Fort Worth

Some high-profile local divorce cases are hidden from the public. Why?

Here are some of the court records you probably can't find in Tarrant County

It’s difficult to search for cases in the Tarrant County district clerk’s office because of how the cases are filed and because of rules protecting privacy, District Clerk Tom Wilder says. But that isn’t the way open records should work.
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It’s difficult to search for cases in the Tarrant County district clerk’s office because of how the cases are filed and because of rules protecting privacy, District Clerk Tom Wilder says. But that isn’t the way open records should work.

Texas Rangers co-chairman Bob Simpson is getting a divorce from Janice Simpson, his wife of 19 years. But you won’t find a record of it by searching digital court records at the Tarrant County district clerk’s office.

The same goes for the divorce of former Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton and his wife, Katie, even though it was widely reported in 2015.

And a search for records of Van Cliburn Competition winner Vadym Kholodenko’s divorce from his wife, Sofya Tsygankova, turns up nothing, even though it was widely reported when she was arrested for killing their children in 2016.

“I really am kind of baffled that you can’t find the Simpson and Josh Hamilton divorce proceedings,” said Tom Vick, a Weatherford attorney who was speaking for himself but is president of the State Bar of Texas. “It’s one thing to not be able to see what is in (the file), it is another to not even know it exists.”

A Star-Telegram investigation found a number of cases that cannot be accessed through the county’s computer system. The documents for about a half-dozen cases the Star-Telegram researched don’t appear, raising concerns about whether the public can actually find all the open records in Tarrant County’s family courts.

Blake Hawthorne, Texas Supreme Court clerk, said a basic level of data should be available to the public. This includes the names of litigants, their attorneys, the judge and the types of documents filed.

“If you’re going to have an access system online for most cases, you should be able to know of the existence of the case,” said Hawthorne, an advocate for electronic access to court records.

Tom Wilder
Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder and his staff handle roughly 60,000 new court filings a year — half of them in the family courts. Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder and his staff were unable to explain why the Simpson, Hamilton and Kholodenko case files couldn’t be found online. His office of 140 full-time and 25 part-time employees handle roughly 60,000 new court filings a year — half of them in the family courts.

His staff, along with the judiciary, have broader access to the information than what is publicly available and anyone can ask the staff for help. The public can also submit a written request for public information to his office, Wilder said. But only if you know what you’re looking for.

“Ninety-nine percent of the cases are going to be easily searchable,” Wilder said.

How attorneys file a lawsuit — including the use of initials to mask the identity of litigants — can complicate searches, but Wilder said he has to accept a case as it is filed. Also, if an attorney says a document contains “confidential and sensitive information,” it is pulled from the internet, complicating an online search.

Charla Moore, a family law attorney in Arlington and a former associate family law judge, said it shouldn’t be so hard to find out if someone is getting divorced in Tarrant County.

Being able to search family court records — either online or at the courthouse — goes beyond a prurient interest in people’s personal lives. Companies use the system for background checks on prospective employees, investors will examine a prospective partner’s past, and people may want to verify the past of a possible mate.

“We have public records for a reason,” Moore said. “Records should be open, not for misuse, but … there ought to be a way to protect people’s privacy and still allow a reasonable level of freedom of information.”

An unusual filing

Simpson, an oilman who made hundreds of millions of dollars in the sale of XTO Energy to Exxon Mobil in 2010 and helped lead a group that bought the Rangers, wanted an annulment from his wife, Janice.

The pleading, filed in a Tarrant County civil district court in September, was simply titled B.S. vs J.S. , a common tactic used by attorneys to conceal identities. While their full names were not used, the addresses for Simpson and his wife made it possible to identify the parties involved. The petition said the couple had stopped living together as of June 2016.

In the petition, Simpson alleges that he recently discovered that Janice had “lied about a material aspect of her past” and induced him to marry her in1998. Several attorneys said it is unusual for someone to seek an annulment after being married for so long.

Bob Simpson
Bob R. Simpson, co-owner of the Texas Rangers, is seeking an annulment of his marriage to his wife, Janice. Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

The case remained in state District Court Judge John Chupp’s court for two days, when he ordered it to be randomly reassigned to a specialized family court. It found its way to state District Judge Nancy Berger’s court after it was discovered she was already presiding over an existing Simpson divorce petition from 2016.

Last week, Berger consolidated the cases but restricted access to the file, Wilder said.

While Wilder admits the Simpson case is unusual, he said his staff followed protocol.

“There is no funny business in this filing on our end. You can make whatever you want to on the other end,” he said. “There was no loading of the dice here for anybody.”

But it was hardly business as usual if you want to follow the case through the district clerk’s computer record system.

Typing Simpson’s initials into the name search field — first S. then B. as suggested — pulls up a short list of cases, including the annulment, but not the divorce. It is not possible to find the original divorce filing without a case number, which was provided to the Star-Telegram by an attorney who is familiar with the case.

Court records do reveal that Simpson and his wife filed for divorce two other times, in 1999 and 2007, but remained married. Simpson had a previous marriage that ended in 1995.

Similar searches did not find the Kholodenko and Tsygankova divorce, though details of the petition were mentioned in early press reports of the March 2016 slaying of their children, Nika, 5, and Michaela, 1, at their Benbrook home. Their mother is accused of smothering them and faces capital murder charges.

Hamilton’s divorce from his wife, Katie, made headlines in 2015. The Dallas Morning News reported that the lawsuit was filed in Tarrant County courts, citing conflict of personalities as the cause. Hamilton outlined 34 requests in the petition including keeping his wife from using his Maserati and not “hiding” the children from him. But a search of publicly available online records for the divorce petition didn’t turn up anything, making it look like a case didn’t exist.

During an interview last week, Wilder and one of his top deputies couldn’t explain why cases could not be found using the publicly available computer in the clerk’s office.

After receiving a written request to search their files, Wilder later said that the “original system was built in a way that doesn’t have the search capability you are looking for …,” but that he would be able to produce the records after doing a manual review of the files.

Upgrades underway

The county is spending millions to build a new case management system, which would hopefully include a new Web access and enhanced search capability for the public to access data. The county is also building a new disaster recovery and business continuity system that will include court records.

After the Texas Supreme Court issued a new rule this year mandating that documents with sensitive information such as Social Security numbers and bank accounts not be posted online, Wilder shut off family law attorney access to the information. But he is creating an attorney-only portal.

“We do our dead-level best to comply with the law as I’m required to do by my oath of office,” said Wilder, a Republican who has been district clerk for 23 years and is seeking another four years in office in 2018. He is paid about $172,500 a year and his department’s 2018 budget is $10.8 million.

Hawthorne cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The Texas Supreme Court has been studying online access to court records since the 1990s and has still not decided what types of cases should be available online — although the court has implemented rules requiring redaction of sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, minors’ names and bank account numbers from online court filings.

“These things can be complex. Designing an online system is no easy task. Sometimes you find the system isn’t working the way you intended,” he said.

This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

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