Calhoun County releases $125,000 settlement agreement

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Dec. 5, 2013 at 6:05 a.m.
Updated Dec. 6, 2013 at 6:06 a.m.

A former Calhoun County employee who claimed her boss filmed her undressing in their shared office received $125,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement.

The Victoria Advocate requested a copy of the settlement agreement months ago.

Although the attorney general's office ruled it was a public document Nov. 8, Calhoun County officials did not release it until commissioners approved the release at their Nov. 26 meeting. Texas law allows officials 30 days in which to sue the attorney general if they disagreed with the ruling.

The Calhoun County District Attorney's Office sent the agreement to the Victoria Advocate after receiving it from its attorney, Neil Giles, and insurance carrier, Hiscox, on Thursday afternoon.

"There is no way it should have taken this long for the document to be released, but the right result was achieved in the end," said Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney who serves on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas' board of directors.

Larsen wrote a letter to the attorney general's office on the Victoria Advocate's behalf.

Amanda Guillen sued the county and Precinct 2 Commissioner Vern Lyssy after she was fired in 2010.

She said she was fired for complaining about the camera to County Judge Michael Pfeifer, but Lyssy has said there were problems with her performance documented by the human resources department before.

A recording of her undressing was not found.

Neither Guillen nor Lyssy could be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Lyssy and the county also stipulated in the agreement that they are not admitting liability. Guillen, in turn, agreed not to sue them about the matter again.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Neil Fritsch seconded the motion to release the agreement.

When contacted Thursday afternoon, Fritsch was disappointed that he, too, was not sent a copy of the agreement.

"Well, not knowing the particulars other than what was published in the newspaper, I think it (the settlement amount) is way too much," Fritsch said after the Victoria Advocate sent him a copy of the settlement agreement.

Lyssy said in a previous interview that he consulted with several departments before setting up the camera, which was hidden inside a computer speaker.

Lyssy set the camera up because he "sensed" employees were being disloyal and not informing him of missed calls. He had to prove or disprove that, he said.

Fritsch did not remember approving of the camera. He also did not understand why Guillen was changing her clothing in a public office.

Before a judge declared a mistrial in April, Guillen's attorneys explained to jurors that Lyssy's office was undergoing construction. The bathroom was too small and dirty, and Guillen received permission from Lyssy to change clothes in the office, they said.

"You know, sometimes there's a public perception that because we are commissioners that we get into each other's business and know everything that's going on, but I do not," Fritsch said. "If you're having problems with theft or vandalism, put your cameras up and say it's being videotaped. A lot of times, just putting up a sign would deter things."

From Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2012, the county paid Hiscox a $14,276 premium for its public officials' liability insurance policy, County Auditor Cynthia Mueller.

The county paid the Texas Association of Counties Risk Management Pool a $32,786 premium for its public officials' liability policy beginning Jan. 1, she said.

Guillen filed the lawsuit in September 2011, according to an earlier report.

Mueller did not know whether this policy's premiums more than doubled in cost because of an increase in claims.

"The only thing I know about changing carriers is that our insurance consultant told us that by changing carriers for not just this particular policy but for all of our policies, we were getting coverage more suited to the county's needs," Mueller said.

Fritsch also remembers the consultant's recommendations. They found that some areas of the county were overinsured while others were underinsured, he said.

"From that, we put out a request for proposals for that insurance, and GSM (Insurors of Port Lavaca) and the Texas Association of Counties bid on it," he said.

There were "significant savings" with the Texas Association of Counties, Fritsch said.

It was not known Thursday afternoon whether claims to the county's public officials' policy have increased.

Fritsch said the employee policy manual has also been revised, but he did not know whether changes were made in reaction to this lawsuit.

Fritsch has been in office since 2005, and Lyssy is on his second term. Their precincts abut on Virginia Street, and Fritsch said they've worked well together in the past, purchasing road tilling and lawn equipment to share throughout the year.

Both men are Democrats.

"A lot of general thought is that Democrats are not conservative, but because we go to church and visit with people and see them in H-E-B and in Wal-Mart, they (the constituents) know who we are, and we want to work for those people and do the best we can," Fritsch said. "We always have them in mind."



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