Real mom is Jennifer (new last name due to remarriage). David is bio dad and Staci is stepmonster. David and Staci are active in FR groups
Couple in custody battle accused of paying judge for favorable rulings
10:33 PM CDT on Saturday, October 23, 2010
By VALERIE WIGGLESWORTH, ED HOUSEWRIGHT and MATTHEW HAAG / The Dallas Morning News
A University Park couple was embroiled in a costly child-custody battle at the time prosecutors say they paid $150,000 in bribes to the political opponent of the judge hearing their case.
David and Stacy Cary were in state district court in Collin County, fighting for custody of David Cary's twin daughters from a previous marriage, records show. The judge in the case, Charles Sandoval, had awarded primary custody of the girls to their mother and issued rulings costing the Carys hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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.
David Cary, 55, is the chief financial officer of Plano-based TDi Technologies. He is active online in forums and blogs that focus on parental rights.
Stacy Stine Cary, 52, owns and operates a commercial real estatecompany. She also runs an organization called Holistic Health of Texas.
In September 2008 the couple started an advocacy group called Family Focus. On its website, the couple said they disagreed with the government disrupting families or taking away parents' rights. The site, which is registered to David Cary, says the group is "unapologetically politically active."
The Carys and Spencer worked together, according to Spencer's attorney, who said he didn't know the specifics. The Carys' attorney declined to talk about the work, saying he would offer a full explanation in court filings in a few weeks.
Spencer, who is 42 and lives in Dripping Springs near Austin, had worked on political campaigns before. But few details are publicly available about the kind of work he does. Many of his addresses are post-office boxes, including one for now-defunct Spen-Off Strategies, the consulting firm that Wooten paid $110,000 to during her 2008 campaign for judge.
Wooten, 42, spent 12 years as a family lawyer in McKinney before making her first run for elected office.
Her attorney argues that the fact that both Wooten and the Carys have worked with Spencer does not mean bribery was involved. Wooten doesn't even know the Carys, Schulte said.
"To this day," he said, "she's never met them."
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
Before the month was out, David Cary petitioned to reopen the case related to his children.
Wooten recused herself. Selecting her replacement became the job of John Ovard, presiding judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region in Dallas. Ovard, who handles judicial assignments for 34 counties in northeast Texas, including Collin, said he chooses from a pool of 40 to 50 visiting judges.
In the Carys' case, Ovard said, he chose Judge John McCraw because McCraw had been an appeals court judge, because the Carys' child-custody case had been referred from the Court of Appeals back to the 380th state district court and because David Cary had been sanctioned.
"Sanctions are unusual, rather complex matters," Ovard said. "My thinking at the time was that Judge McCraw, with his experience, would be a good one to handle that."
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.
AT A GLANCE: COLLIN COUNTY CASE
Suzanne Wooten – State district judge who won election in 2008. Prosecutors allege she accepted money in exchange for favorable rulings in her court. Indicted on bribery charges Oct. 14, she is currently suspended with pay. She is being represented by attorney Peter Schulte.
Steve Spencer – Wooten's campaign consultant and co-defendant. Prosecutors allege he accepted $150,000 in six payments around the time of the 2008 Republican primary. He is represented by Gary Udashen.
David and Stacy Cary – Also indicted Oct. 14. Prosecutors say they made the payments to Spencer. At the time of the election, they had a child-custody case pending in what became Wooten's court. A series of rulings went against them. They are represented by Keith Gore.
Charles Sandoval – Judge who heard the custody case before his election defeat. He later complained to officials of his suspicions about Wooten's campaign.
John Roach – Collin County district attorney who launched an investigation of Wooten before handing it over to the Texas attorney general's office. He later said he would take all the cases indicted by the grand jury Wooten impaneled and present them to another grand jury. He also said he wouldn't submit any more cases to that grand jury. He is leaving office at year's end.
Oct. 5, 2004: The final decree is signed in the divorce of David and Jennifer Cary.
April 13, 2005: A petition is filed to modify the parent-child relationship. The couple has twin daughters.
Dec. 1, 2006: District Judge Charles Sandoval signs an order giving primary custody of the girls to Jennifer Cary despite a mediated settlement for joint custody.
Dec. 3, 2006: David Cary marries Stacy Stine Cary.
June 25, 2007: Sandoval orders sanctions against David Cary and his attorney.
Jan. 4, 2008: David and Stacy Cary make first recorded payment to Steve Spencer, owner of Spen-Off Strategies. The other five other payments are recorded between Jan. 30 and March 14, 2008.
Feb. 13, 2008: Suzanne Wooten makes first payment to Spen-Off Strategies as part of her campaign for judge.
March 4, 2008: Suzanne Wooten beats Sandoval in the Republican primary for the 380th judicial district seat.
May 2010: A visiting judge awards David and Stacy Cary primary custody of the twin girls, who are now 10 years old.
Oct. 14, 2010: Wooten, Spencer and David and Stacy Cary are indicted on bribery charges.
Oct. 18, 2010: State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspends Wooten with pay.