Saturday, August 25, 2007
Here is a brief overview of the fascinating case involving Robert C. East, a wealthy Texas man worth several hundred million dollars:
- East was unmarried with no known descendants.
- East's will left the entire estate to a family wildlife trust, the Robert C. East Management Trust.
- In late 2006, East's health started a downward spiral.
- In May 2007, some of East's relatives sought a court-appointed guardian.
- A fight ensued over who would have control over his vast holdings.
- Oscar Ozuna, East's ranch foreman since 2001, claimed that he had worked with East for decades and that East would have wanted him to be in charge.
- Ozuna had documents that East signed giving him a long-term employment contract at $11,000 per month, naming him as one of three officers of the Management Trust, providing Ozuna with a $500,000 "bonus" upon East's death, and naming the same people as his agents in a durable power of attorney.
- East's relatives, however, viewed Ozuna as an evil man who was exerting undue influence over East to sign these documents and/or that East was incompetent at the time he signed them.
- The court did not appoint a guardian but did name an attorney ad litem for East.
- District Court Judge Alex Gabert sealed the court documents regarding the attempt to have a guardian appointed for East.
- The San Antonio Express-News somehow obtained these court documents and published information about the fight over East's competence and the testimony of friends, family members, and doctors which contained considerable evidence of East's incompetency.
- The fight continued with what is called a "secret showdown" where in mediation the parties reached a tentative agreement to have Ozuna and the other two men banned from East's ranch.
- East's health was failing rapidly. If East were to die before the agreement was finalized, the mediation would be void.
- On June 15, 2007, Judge Gabert signed an order approving East's will (a highly unusual and perhaps invalid action as Texas does not recognize the probate of a will of a living person), the settlement agreement, and other documents. As a result, Ozuna received almost $900,000. Ozuna and other other men agreed to drop all claims to East's estate, renounce their authority as agents under East's power of attorney, and resign as officers of the Management Trust.
- On June 18, 2007, East died.
- Less than two weeks later, the Attorney General of Texas notified the parties that a complaint had been filed about East's case because not all of the parties were present at the hearing in which Judge Gabert approved the settlement agreement.
- On August 22, 2007, Judge Gabert order the San Antonio Express-News not to publish articles about East if they contain information derived from the court documents, even if they were obtained properly. Raising significant First Amendment concerns, the judge gave the newspaper five days to surrender any paper copies of the documents and to destroy electronic records.
- Lawyers for the newspaper's owner (The Hearst Corp.) are preparing a response to Judge Gabert's order.
For more information, see John MacCormack, Ranch foreman is inheriting legal fight, San Antonio Express-News, Aug. 23, 2007; John MacCormack, Judge demands paper return court documents, San Antonio Express-News, Aug. 23, 2007.