's the idea.
The office contains multitudes: Organizations operating there include "America Family Law Center," "Texas Volunteer Attorneys," "Fathers For Equal Rights," and "Children First Always." Ostensibly, they all offer access to family court attorneys and ill-defined "resources." But first, you must buy a membership, which isn't disclosed in any of the advertisements we've seen. And things just get weirder from there.
Documents provided to the Houston Press show how the businesses worked as of July 2013: Regardless of what organization's advertisement draws the person to the office, the client buys a membership with America Family Law Center. A contract we have shows the person paid $350 for a three-month membership.
The client signs a contract as well as a "conduct policy," which dictates how the client must treat the staff: "I will always be courteous and polite" and "I will not make any negative or disparaging remarks, whether verbally or in writing" about the staff.
At this point, the client has access to America Family Law's stable of "volunteer" attorneys, who offer free consultations. If the client actually wants to hire an attorney, that's between them and the attorney -- actual legal representation is not part of the membership. Nor is AFL's printing service, the Family Law Document Service, located in an adjacent suite. The client paperwork we have shows this person paid a $30 "payment plan fee" and a $200 "service fee" to print one motion.
We're now up to $580, and the client still doesn't have an attorney to represent her in court.
The documents were provided by Houston attorney John McDermott, who's been on a one-man crusade against the organizations for about a year, filing complaints over their advertising practices with what he says is a mostly uninterested Texas State Bar.
"They...prey on the uninformed and uneducated," McDermott alleged in an email to the Press. "They advertise suggesting that people are going to get something for free."
In a letter to the Bar, McDermott argued that the businesses were operating as a "pirate law firm," and he wrote about a former AFL client who subsequently sought his help. The 64-year-old woman had raised her four grandchildren after their mother abandoned them, according to McDermott's letter. But when the mother reappeared and "snatched" the children, the woman turned to AFL.
"She paid them a total $500 -- all the money she had," McDermott wrote. She met with an attorney and was "under the impression that [he] would appear at a hearing concerning the children....He did not appear." When the woman asked about this, "she was told that the funds she spent were only for a 'membership.'"
"A competent family attorney who deals with clients of modest income could have put [her] on a payment plan and filed a habeas corpus for her and done good service," McDermott wrote. (The attorney the woman met with is currently facing two district court actions by the Bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline. He also received public reprimands from the Bar in 2001 and 2004, a fully probated suspension in 2004, and a partially probated suspension in 2005, according to a spokeswoman for the Bar's Chief Disciplinary Counsel).
The whole arrangement is largely the brainchild of one of the directors, Robert Lansink, a Tarrant County man whom a judge declared a vexatious litigant during the course of his 2003 divorce case. The man who would go on to run an organization called "Fathers For Equal Rights " filed an affidavit in which he voluntarily relinquished custody of his two children by that case's end.
According to an affidavit in that case filed by his now ex-wife, "the workers at the after school care have indicated to me that during [Lansink's] periods of possession of the boys, they sometimes go an entire week without bathing" and sometimes wore "the same clothes the entire week."
Lansink went on to sue chain restaurant empire Landry's in Harris County District Court, claiming he bit into a piece of wire while eating a Caesar salad at a Saltgrass Steakhouse in Shenandoah. Lansink dropped the case after Landry's sought summary judgment on the grounds that it never owned or operated that particular restaurant, and was not a proper party.
We wanted to talk to Lansink, to see just why a guy with his experience was fit to pair low-income clients with attorneys, but he didn't return a message left for him at the America Family Law Center. The phone number he listed on a May 2014 filing with the Texas Secretary of State was not working.
However, we heard from another director, Don Hooper, whose wife, ex-prosecutor Rachel Palmer, was called before a grand jury investigating alleged misconduct by former District Attorney Pat Lykos. Palmer invoked her Fifth Amendment rights when brought before the jury -- always a good sign in a civil servant.
Hooper told us that Lansink's big heart is matched only by his big wallet, saying "Most of the people that come to the door [of AFL], Bob pays for all their legal services out of his pocket."
Hooper said AFL helps tens of thousands of people, "and Bob writes an enormous check out of his pocket every year to pay for all of it. And he does it because he believes, as a Christian mission, that no parent should be separated from their child."
He said the venture actually lost money and was not a predatory scheme, alleging that McDermott had ulterior motives for bad-mouthing the businesses.
"I'm sure Mr. McDermott is upset because he thinks the organization is taking his clients away from him," Hooper said.
The folks we contacted at the Bar had nothing to say about AFL -- in fact, they could not appear less interested -- but an attorney who volunteers with the business told us AFL was the subject of a Bar inquiry in 2013. He said the Bar poked around to see if they were running an unapproved referral service, and although investigators found nothing wrong, they ordered him to take two hours of continuing legal education courses.
"The inquiry from the Bar was that lawyers such as me were running that organization as a referral service...which is pretty ridiculous, because I don't run the organization," Don Cahilly told us.
Cahilly, who volunteers with AFL once a week, told us, "When people come there, they can talk to a lawyer and ask any questions they want, and if they have a particular court case...they can ask what to do, what they can do, what's going to happen when they go into court."
"Most of these people, they believe that they can do the legal work themselves, and they need a little help. Now, whether they really can do the legal work is kind of a secondary issue. I mean, I think you need a lawyer to do the legal work, but not everyone can afford a lawyer," he said.
America Family Law isn't the only organization in town offering "legal aid" to low-income clients. The Houston Bar Association's volunteer lawyers program works a bit differently. You can't buy a membership. But you can get an actual lawyer to represent you in court for free.
Founded in 1981, the program has about 4,000 attorneys on its volunteer roster, according to director Alissa Gomez. But not everyone who walks in the door is guaranteed a lawyer -- candidates fill out applications to make sure their income qualifies them for the program.
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The Houston Bar Association also has a free referral service that includes attorneys who offer reduced fees.
We looked for the fine print on the HBA's volunteer lawyer program website and couldn't find any, unlike the pesky disclaimers at the bottom of AFL's and its affiliates' ads: a recent AFL ad in the Greensheet boldly proclaims "Volunteer Attorneys," while noting at the bottom that "some fees may apply." No mention of a $350 membership fee to see those "volunteer" attorneys.
Another ad, for Texas Volunteer Attorneys, allegedly offers "Legal Aid Assistance For Texas Families," while the fine print discloses that the organization "is not a law office and does not practice law. The attorneys who volunteer do practice law and do provide legal advice and services in affiliation with America Family Law."
No mention of a steep membership fee. We just don't understand. If you really want to help people, why would your organization need fine print and a bunch of different names? And why would you call your organization "America Family Law Center," which sounds an awful lot like an actual law firm, as opposed to a membership organization? Why be confusing -- unless you really want to be?