The Dallas Morning News by - VALERIE WIGGLESWORTH, ED HOUSEWRIGHT and MATTHEW HAAG - October 23, 2010
In 2008, Sandoval ran for re-election. Prosecutors allege that in the weeks before and after the March Republican primary, the Carys paid $150,000 to a campaign consultant for Sandoval's opponent, Suzanne Wooten. She outspent and defeated the longtime incumbent. Wooten, the Carys, and the consultant, Steve Spencer, were indicted Oct. 14. Each faces six counts of bribery and one count of engaging in organized criminal activity, all felony charges carrying prison terms if they're convicted. The indictments allege Wooten accepted the money for favorable rulings in the 380th District Court. They don't detail the cases involved, how Wooten influenced them, or how money may have been passed from Spencer to Wooten. But David and Stacy Cary were parties together in just one case in the 380th, the one in which they were seeking custody of his daughters, now 10 years old. Wooten recused herself from the case. Her reason, according to her attorney, was that a lawyer for the girls' mother had served as treasurer for Wooten's judicial campaign. Peter Schulte, Wooten's attorney, said the prosecutors' case on bribery charges is weak. "A lot of it doesn't add up for the state because it didn't happen," Schulte said. "People can blow smoke in multiple directions. That doesn't mean there's fire." Keith Gore, who is representing the Carys, said there is a completely innocent explanation for the couple's payments to Spencer. He declined to elaborate. "These charges stem from a political prosecution, and the Carys deny any wrongdoing and look forward to a full exoneration," Gore said. Gary Udashen, an attorney for Spencer, reiterated that there was a legitimate reason for the payments and that Spencer is not part of any bribery scheme. "The way it's been portrayed in this indictment is flat incorrect," Udashen said. The defendants' attorneys say the charges are part of a political vendetta against Wooten launched by Collin County District Attorney John Roach, who is also a Republican. Roach asked more than a year ago that the Texas attorney general's office assign a prosecutor to investigate Wooten over campaign violations. A feud between Roach and Wooten heated up this summer. The judge alleged in court papers that Roach was intimidating and harassing her and seeking her resignation. In September, a grand jury impaneled by Wooten requested a special prosecutor to investigate "possible criminal wrongdoing" in Roach's office. And earlier this month, Roach said he would no longer submit cases to the grand jury overseen by Wooten. He said he planned to resubmit about 200 indictments made by that grand jury to a new panel. Roach declined to comment for this story, as did lawyers for the attorney general's office, which is handling the prosecution. As many as six different grand juries heard evidence related to Wooten's campaign before the bribery indictments were handed up earlier this month. It remains unclear how exactly the four defendants are connected.
The Carys' legal battle in Collin County stems from the 2004 divorce of David and Jennifer Cary. The couple couldn't agree on custody issues related to their twin girls, who were born premature and have special education needs. Neither Jennifer Cary nor her attorney could be reached. In the summer of 2006, the couple reached an agreement through mediation to equally share in the girls' upbringing. But a social study report in the court filings raised doubts about the arrangement. The evaluator noted "difficulties that have surfaced with a number of the professionals that have worked with this family." Other court papers noted the parents' tense relationship and the girls' troubles transitioning between two households. After a three-day bench trial in October 2006, Sandoval named Jennifer Cary the sole managing conservator for the girls. In the order signed Dec. 1, the judge noted, among other things, David Cary's inability to work effectively with therapists, counselors and school officials as well as his "inability to share the rights, powers and duties to co-parent and cooperatively raise the children." Jennifer Cary got custody of the girls during the week and every second weekend of the month. David Cary had them on the other weekends. Sandoval's order went so far as to detail how the girls would be dropped off when the parents traded custody. The ruling spelled out David Cary's child support payments, the $30,000 he owed each year for the children's education fund and the $416,543 he had to pay to cover his ex-wife's attorney fees. His objections, motions to transfer to another court in Dallas County, and filings with the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Texas in the ensuing months were generally denied. Then in June 2007, Sandoval granted Jennifer Cary's motion for sanctions, finding that one of David Cary's motions "was filed frivolously or designed to harass" his ex-wife. Sandoval ordered both David Cary and his attorney to pay $50,000 to Jennifer Cary. Shortly after that, the judge also ordered David Cary to pay $14,500 for his ex-wife's attorney fees.
