The Houston Chronicle made it clear on Sunday the newspaper has it in for Attorney General Ken Paxton.
It wasn’t just the item about a poll by Gravis Marketing, a company Slate magazine honored last year for “Worst Poll in America,” purporting to show that 62 percent of likely Republican voters thought Paxton should resign over his recent indictment.
It was an error-filled, 2400-word piece agonizing over Paxton’s handling of a minor probate case resolved quietly last year, which the paper saw fit to splash across its front page, above the fold.
The story suggests Paxton did wrong by two young daughters of Tanner Hunt, the late son of Dallas oil billionaire Ray Hunt, himself the son of billionaire oil man H.L. Hunt.
Paxton sold the girls short, the story says, on a multi-million dollar inheritance. The truth is that the two girls stood to inherit little more than a $100,000 life insurance policy and a pickup truck when a court appointed Paxton to represent them. Paxton turned that meager inheritance into a deal for two college funds and three-quarters of a million dollars.
The real story, though, is how getting one minor legal detail wrong can change an entire narrative. We’ll leave it to you to judge whether the Chronicle was malicious or just sloppy.
First, a little background is in order. In addition to his fortune, H.L. Hunt was a bigamist and the father of 15 children by three wives. His colorful life was supposedly the inspiration for the ’80s soap opera Dallas.
Ray Hunt’s notions of family lineage might seem strange to some, but he’d learned a few lessons from his messy family history. Hunt set up a trust fund in 1999 for his then-teenage son, Tanner, to be paid out one day to the son’s “lawful children.”
When 31-year-old Tanner Hunt killed himself in 2011, he left behind two daughters by an ex-girlfriend, but no “lawful” children, so the $2.3 million in the Tanner Hunt trust was supposed to revert to the Hunt family.
While the notion of illegitimate children doesn’t mean much legally these days in Texas, you still have the right to cut your children out of a will, or to set up a trust and specify who gets the money, including and excluding whomever you like.
“Every court and authoritative secondary source to consider the issue has determined that the phrase ‘lawful children’ in a trust instrument or will excludes children born out of wedlock,” wrote W. Kirk Baker, administrator of Hunt’s trust.
Still, the Hunt family, worth some $5.5 billion, promised through an attorney that Tanner’s two daughters “would be taken care of.” With Paxton representing the two girls, the parties hashed out a deal for $750,000 and the two college funds in August 2013.
But the girls’ mother, Crystal VanAusdal, got a more expansive ideas of how she wanted the girls “taken care of,” and pressed litigation for another year before reaching a final settlement last October.
When the Chronicle reporters emailed Paxton, he warned them that their “questions indicate a gross misunderstanding of this case.” That misunderstanding is what the term “lawful children” means.
In the Chronicle’s telling, the story is something out of Dickens, with evil attorneys for wealthy men casting poor orphans in the street over their illegitimate parentage.
The story accuses Baker of trying “to disinherit” the girls on the erroneous presumption the girls were entitled to money from the trust. The Chronicle reports that Baker had a conflict of interest once he “filed suit and named the girls as defendants.” Baker never did that.
“Baker filed a petition in an attempt to get Collin County probate judge Weldon Copeland to declare that the children were not Tanner Hunt’s ‘lawful descendants’ (sic) because their parents had never been married and thus should not inherit any of his trust fund,” the Chronicle wrote. “Instead, Baker argued that Tanner’s siblings should be considered his descendants.”
But Baker is talking about the terms in the trust, payable to various categories of family “descendants,” which are defined as Tanner Hunt’s “lawful children” and three of his four siblings.
Baker wasn’t asking the court to redefine anything. He simply filed a petition for the court to uphold the terms of the trust exactly as it was written.
The real question was never a legal one. It was how much did the Hunt family want to provide for the two girls, and how much compensation would VanAusdal demand in order to drop the lawsuit.
The Chronicle turns its attack on Baker into a proxy attack on Paxton, arguing that he should have asked the judge to remove Baker as estate administrator, since he was so obviously problematic.
On and on the Chronicle story goes, depicting in great detail the legal fight between Baker and the girls’ mother as she pressed for a larger settlement.
The paper reports “Baker provided an inventory and other financial documents about Hunt’s estate and about his larger trust directly to Paxton and the mother claimed she got little or no information.” Actually, that complaint didn’t involve Paxton. The problem, supposedly, was that some document hadn’t been notarized properly, and various descriptions in it weren’t long enough.
There’s a litany of petty grief in those filings: Baker didn’t sell the truck on time, Baker had hired lawyers to defend himself and they were charging too much, Baker’s offer to settle the case was really a breach of fiduciary duty, etc.
It’s the sort of bickering you can find in just about any civil suit. The only reason this one made the paper was that a few stray accusations could be made to reflect poorly on Paxton.
One of them was pure conjecture. VanAusdal’s attorney speculated that somewhere out there, unknown to anyone, there might be another Hunt family trust with some money for the girls, and if there was, then Baker was guilty of interfering with the girls’ rights to it.
It was this rock-solid fact that the Chronicle singled out to open its case against Paxton. It’s right there in the third paragraph. The “daughters stood to inherit… possibly other trusts created by their great-grandfather.”
This theoretical possibility would have been foreclosed in 2013 instead of 2014 if Paxton’s settlement been finalized. That’s the news, as it were, the news the Chronicle ran Sunday above the fold.
Contact Jon Cassidy at [email protected] or @jpcassidy000.
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