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City might need to spend more for legal defense of indicted officials

By LESLIE WILBER
June 6, 2009 at 1:06 a.m.


WHAT'S HAPPENED SO FAR

Victoria Police Chief Bruce Ure was accused of lying to the grand jury that investigated whether former Victoria County Sheriff Michael Ratcliff sexually assaulted a teenage boy while still sheriff.

Police Lt. Ralph Buentello and former city attorney David Smith are also charged with aggravated perjury.

A grand jury indicted the three men and Mayor Will Armstrong on multiple counts last year, accusing them of plotting to interfere with an investigation of Ratcliff. The city officials maintain that they were concerned the investigation was not being handled properly and that District Attorney Stephen Tyler's prosecution of them is retaliatory.

Judge Stephen Williams dismissed the case against Ure on April 30 and barred Tyler and his office from prosecuting Smith or Buentello. Williams has not appointed a new prosecutor for those cases.

All charges against Armstrong were dropped. The only charges that remain against Smith and Buentello are aggravated perjury.

Victoria city council members might spend more public funds to defend indicted city officials.

Last year, the city council voted to pay a total of $200,000 to defend Mayor Will Armstrong, Police Chief Bruce Ure, Lt. Ralph Buentello and former city attorney David Smith against misconduct charges.

Charges against Armstrong and Ure have been dismissed. But District Attorney Stephen Tyler is appealing judge Stephen William's dismissal of Ure's aggravated perjury charges.

"This has gone on longer than anyone anticipated," Armstrong said. Although the council has not discussed allocating more money for defense, Armstrong said, the talk is inevitable during upcoming budget meetings. The city already has spent almost all of the $50,000 per-case allowance, Armstrong said.

"If it was right to pay one dollar it is right to pay the next dollar," Armstrong said.

Tyler criticized the city's earlier decision to pay for the official's legal fees.

"I would question the legality," Tyler said, citing a 2000 Attorney General's decision that said a city could not pay for council members' defense in an open records case.

Armstrong, in turn, criticized Tyler for wasting taxpayer money to prosecute the officials. He pointed to Tyler's use of outside attorneys to handle the appeal.

Tyler said his office has spent about $2,000 to hire a Corpus Christi attorney who specializes in writing appellate briefs.

"It's essentially a brief writer," Tyler said of the job. "That's a lot different than trial law."

County auditor's records show Tyler's office has spent $4,000 to hire an appellate lawyer. That money came from hot check fees generated by the DA's office.

The Victoria Advocate has requested that the district attorney and the city provide an accounting of the total funds on the case of the indicted officials.

Most council members said they were not aware of plans to set aside more defense money.

"I certainly hope that doesn't occur," newly elected councilman Joe Truman said. "But if you don't support your personnel in these situations, you won't get good personnel."

David Hagan, who cast the dissenting vote for the first round of defense spending, said he would not comment on the proposal since it has not been formally made.

"This is speculation," he said. Paying 100 percent of police and fire fighters' insurance and raising their salaries should be a bigger priority, he said.

Jeff Lyon and Denise Rangel, who are vying for a council seat in a runoff election, both said they would need more information to decide if the expense was appropriate.

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