Calhoun commissioner, former worker secretly settle discrimination complaint

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

June 18, 2013 at 1:18 a.m.
Updated June 19, 2013 at 1:19 a.m.

A secret settlement ended a lawsuit involving a Calhoun County commissioner who was accused of filming a woman undress in an office they shared.

Details of that settlement - including how much money was exchanged - will not be revealed to the public, attorneys in the case said.

Lawyers for Calhoun County and Precinct 2 Commissioner Vern Lyssy, the defendants, and former county employee Amanda Guillen reached the settlement during a conference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy K. Johnson, of Houston, on June 11. The terms are confidential.

There is no copy of the settlement in the U.S. Southern District of Texas, where the federal employment discrimination case was filed Sept. 2, 2011.

Neil Emerson Giles, who represented the county and Lyssy, said the information is not subject to open records requests "because the county did not pay any money."

Both Calhoun County Judge Michael J. Pfeifer and Assistant District Attorney Shannon Salyer agreed.

Salyer said the settlement was handled by the county's insurance company, which is a private entity.

"I don't have any record of it, so I can't reveal it to you," he said. "What are we going to do? We're not going to void our insurance coverage."

He welcomed an open records request, but said he would not be able to find anything responsive to it.

Jim Hemphill, an Austin-based attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, encouraged the Victoria Advocate to request in writing copies of the agreement. He said the county must reply to the inquiry within 10 days.

The Advocate submitted an open records request via email to Pfeifer and Salyer on Tuesday.

The general rule is that settlements to which a governmental body is a party are public information, Hemphill said.

"I've never encountered a situation before where a governmental body was a party to a lawsuit and settled that lawsuit and claimed it did not have a copy of the settlement agreement," Hemphill said.

The county held a public officials liability policy from Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2012, with an insurance provider called Hiscox, which has its headquarters in New York, County Auditor Cynthia Mueller said.

The policy costs $14,276.

It is unclear whether that insurance company hired Giles for this case, but the county now has a public officials policy with the Texas Association of Counties, Mueller said.

A representative for Hiscox was not available for comment late Tuesday afternoon, and Guillen's attorneys, John F. Melton, of the Melton Kumler law firm, and Peter Ferraro, of the Ferraro Law Firm PC, both in Austin, could not be reached for comment either.

Guillen complained she was fired in May 2010, shortly after she discovered Lyssy had set up a camera in his right computer speaker in the office they shared.

Lyssy said the device was used to ward off thieves, but Guillen insisted he knew she used the area to change clothes because the office bathroom she and eight men at the commissioner's office used was too small and dirty.

Lyssy said she was let go for an unrelated, but longstanding disciplinary reason.

A recording of Guillen undressing was never found.

The parties headed to court in April, but Federal Judge Gregg Costa was forced to declare a mistrial when Lyssy fainted on the witness stand. Costa thought the incident may have prejudiced the jury.

Giles declined to say why his clients opted to settle the case rather than return to trial, which was tentatively scheduled for July 22.



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