Calhoun County requests Attorney General opinion

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 5, 2013 at 4:05 a.m.
Updated Sept. 6, 2013 at 4:06 a.m.

Calhoun County requested an attorney general opinion Thursday after refusing for months to release a copy of a federal employment discrimination case settlement agreement.

Former county employee Amanda Guillen sued the county and her boss, Precinct 2 Commissioner Vern Lyssy, in 2011 after she discovered he set up a camera and possibly filmed her undressing in an office they shared.

She claimed Lyssy fired her after she complained about it, according to court records.

The county replaced Hiscox, the insurance company that litigated and settled the case, on Jan. 1 with the Texas Association of Counties, so the county does not have access to the settlement agreement, Criminal District Attorney Dan Heard wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

"The former insurance policy between Calhoun County and Hiscox obligated the county to give complete control of any litigation to the insurance company," Heard wrote. "Simply put, we cannot produce what we do not have and cannot get."

Heard is also concerned Guillen will sue the county again if it breaches a confidentiality clause and releases the settlement amount.

Because of this, the county has a compelling reason not to disclose the settlement agreement, Heard wrote.

But Texas law is clear, said Jim Hemphill, an Austin-based attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

"If a governmental entity has the ability or the right to obtain details of a settlement from its insurer, then that information is public information under the Public Information Act," he said.

Although Hemphill could not speculate as to the nature of county's contractual relationship with its former insurer, he said it would be extremely unusual for a county not to have permission to access its own settlement agreement.

Also, "my understanding of the law is that a governmental entity cannot agree to make a settlement agreement confidential if that agreement would be contrary to the Public Information Act," Hemphill said.

The parties settled the case before Magistrate Nancy K. Johnson, of Houston, in June.

The Victoria Advocate filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General's office July 26.

A ruling could be issued in 45 days. The Advocate, meanwhile, may file briefs, or letters of support of its position, said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.



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