District court race
In the summer of 2007, as the Carys were filing motions in court, Steve Spencer was looking for someone to run against Sandoval, who'd never drawn an opponent since taking office in 1997. McKinney attorney Michael Puhl said Spencer approached him about running. Puhl had some experience, having campaigned unsuccessfully for another district court bench in 2006. The two talked on the phone and then met in person, Puhl said. Spencer never mentioned the Carys but said he was affiliated with home-school interests. Spencer said his group would help finance Puhl's campaign and provide workers if he chose to run, Puhl said. "He said they thought I was a good candidate," Puhl said, "and he was encouraging me to run against Charles Sandoval." Puhl said they didn't discuss any of Sandoval's specific rulings. "It was just general disappointment. I never thought of it as, 'I'm trying to influence you to give me a ruling.' " Puhl opted not to run. He said Wooten told him later that she had decided to run and that Spencer had approached her. No one recruited Wooten to run for judge, Schulte said. She had been considering running for six years, he said. She wanted to be a judge, in part, because the hours were more predictable than private practice, Schulte said. Udashen said he didn't know how or why Spencer became Wooten's campaign consultant. He said Spencer didn't know Wooten before he joined the campaign.
Wooten's campaign for judge got off to a slow start. Her first campaign finance report, filed in January 2008, showed $2,045 in contributions and $1,933 in expenses – $1,500 went toward the county's filing fee and the rest to Signs by Randy. Her second campaign finance report, filed eight days before the primary election, showed $9,125 in contributions and $11,734 in expenses. Her first recorded payment to Spen-Off Strategies was Feb. 13, 2008. She ultimately spent $110,341 with the firm for campaign services that included radio ads – an unheard of expense in a local judicial race. Sandoval's campaign expenses of $43,112 were no match for the $125,083 that Wooten spent. She handily beat the incumbent judge with 57 percent of the vote. The bulk of her campaign contributions came in after she'd won the primary. She also loaned her campaign $33,369 to cover the remaining invoice from Spen-Off. Wooten had no opposition in the November general election and took office Jan. 1, 2009.
Another custody battle
Court documents appealing the sanctions argued that there was no evidence of harassment or frivolousness on David Cary's part. After several hearings, McCraw set aside the sanctions order.
David and Jennifer Cary went back into mediation.
Earlier this year, McCraw found that Sandoval's 2006 order was not in the children's best interests. He noted that since Jennifer Cary remarried and moved to Fort Worth, the girls had to travel 50 miles each way to their school in Dallas. McCraw noted that commute was "detrimental and potentially dangerous" for the girls. He also said that Jennifer Cary had alienated the girls against their father and falsely accused him of abusing the girls and misusing alcohol and drugs. McCraw ordered the couple to once again be joint managing conservators, but he gave David Cary primary custody during the week and every second weekend of the month. The girls' mother got custody on the remaining weekends, and they split summers and holidays. Jennifer Cary has appealed McCraw's decision.
Last week, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended Wooten with pay until the charges against her can be resolved. Schulte said it's much easier for prosecutors to get an indictment than a conviction. "Getting from indictment to beyond a reasonable doubt is a whole different ballgame," he said. Wooten won't consider a plea bargain and plans to go to trial, Schulte said. "She's not guilty, so she's going all the way." Roach, whose office initiated the investigation of Wooten, likely won't be there. The longtime district attorney didn't seek re-election, and leaves office at the end of the year. vwigglesworth@ dallasnews.com, ehousewright@ dallasnews.com, email@example.com