Gag order bill draws late opposition in Austin

Posted Thursday, May. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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An association representing urban counties on Thursday unveiled late-surfacing opposition to legislation prohibiting gag orders on public-funded court settlements.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, has said his bill is designed to prevent taxpayer-funded court settlements similar to that stemming from a sexual harassment settlement involving Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon.

But John Dahill, general counsel for the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, said he planned to testify against the bill at a hearing Thursday before the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Dahill said the legislation would be a costly impediment to resolving even routine legal disputes and could remove protections for witnesses and whistle-blowers.

“It’s not going to be good for governments and it’s not going to be good for plaintiffs either,” said Dahill.

Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas said his organization also has concerns with the bill that he hoped could be corrected through an amendment.

But he added: “If it passes we’ll live with it.”

Burnam said he first learned of the counties’ opposition Wednesday night on the eve of the Senate hearing.

“I’m not a bit surprised,” said Burnam. “Unfortunately a lot of elected officials prefer to do their public business in private.”

The House member acknowledged that the opposition from the county organization “looks bad” for supporters of the measure as they try to win approval in the Senate and get it to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk before the session ends on May 27.

Although Tarrant County is a member of the association, Assistant Tarrant County Administrator Mark Mendez said the Tarrant County government remains neutral on the issue.

The bill, which the House passed b y a vote of 86-50, 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.

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.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin bureau chief, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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