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2009-01-01

New Year brings another lawsuit against state AG

By Judith Pannebaker

(Editor’s note: God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, a more detailed version of Bandera County’s latest litigation against Attorney General Greg Abbott will appear in the Thursday, Jan. 8, issue of the Bandera County Courier.)

Just in time for the New Year, Bandera County has found itself embroiled in yet another lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The litigation resulted once again from an open records request. This time, however, the Bandera County Courier did not initiate the request.

In September, local firebrand - and thorn in the side of elected officials - Roger Sullivan submitted a Texas Open Records Request for information related to the billing of the law firm of Denton, Navarro, Rocha and Bernal and-or attorney George Hyde to Bandera County.

Sullivan admitted he had requested the information to determine if revenue from Bandera County taxpayers had been used to pay fees Hyde had incurred in the defense of former County Attorney Kerry Schneider. However, Sullivan contended, the civil lawsuit, filed in California, had apparently stemmed from actions Schneider had taken in her capacity as a private attorney rather than on behalf of the county.

In the citizens’ comment section of the Monday, Dec. 29, commissioners court, Sullivan noted that the county’s latest litigation involving the AG had, in fact, been filed on Dec. 23 in Travis County “… without bringing the commissioners together to vote on it.” He asked, “How many of you were even aware before receiving the agenda that the county had filed another lawsuit against the AG?”

Sullivan continued, “If you’re spending that kind of taxpayers money, you should have more oversight.” He also questioned the propriety of allowing a law firm to initiate litigation against the AG to keep the public from being privy to what he believed was illegal billing practices by that same law firm.

“One hand seems to be washing the other here. Hyde is defending Hyde,” Sullivan said. “It’s a simple thing to do when you’re using other people’s money - the deep pockets of the county taxpayers.” He contended, “Only affluent counties routinely sue the attorney general, not poor counties like Bandera don’t.”

Concluding his public statement, Sullivan urged commissioners not to ratify the lawsuit after the fact.

As it turned out, his pleas fell on deaf ears. After the court reconvened from an hour-long closed executive session with Hyde and his cohort, Ryan “The Prince of Open Records Litigation” Henry, commissioners ratified the suit by a vote of 3-1 with Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris casting the lone nay vote.

Prior to the ballot, however, Harris insisted a phrase be inserted in Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese’s motion. The phrase “under the (financial) terms offered by the law firm in writing,” seemed to portend drastically reduced fees. In fact, several sources confirmed the law firm agreed to litigate the county’s second lawsuit against the AG pro bono.

When apprised of this possibility, an attorney not involved in the case questioned the propriety of such a transaction.

And, as an observer noted, “Now, this bears investigating. When was the last time you heard of a lawyer working for nothing?”

Certainly not last March, when Hyde initiated litigation against Abbott to block release of information requested by the Bandera County Courier. The information concerned a lawsuit filed by Shelia Pumphrey with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office. After taking office in 2006, Weldon Tucker terminated Pumphrey, a longtime county employee.

Citing attorney-client and work product privileges, Hyde submitted an 11-page brief to the AG indicating the reasons why the requested information should not be released. In turn, he received a letter from Assistant AG Cindy Nettles of the Open Records Division, essentially advising him to release the requested information. Hyde then initiated litigation against the attorney general on behalf of Bandera County - prior to seeking approval from commissioners court.

As occurred last week, however, commissioners approved the suit with alacrity after the fact.

Sullivan, meanwhile, accused Hyde of using Bandera County “as a vessel to keep his bills from public scrutiny.”