Bill would ban gag orders in taxpayer-funded settlements of lawsuits

Posted Monday, Apr. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- A sexual harassment settlement involving Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon was spotlighted during a legislative hearing Monday as lawmakers considered a proposed ban on confidentiality agreements in tax-funded court settlements.

The House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, in keeping with standard policy, took no immediate action on state Rep. Lon Burnam's bill after hearing five witnesses speak in behalf of the measure. No one testified against it.

Burnam, D-Fort Worth, told committee members that HB382 is a "simple good-government bill" that would bar state government or any political subdivision from imposing a gag order on the settlement of a lawsuit.

The bill would cover only future cases and would not apply to a $375,000 settlement last year in a case involving sexual harassment allegations against Shannon. But Burnam, without specifically mentioning the district attorney, alluded to the settlement as the kind of case his legislation would target.

"The idea of this bill was first brought to me several years ago, but it has only been recently with a certain specific incident in Tarrant County that [points out] the need for this kind of policy," Burnam said.

"We think this is not about the politics of any one individual. We think it's about just opening up the process and letting people know that people have a right to know when we're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement," he said.

County officials released few details in September when they 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.

Shannon's office, in a statement, has described the agreement as a "no fault" settlement that required the parties "not to discuss details or disparage anyone.

"As we previously have stated, there are several sides to every story and this is no different," the statement said. "All claims have been vigorously denied and disputed."

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth civil rights lawyer, referred to the settlement as a "a high-profile case in which a female assistant district attorney made allegations of sexual harassment against the district attorney. If there were no confidentiality clause, both sides could speak to what happened and the public would know what's going on."

Melody McDonald, public information officer for the Tarrant County district attorney's office, has said that Shannon's office has no problem with the concept of the bill.

Burnam said his bill has bipartisan support. Republican Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford have joined Democratic Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie as co-authors of the bill, Burnam said.

Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, and Tom "Smitty" Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, also urged passage. "It should go without saying that just about anything involving the expenditure of the public's money should be the public's business, but that hasn't always been the case when it comes to the settlements of lawsuits," Baggett said.

Fred Lewis, a former official in the state attorney general's office, described confidentiality agreements as "a horrible idea." Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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