HOUSTON — Defense attorney John LaGrappe was denied a motion on behalf of his client that would have pushed a potential conflict of interest between a Harris County Family Court judge and a high-profile divorce attorney into the public eye.
At issue: A judge who has accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from divorce lawyer Bobby Newman also has multiple other conflicts of interest with the attorney and must be disqualified from a case that Newman is arguing before the judge, LaGrappe argued.
Judge Susan Brown, who oversees the 11th Administrative Judicial Region of the State of Texas — making her the top judge in robes in the region — ruled that Judge James Lombardino did not have to recuse himself from a divorce trial in which Newman and LaGrappe are facing off.
“I have appeared in front of Judge Brown on many occasions on behalf of clients for nearly two decades,” LaGrappe said. “It has been my experience that Judge Brown has displayed unimpeachable judicial integrity that embodies the finest ideals a jurist should possess. However, I fundamentally disagree with Judge Brown’s interpretation of the statute that governs the procedure which motions to disqualify or recuse or to be heard.”
Lombardino did not disclose that Newman represented Lombardino’s son in a divorce case in which $100,000 in fees are still owed to Newman, nor did he disclose that he awarded Newman $460,000 in attorney fees in three cases since 2016, LaGrappe said in the filing.
LaGrappe compared the “smell of potential corruption in that court” to a Louisiana swamp.
“When you go over the Atchafalaya Bridge, it’s a 20 mile bridge and it smells,” LaGrappe told The Texas Monitor. “And when you’re in that courtroom, you can sense what’s going on when Mr. Newman is in front of the bench. I think the District Attorney’s Office should investigate the relationship between Bobby Newman and Judge Lombardino.”
Brown could not be reached Monday afternoon. Lombardino could not be reached. Newman did not return a message left for him seeking comment.
From Brown’s order: LaGrappe’s client “argues that Judge Lombardino should be recused because Mr. Newman has donated funds to the judge’s election campaign and hosted fundraisers for the jurist. This argument is without merit.”
Also from her order: “(T)he motion does not complain that the trial judge has a bias against” LaGrappe’s client “but makes the broad allegation that he is biased in favor of opposing counsel. Such a bias, if it existed does not meet the rule’s requirements that a recusal motion must state with detail” showcasing the bias and conflicts of interest that exist.
LaGrappe said he was simply fighting on behalf of his client Kora Jean Leach. His motion for Lombardino to step down contained nearly two dozen pages of possible conflicts of interest between Lombardino and Newman.
“The appropriate vehicle to contest this ruling is to seek appellate review,” LaGrappe said. “I will be reviewing the Order further and more than likely will seek mandamus relief.”
LaGrappe is opposite Newman before Lombardino in a divorce case. LaGrappe believes Newman has gotten favorable treatment by being in front of Lombardino in court.
LaGrappe said he was warned by other attorneys about the alleged cozy relationship between Newman and Lombardino.
[S]everal experienced attorneys have approached counsel and warned me of a relationship between Mr. Newman and Judge Lombardino and have told him counsel that [LaGrappe’s client] has no chance of success because Judge Lombardino demonstrates bias in favor of Mr. Newman and his clients because of the financial and personal relationship they share. Each attorney voiced fear of retaliation if their identities or statements were disclosed.
Lombardino quickly said he did not want to recuse himself.
“There have been a lot of facts that have come out that show the nature of the relationship,” LaGrappe said. “When you’re dealing with issues of child custody and who raises a child, it’s very important. I think when a mother goes into a courtroom or a father goes into a courtroom, they should have their relationship with their children decided by a fair and impartial jurist.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.