An appellate court Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against the Calhoun Port Authority, ruling former Congressman Blake Farenthold’s resignation as a lobbyist had made the case irrelevant.
Justices of the 13th Court of Appeals ruled that because Farenthold had resigned Jan. 4, a trial or any further court action was unnecessary in a lawsuit filed by the Victoria Advocate.
“Because those decisions have already been effectively reversed, there is no live case or controversy ... Accordingly, we conclude that all of the Advocate’s claims are now moot,” states the opinion.
The Advocate’s lawsuit, was filed in May 2018, contended board members of the Calhoun Port Authority broke the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to properly notify the public of its decision to hire Farenthold.
The opinion issued Thursday included no judgment about whether port board members had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. It also contained no judgment about a prior ruling by District Judge Bobby Bell that would have sent the case to trial in September. Thursday’s opinion was an answer to an an appeal requested by port attorneys to Bell’s ruling.
In May 2018, the disgraced former congressman took a lobbyist position that came with a $160,000 annual salary at the port after resigning from Congress.
That resignation came two weeks after it was revealed he had paid $84,000 of taxpayers’ money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee.
John Griffin, an attorney representing the Advocate, said the newspaper was not seeking monetary damages. Rather, it was asking the port to pay for attorney and court fees, as well as publicly recognize the importance of the open meetings issues raised in its lawsuit.
Court fees for the public port reached in excess of $410,000 while the newspaper’s fees rose to a little more than $95,000. The case’s dismissal meant each side would be responsible for its own legal expenses.
“I think it’s a loss for everyone because of the amount of money that was spent on lawyers,” said District 1 Board Member Shields A. “Tony” Holladay Sr., who spoke for himself and not the entire port authority’s board. “On my end, it is tax money, and my (job) is to make money for the taxpayer.” Holladay added he did not think the Advocate’s lawsuit was justified.
The board’s remaining members declined to comment or could not be reached. Port attorneys also did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Luis De La Garza, a 59-year-old Port Lavaca resident who is challenging board chairman Randy Boyd in the May 4 election, said that although he saw no winners, he also viewed taxpayers as the ultimate losers.
“The case was dissolved,” he said, adding, “The only losers in this entire case were the taxpayers. I pleaded numerous times with the port board to settle.”
De La Garza said, if elected, he would practice better stewardship of tax dollars. He also worried that some board members would attempt to spin the opinion as a victory.
“There is no victory,” he said.
The Advocate’s attorney also lamented the costs, but he emphasized the importance in protecting the open meetings act.
“In a perfect world, the party that vindicated the public’s right to know in a meaningful way wouldn’t bear any financial burden,” he said. “But it’s a burden ... that’s worth paying.”
Griffin also pointed out that port board members could have avoided the costly legal battle simply by removing Farenthold from office after the lawsuit was filed May 21, 2018. Instead, it dragged on for almost a year.
He also considered Farenthold’s resignation as a lobbyist as a victory.
Although Griffin said the opinion meant the port and newspaper would return to their respective businesses, he added he thought the Advocate would again return to the legal battlefield if it felt the public’s right to know was again violated.
“When a governmental entity such as the port’s directors attempt to keep the public in the dark about major decisions,” Griffin said, “the Advocate will be there to represent the public.”