Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott recently got major headlines for nabbing former major league baseball player Troy Neel (pictured) for being a “deadbeat dad.” Abbott has launched repeated, well-publicized campaigns against child support debtors, featuring many arrests. In my co-authored column When Beating up on ‘Deadbeat Dads’ is Unfair (Houston Chronicle, 1/7/07) I wrote:

The television station shows three general laborers, three construction laborers, a landscaper, a salesman and two tradesmen, most of them Latino men with dour expressions on their faces. Are they the featured men in a report about hard times for blue-collar workers in the state of Texas? The hopefuls for a local job training program? No—they are Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s “Top 10 Most Wanted Child Support Evaders.”

The 10 men collectively owe nearly $700,000 in back child support. Not one appears to have an education, and the big wage earner in the group is a plumber. Abbott says he “singled out” these men because they “have the ability” to pay their child support but “refuse to do so.” One wonders what the financial condition of those not “singled out” is.

For the past month Abbott has been publicizing lists with the men’s photos and biographical information. The lists have been published or reported on in dozens of Texas media outlets.

Abbott recently proclaimed the list a success, after he arrested the landscaper–who owed $109,747–the salesman, and one of the construction laborers. The two highest-ranked evaders still on the lam are the welder, who owes $130,796, and one of the general laborers, who owes $94,107. Few, if any, are asking the obvious question—how did men of such humble means end up owing so much money?

While none on Abbott’s list would or should qualify for Father of the Year, the arrearages are likely created in large part because the child support system is mulishly impervious to the economic realities working people face, such as layoffs, wage cuts, unemployment, and work-related injuries. According to the Urban Institute, less than one in 20 non-custodial parents who suffers a substantial drop in income is able to get courts to reduce his or her child support payments.

Abbott’s office backhandedly acknowledges the difficulties men in these situations face, advising obligors “it is best to get a lawyer, if you can afford one, to handle your attempt to change the amount of child support you owe.” Yet how many unemployed blue-collar workers can afford to hire an attorney at $200 an hour or more to represent them in a child support case?

By federal law, child support orders cannot be retroactively modified, no matter how mistaken, misguided or ridiculous. Even men who fell behind on their child support because they had heart attacks, broken legs or cancer cannot have their arrearages eliminated. And much of the arrearages owed by Abbott’s “Top 10” accrued before 2002, when Texas charged obligors 12% interest, one of the highest interest rates in the country.

To learn more about Abbott (pictured) and the abuses his office has committed against Texas fathers, click here.

After years of harassing day laborers, roofers, janitors and maintenance men, Abbott finally, finally arrested a “deadbeat” with a good job. From Abbott’s triumphant recent press release “Cooperative Effort Reels in Texas’ Most Heinous Child Support Evader”:

AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, and Special Agent in Charge Mike Fields of the Dallas Regional Office for the Department of Health and Human Services–Office of Inspector General today announced that child support evader Troy Neel had been arrested. Neel, a former professional baseball player, owes more than $700,000 in unpaid child support. The arrest concludes a joint eight-year effort to hold Neel accountable for failing to pay court-ordered child support.

Troy Neel’s arrest concludes a lengthy multi-jurisdictional effort to hold him accountable for failure to pay court-ordered child support,” said Attorney General Abbott. “While living on a private island in the South Pacific, the defendant ignored his legal obligation to support his children, who are owed more than $700,000 in unpaid child support. We are grateful to the Dallas Regional Office of the Department of Health and Human Services—Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas and the U.S. Marshal’s Office for their tremendous assistance with this case.”

Federal agents arrested Neel on Thursday at the Los Angeles International Airport as he exited a flight from Sydney, Australia.

Neel, who played professional baseball for the Oakland Athletics from 1992 to 1994, owes $724,325 in unpaid child support. Neel also played professional baseball in Japan and Korea, before purchasing a resort island in the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where he has resided since 2000.

In 1998, Neel was ordered to pay $5,000 a month for the support for his son and daughter. The child support order was based on Neel’s earnings as a professional athlete.

On March 2, 2005, a San Antonio-based federal grand jury indicted Neel. The indictment, which was unsealed Thursday, alleges that Neel has traveled in foreign commerce since December 1998 in order to avoid paying child support for two children.

Neel remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service awaiting transfer to the Western District of Texas. Upon conviction, Neel faces up to two years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

What I find most troubling about Neel’s behavior is not his alleged failure to pay child support but instead his apparent absence from his children’s lives. That’s assuming that the children’s mother would have allowed him to be a part of his kids’ lives, which may or may not have been the case.

Neel may well be the despicable deadbeat that Abbott claims. I do, however, have some questions.

Neel did not earn as much money from his major league career as one might have thought. Neel played in the major leagues only three years, a handful of games in 1992 and semi-regularly in 1993-1994. Though as a poor fielding first-baseman he had no defensive value, he was a fairly good hitter–lifetime .280/.362/.475. We have salary data for him only from 1993 and 1994, when he earned $120,000 and $225,000 respectively. In 1992 he probably earned around $100,000.

According to Abbott, Neel also played professional baseball in Japan and Korea, and retired from baseball in 2000 or earlier. Neel was ordered to pay $5,000 a month for the support for his son and daughter in 1998. Probably Neel would have had the ability to pay $5,000 a month in post-tax dollars in 1998, and maybe in 1999 and 2000 (though it’s unclear if he was still playing baseball in those years and what his salary might have been).

It’s questionable that he would be able to do this afterwards. The business he and his wife owned was apparently a “21-room resort that features a restaurant overlooking a lagoon and the country’s only full-service spa.” Did this earn enough money for him to keep current? Maybe.

Let’s say that Neel earned $180,000 a year from 1998 to 2008–a figure which may well be on the high side. If he paid $60,000 in taxes, he would have had $120,000 a year after taxes. Of this he was obligated to pay $60,000–half.

My conclusion? Abbott may be right, he may be wrong. It is unclear that the system treated Neel fairly.

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