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.
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.