March 19, 2004
Final settlement in Tulia lawsuit near

Now that the city of Amarillo has reached a $5 million settlement agreement in the federal lawsuit filed by the unjustly imprisoned Tulia defendants, a group of other counties and cities in the Panhandle are close to negotiating their own settlement.

Sources near the negotiations have indicated the remaining 30 counties and cities named in the federal lawsuit likely will settle for substantially less than the $5 million Amarillo paid last week for its part in the suit.

Several sources with varying degrees of involvement in the negotiations have confirmed that the overall settlement for all the remaining municipalities combined is in the area of $1 million. Counties and cities would pay amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars under the agreement, which has not been finalized.

Attorneys from both sides of the suit said they couldn't talk about the details of the negotiations, but they confirmed talks were ongoing.

"We are continuing to negotiate, and we hope we can reach a settlement," said Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, who represents the Tulia defendants. "We're eager to settle this case so that the entire Panhandle can put this nightmare behind them, like Amarillo did last week."

The settlement, if finalized, would bring an end to a federal lawsuit that was filed in connection with the controversial 1999 Tulia drug bust.

Again, I'm glad to see this get resolved. Just for the record, for the 44 Tulia defendants who are plaintiffs in this lawsuit, I figure after attorneys's fees and whatnot, they'll net about $10,000 each. Before anyone complains about lawsuits and the taxpayers footing the bill and so on, ask yourself a simple question: Would you willingly go through what any of those 44 people went through in return for ten grand? The people responsible for this debacle got off very, very cheaply.

Here's a look at how the city of Amarillo will pay its share of the settlement.

The $5 million payment to settle Amarillo's liability in the Tulia drug sting won't receive official approval from the Amarillo City Commission.

The commission gave city attorneys authority to reach a settlement amount on its behalf, and a 1987 ordinance gives a committee of department heads the authority to administer the payment.

State law requires the city commission to approve bid contracts of $25,000 or more, but that standard doesn't apply to the $5 million settlement, a different kind of transaction altogether.

The settlement will be paid as an insurance claim, and potentially all of it will come from the city's risk management fund, the fund through which the city insures itself for liability claims.

The ordinance creating the fund authorized a risk management board to administer the claims, which usually are too routine to need city commission attention. That board's authority applies even in the case of an exceptionally large claim such as the $5 million Tulia lawsuit settlement.


Briefing the commission also was appropriate because the settlement amount was likely to be greater than $50,000, said City Manager John Ward, also a member of the risk management board. That dollar amount is a benchmark, Ward said, for when the board would bring a pending insurance-fund claim to the commission's attention.

But even though the Tulia settlement amount would dwarf all other insurance claims the city has paid in the past 12 years, the commission still didn't have to take official action because it wasn't required by the ordinance that created the risk management fund. Nor would such action have been practical, Ward said.

When the commission gave authority to its lawyers before the mediation, the settlement amount wasn't known, so it couldn't have approved an amount, Ward said. And after the mediation, the judge wouldn't have been receptive to the city changing its offer.

"You could stick these settlements on (the commission's) agenda and they rubber-stamp them, but it really serves no purpose because it's too late to vote against it," Ward said. "The city is committed."

In the case of Tulia, however, the commission will conduct one vote related to the $5 million settlement. The risk management fund's ordinance limits aggregate payments for general liability to $3 million per year. So the commission on Tuesday will consider granting the program some kind of flexibility so the payment can proceed, Ward said.

Among the commission's options are to amend the ordinance so that it allows for certain exceptions to the limitation, or to authorize a one-time exception in this case alone, Ward said.

The fund may not even have to pay the full $5 million for the Tulia settlement. The city is exploring options to supplement self-insurance funds with money seized by the task force that was involved in the sting.

But using those funds depends on state approval, Ward said.

I can't think of a more appropriate use for that money than to help pay the settlement to the victims. Let's hope newly elected State Senator Kel Seliger brings this up at his first opportunity. Feel free to drop him a line or give him a call at one of his offices and encourage him to do so.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 19, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

What I don't understand is this: If the taxpayers are soaked because "that's where the money is," why not make the police department pay for it from their salaries and benefits themselves?

If this settlement costs (say) 2% of a department's personnel budget, dock everyone's pay 2% for a year. Give them incentive to reform. Plus, the higher ups with higher salaries pay more than the rank and file, so it should appease liberals.

And if someone says it's unfair to target all the cops for the actions of a few, I'd say I agree...BUT as long as we're going to blame a group with a lot of money, why not make it hit closer to home? And why, using that same logic, would it be fair to penalize all taxpayers?

And I still say there is too little emphasis on criminally charging the rogues. It seems like many advocates for these Tulia victims are equating money with justice, or putting money above criminal justice. Isn't that what many of them think of cheating CEOs and the wealthy who get away with things on technicalities?

Posted by: Tim on March 19, 2004 11:03 AM

If you want to advocate that Swisher County DA Terry McEachern and Sherriff Larry Stewart (see here) ought to face criminal liability, I'm right there with you. Tom Coleman could not have happened in a vacuum, and he should not be the only one looking at jail time. I believe the state or the feds would have to step in for that to happen, and I seriously doubt either of the current regimes is the least bit interested. But I agree that the issue ought to get more attention.

I suspect that the respective police departments wouldn't have anywhere near the money to cope with even this relatively modest settlement. I'm also not sure what the legal implications would be. It's an interesting suggestion, but it's not clear to me that it's more equitable.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 19, 2004 11:18 AM

Well, any law enforcement agency should have to pony up in proportion to their level of blame and/or involvement. That would certainly include sheriffs and DAs where misdeeds in those organizations are present.

Again, it should be done as a percentage of their pay, so the buck-stops-here higher ups who foster this kind of misbehavior are held most liable. And it should come from salaries -- not operating budgets (so again, the taxpayers aren't the ones getting stuck with the bill in the form of reduced services).

I just think all throughout law enforcement, there are just very few incentives to weed out the rogues. I suspect that if a "bad cop" was going to cost his partner a bit of the green for incidents like this, the K-Mart raid and other stuff, they may not stay silent and protect their partner. That "blue wall of silence" may crack a bit and we might get some actual, meaningful reforms. As long as they can just stick the taxpayers with the bill and foot only a miniscule part of the burden -- a few pennies of their taxes -- it's easier to just protect the other bricks in that big blue wall.

Make no mistake -- what these victims went through isn't worth $10,000 and maybe not even $110,000 (now $1,010,000 and we'll talk). But there has to be a better way to make those more directly responsible take the worst of the financial hit. Now in Andy Griffith's Mayberry, this may not be possible because there isn't enough money there, but in the payrolls of large law enforcement agencies where payroll goes well into the millions, I think it's possible (in principle; getting by the unions is another issue).

Posted by: Tim on March 19, 2004 12:31 PM