Judges here award more than anywhere else in Texas — $302,081 in one case, so far — to attorneys they pick
Harris County probate judges handed out $8.5 million in fees in one year — far more than any other county in Texas — to private, hand-picked lawyers and others tasked with managing the estates of the dead and the lives of the disabled.
County court-at-law judges kicked in another $800,000.
One probate judge has approved payments of $302,081 so far to attorneys involved in a single case: a legal dispute that dates back decades and involves the guardianship of Ugo di Portanova, a disabled globe-trotter and heir to a series of multimillion-dollar oil-funded trusts in Texas.
Those fees, approved by Judge Mike Wood, were the highest awarded in any Texas case in the last year, public records show.
Collectively, 200 county and probate judges statewide signed off on nearly $21 million related to death, guardianship and other disputes in the year ending August 2010, according to a Chronicle analysis of more than 9,500 fees approved by all county and probate judges in Texas.
The Office of Court Administration began collecting electronic reports on fees for the first time last year. The reports stem from an earlier state Supreme Court initiative to boost accountability and counter long-term concerns about judges' alleged favoritism toward fee recipients, who are often attorneys and campaign contributors.
Each year, thousands of people's lives and deaths end up in the hands of probate judges, who wield sweeping power over the liberty and assets of others. Probate fees can be controversial, as they often come from private pocketbooks and can quickly deplete estates or drain resources needed to care for disabled and elderly Texans.
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Harris County Probate Fees a Bonanza for Some