Texas House approves bill to disclose settlements

Posted Friday, May. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Confidentiality agreements similar to the gag order imposed in a sexual harassment settlement involving Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon would be prohibited under legislation passed by the Texas House on Friday.

The House voted 86-50 to send Rep. Lon Burnam’s bill to the Senate in the closing weeks of the Legislature after exchanges between Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, who opposed the measure.

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 the two Tarrant County lawmakers, without mentioning Shannon or his accuser by name, made obvious references to the case during House debate.

“No person in a position of power should be able to get away with sexual harassment and allow taxpayers to foot the bill,” declared Burnam, who authored the measure with Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.

Zedler, referring to “this case in Tarrant County,” said the requirement would discourage potential witnesses and result in costly trials. He said Tarrant County officials told him it would have cost $1.8 million to take the sexual harassment suit to court.

“The attorney fees alone would cost more than the settlement out of court,” Zedler said in urging House members to vote against the bill. “This is a trial lawyer’s Full Employment Act.”

Gag order

The Tarrant County delegation split on the bill, according to an unofficial tally by the House clerk’s office, with seven supporting the measure and four opposing it.

Voting for it were Republicans Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake, Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Diane Patrick of Arlington and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford and Democrats Burnam, Turner and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth. Stickland and Capriglione were also co-authors.

Opponents included Zedler and Republicans Charlie Geren, Craig Goldman and Stephanie Klick, all of Fort Worth.

Burnam spokesman Conor Kenny said his boss is getting a Senate sponsor and building support in the Republican-controlled chamber to try to push the measure through the Legislature before the May 27 adjournment.

The Tarrant County government has not taken a position on the bill, according to Assistant County Administrator Mark Mendez, the county’s legislative liaison in Austin.

Melody McDonald, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, has said Shannon’s office has no problem with the concept of the bill.

Burnam has said he began working on the bill before last year’s sexual harassment case against Shannon. But he acknowledges that county officials’ decision to impose a gag order in the settlement accelerated his efforts.

“Tarrant County government has every reason to be embarrassed by how they manage their business on that,” he said in an interview after the vote.

‘No fault’ settlement

County officials released few details in September when they approved the 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 after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, acting on an open-records request by 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.”

If the Senate passes the bill and Gov. Rick Perry signs it, government entities could not, as a condition of an out-of-court settlement, prohibit a plaintiff from discussing details of the case with other people, including the media. The proposed law would not apply to settlements less than $30,000.

“Interested parties contend that recent events demonstrate how gag orders can prevent citizens from knowing any details about lawsuits funded by taxpayer money and point to a recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a Texas public official as an example,” according to a bill analysis.

Zedler said he was initially close to supporting Burnam’s bill but changed his mind after calling county officials to seek information about the case.

“Their attorneys had told them it would cost upward of $1.8 million to go to court, just for attorney fees alone,” Zedler said. “It could cost the county and the taxpayers one heck of a lot of money.”

But Turner defended the bill during the House debate and said that “the public has a right to know why the funds are being spent.”

Dave Montgomery, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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