Friday, April 19, 2013
District Attorneys and Secrecy | Casey's Last Word
Legislators this year seem to be working overtime on matters involving district attorneys and secrecy.
The Senate last week unanimously passed the Michael Morton Bill.
It is named for the Georgetown man who wrongly served 25 years in prison for murdering his wife after a district attorney allegedly withheld evidence of his innocence.
Morton himself lobbied for the bill.
Next week the House of Representatives may pass what might be called the Joe Shannon bill.
But Joe Shannon, the district attorney in Fort Worth, isn’t lobbying for it.
It seems that Tarrant County taxpayers forked over $475,000 to settle a lawsuit by a staff prosecutor who claimed that between 2008 and 2012 Shannon made her life unbearable with sexual comments, requests and, one time, a slap on her rear.
Shannon, who is now 72, says he is innocent and that the county settled the lawsuit for “business reasons.”
House Bill 382 by Lon Burnam of Fort Worth isn’t concerned with why the county settled the case. It’s concerned with how it did it.
The settlement required that none of the parties talk about the case or the settlement.
In a press release, county officials said the plaintiff was paid $475,000 because she had been “discriminated and retaliated against by the … district attorney’s office.”
Then the district attorney’s office fought to keep the public from knowing the details of the allegations and, most importantly, who in the district attorney’s office was the accused.
Burnam’s bill was greeted only with favorable testimony this week in a committee hearing.
It says that in any lawsuit settlement paid fully or in part with taxpayer money, state and local governments could not require “any party to keep allegations, evidence, settlement amounts or any other information confidential from any other person, including but not limited to any member of the media.”
Such a law might have saved taxpayers here a half million dollars if Burnam’s bill had been the law back in the 1990s.
A female investigator’s sexual harassment lawsuit didn’t accuse then District Attorney Steve Hilbig of personally harassing her.
It focused on how badly he handled her complaint.
Hilbig appointed a committee headed by two prosecutors to investigate.
It gave him a report saying the supervisor had grossly and repeatedly harassed the woman, and he had done it to other women as well.
The report added that the reason women didn’t complain to him was that they believed it would only lead to retaliation.
Hilbig’s response? He suspended the perpetrator for three days.
Then he gave the woman a transfer that was lateral on the organizational chart, but a clear demotion in the office’s culture.
The amount of the settlement, $186,000, was made public.
But Hilbig required that his own deposition in the case be sealed.
He then spent about $500,000 on outside lawyers fighting efforts by the San Antonio Express-News to obtain it.
He said “innocent” people would be exposed.
The newspaper finally won. No innocent people were named in the deposition.
But it did have Hilbig admitting to making crude “jokes” himself about women (such as pretending to pull up his zipper after being alone with a female staffer).
And it gave details of a staff survey he had commissioned by an outside consultant.
It was brutal.
For example, only 8 percent agreed that “politics” did not influence decisions in the DA’s office.
Until last November’s election, Hilbig served as the only male on the 4th Court of Appeals.
I hope the women justices schooled him.
And I hope the Legislature gives them a law that prevents follies such as his waste of a half million dollars.