Calhoun County officials vote to release settlement agreement

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Nov. 26, 2013 at 5:26 a.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2013 at 5:27 a.m.

PORT LAVACA - After a few minutes of discussion, the Calhoun County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to release a settlement agreement that ended its three-year federal employment discrimination case.

But officials say the document, which the attorney general's office ruled was public Nov. 8, won't be available for a few weeks because the insurance provider, Hiscox, may be on vacation.

The commissioner involved in the case, Vern Lyssy, seconded the motion.

"I was not opposed to (releasing) it from the beginning," he said afterward.

He declined to provide the settlement amount.

Hiscox decided to settle the case, not him, Lyssy said.

"They treated it like a business decision," he said. "It's been heartbreaking to fight so long and hard and then have this come up."

"The people that have spoken to me about (the settlement) are not going to be surprised (by the settlement amount); the other ones, I can't tell you how they will react," Lyssy said.

The attorney general's office ruling triggers important deadlines.

The agreement should be released "promptly;" the 10-day deadline is only for voluminous records, Houston attorney Joe Larsen said in a previous interview.

Larsen wrote letters to the attorney general's office on the Victoria Advocate's behalf. He is a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Assistant Attorney General Nicolas Ybarra, who wrote the Nov. 8 letter, said Calhoun County spent public money on the agreement, a $10,000 deductible to Hiscox, of New York, and the county did not provide a compelling reason not to disclose it.

Calhoun County Assistant District Attorney Shannon Salyer sent a letter to Hiscox, requesting the fully signed and filled out agreement Tuesday.

During Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, Salyer said releasing the document "may subject us to suit," but he did not think Amanda Guillen, whom he tried to contact numerous times since the parties settled in June, could claim any damages.

Both parties have said the confidentiality clause was not their idea.

Guillen's attorney, John Melton, of Austin, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The confidentiality clause stipulates the settlement agreement can only be released by court order.

Salyer and Calhoun County District Attorney Dan Heard worry a commissioners court's approval may not be enough to satisfy that requirement.

"It could need an order from a federal court," Salyer said. "It was a retired federal judge who did the mediation in Houston."

Salyer pointed to a July 2001 appeal from County Court-at-Law 7 in El Paso County.

There, the attorney general compelled the El Paso County Community College District to release a settlement agreement to an El Paso Times reporter.

The former student and part-time work-study program participant who filed suit against the college sued again, claiming the college breached confidentiality by releasing the settlement agreement. The student was not awarded any damages.

"I just want this to be over with," Salyer said Tuesday.

"I don't think any of us had any issue with releasing it," Calhoun County Judge Michael J. Pfeifer added.

If federal Judge Gregg Costa had not declared a mistrial in April, Lyssy would have provided to a jury documents from the human resources' and treasurer's offices that showed Guillen had work performance problems before she discovered a camera hidden in his computer speaker, he said.

Guillen claimed in the lawsuit that Lyssy filmed her undressing in the office they shared and fired her for complaining about it. No recordings of her undressing were found.

"I sensed disloyalty from my employees," Lyssy said Tuesday of how items at his office went missing and phone calls from constituents went unreturned. "When that's brought to my attention, I have to prove or disprove it."

Lyssy said the district attorney's and human resources' offices as well as the Texas Association of Counties gave him the go ahead to set up the hidden camera.

Costa declared a mistrial after Lyssy fainted during his testimony.

Lyssy, the commissioner of Precinct 2, has filed for re-election. He is a member of the Democratic Party.



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