Proposal would bar confidential settlements involving taxpayer funds, public officials

Posted Monday, Feb. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- State Rep. Lon Burnam wants to make sure government is as transparent as possible.

So he filed a bill to prevent confidentiality agreements in legal settlements of civil cases where taxpayer money is involved or claims are released against a public official.

"I want to correct a wrong that has been going on for a long time," said Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "It's our money, and we have a right to know."

One of the most recent public cases Burnam's bill would have impacted is the confidentiality agreement attached to a $375,000 settlement last year in a case involving sexual harassment allegations against Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon.

Few details were released in September, when county officials approved a no-fault settlement with former Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Sabin after officials investigated her complaints. All sides signed a confidentiality agreement.

Details of Sabin's allegations emerged last month after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, acting on an open-records request from the Star-Telegram, ordered some of the information in the case to be released.

Burnam said his proposal was not prompted by this case.

"I got involved first in the Texas Legislature in 1973 when they passed all the reform legislation. I have been involved in better open government ever since," he said. "Many are more aware of this [issue] now because of what is going on in Tarrant County government.

"But this has been going on all along -- public entities covering up and making secret settlements," he said. "I want to stop that."

Melody McDonald, public information officer for the Tarrant County district attorney's office, said Shannon hasn't read the proposed bill. But, "conceptually, he has no problem with it."

The measure, House Bill 382, has been referred to the Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee and has drawn a co-sponsor, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

And it already has drawn some bipartisan support in Tarrant County.

"It's not a bad bill," Tarrant County Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Hall said.

"We are talking about transparency, and that's always a good thing."

Hall said several precinct chairmen have said they are interested in supporting the bill and may bring the issue up for a vote during an upcoming March meeting.

"He's doing something I think is helpful for all of his constituents," she said.

Tarrant County Democratic Chairman Steve Maxwell said Burnam's bill might lead to common ground for both parties on other legislation as well.

"There are some things that simply make sense," he said. "There has been a tendency for courts and especially major corporations to favor using confidentiality that has gotten a little out of control.

"Maybe we can use this as a way to reach agreement on other things as well."

Maxwell, an attorney, said there can be good reason for using confidentiality clauses in some cases, especially those involving minor children.

"But prohibiting confidentiality when taxpayer money is being spent is generally a good idea," he said.

Burnam said he has heard concerns about the bill being retroactive and said he will revise the measure to make sure it applies only to future settlements.

"That's not my intent to revisit history," he said. "It's my intent to prevent this from happening again in the future."

If the Legislature approves the law and Gov. Rick Perry signs it, it will take effect Sept. 1.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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