Settling DA case saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, officials say

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Senior Tarrant County officials said Tuesday that they saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars by quietly settling a sexual harassment case against District Attorney Joe Shannon, describing it as "extremely complicated" and "not open-and-shut."

In September, the county approved a $375,000 no-fault settlement with former Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Sabin, who first accused Shannon of sexual harassment in March. All sides signed a confidentiality agreement. But details of Shannon's alleged conduct emerged last week after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, acting on an open-records request by the Star-Telegram, ordered some information in the case released.

"Everybody can draw their own conclusions from what they've seen," Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Tuesday. "All I'm saying is that our attorney [Gary Ingram] came back, he had reviewed everything, and said, 'This is not going to be an easy case one way or the other. It's going to be very complicated. You're going to have to hire experts. I believe that the estimate on this case is going to be $800,000-plus, in addition to where you are right now.'"

The county's investigation found no other harassment allegations against Shannon, said Whitley and County Administrator G.K. Maenius. Citing the confidentiality agreement, Whitley said he has no opinion on whether Shannon should remain in office after reports last week that he subjected Sabin to harassment over four years.

In handwritten diary entries, Sabin, 44, described how Shannon repeatedly made comments about her body, touched her inappropriately and used sexual language while he was her boss. The diary was among the documents released.

Shannon has denied the allegations, though he has been limited in his comments by the confidentiality agreement. On Tuesday, spokeswoman Melody McDonald said Shannon has no intention of resigning.

"He's absolutely not going to resign," McDonald said. "This office is widely recognized as the best prosecutor's office in the state and he plans to continue to lead this operation."

The case has been widely discussed at the courthouse and in political circles.

"There are a number of people, I think, that would feel like he should resign. We've heard from a few," said Jennifer Hall, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Republican Party. Shannon, 72, a Republican, is midway through his term as Tarrant County's top law enforcement official. He is up for re-election next year.

"The accusations are horrible, and it's the kind of thing that you really hate to hear," Hall said. "But as a party, I don't think we'll be passing judgment at this point. I'd like to see what comes in the months and weeks to follow."

On Monday, Hall said she had contacted Shannon's office, hoping to arrange a meeting. By late that day, he had not replied. Hall could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"I would like to hear what he has to say about it, yes," Hall said. "Just to know how the party can best handle this situation moving forward."

On Tuesday, Whitley and Maenius said county officials acted quickly when they heard of the allegations, which are typically investigated by the district attorney's office. Records show the county spent close to $100,000 by hiring Ingram and WhitneySmith Co., a Fort Worth firm specializing in human resources issues.

"There was no grass that grew under our feet when we first became aware of this," Maenius said. "We attacked this as aggressively as we've ever attacked a case. We didn't spare monies because we wanted everyone to see that there was no cover-up. There wasn't any special treatment. When we found out what we had, we made a business decision."

The officials also defended how private discussions of the case by the Commissioners Court were posted on county agendas -- by Sabin's county employee number.

"When it came to settlement, we put the names and we put the [details of the] agreement," Whitley said. "But up until that point, we felt like it was important to provide protection" to the parties.

On Tuesday, Dallas attorney Robert Hinton questioned why information from the county's investigation, led by Ingram and WhitneySmith, was not among the materials released.

"They paid a lot of money for that" report, said Hinton, who represented several Tarrant County residents seeking information about the case. "The information it gleaned should be the property of the taxpaying public, not something that the Commissioners Court or their lawyer chooses to keep secret."

But the county officials said that, after the open-records requests, all information was submitted to the attorney general, who decided what was to be released.

"They made the decision," Whitley said. "They looked through everything. They went through and decided what we had to release. The implication of there being some hidden report or hidden summary is false."

County officials said they did not request a written report of the investigative findings and apparently did not know many of the specifics of what was learned.

"Just to make sure everybody is clear about this, the county nor the staff nor the Commissioners Court ever received any investigation documents," Maenius said. "Those documents were between the investigators and our counsel. There was a tremendous amount of trust that the court had and reliance on that attorney."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

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