March 03, 2008
Settlement in lawsuit against Sheriff's office

This is an unexpected but not terribly unsurprising development.

Harris County commissioners voted unanimously this morning to pay $1.7 million to settle a lawsuit that led to the resignation of District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal.

After an emergency, closed-door meeting, commissioners agreed to settle with Sean Carlos Ibarra, 37, and Erik Adam Ibarra, 28, two brothers who claim that they were wrongfully arrested by sheriff's deputies, whom they photographed and videotaped during a 2002 drug raid at their neighbor's home. Because of a subpoena filed in that lawsuit, Rosenthal's personal, romantic e-mails to his secretary surfaced.

The settlement comes as the sheriff's deputies were scheduled to testify this week in the Ibarra's civil trial in U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt's court. The Ibarras were seeking $5 million in damages for the alleged civil rights violation.


The Ibarras' lawyers made the offer over the weekend -- before today's scheduled testimony from deputies involved in the case, said County Judge Ed Emmett.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he voted for the settlement because sheriff's deputies made mistakes on the day of the incident.

"There were some policies that were violated,'' he said. "You had somebody on the street who went beyond what was reasonable.''

Emmett said, "The rational thing to do was to accept this settlement offer. Sometimes you make the best deal you can and move on. It allows the sheriff's office to get back to being the sheriff's office.''

Hoyt will determine whether the county will pay more for the Ibarra brothers' legal fees. Emmett speculated the county may pay as much as $1 million to cover those fees.

Okay, I'm not an attorney, I haven't been in the courtroom to hear the evidence and see the jurors' reactions, I don't know what kind of witnesses these two deputies were going to make, and I surely don't know what else Lloyd Kelley had in his bag of tricks. That said, settling for $1.7 million, plus possibly another million in legal fees, when the amount demanded by the plaintiffs was a sure-to-be-reduced-on-appeal $5 million says to me that the county wasn't all that confident in its defense. I could be misreading this, and I welcome any feedback from actual attorneys on this, but that's my read on the situation.

Another point: Stopping things here also has the extra bonus of keeping the deputies' testimony and whatever other evidence there may be out of the public record. I'm still just speculating - it may well be that all the bad stuff is already out, or will get out anyway. But if the goal is to let the Sheriff's office get back to Sheriffing, ending the trial certainly accomplishes that.

The settlement would end all legal actions against the sheriff's department, the four deputies, Thomas and the county. But it would not end contempt actions brought by Hoyt against Rosenthal, Radack said.

I presume that's still on track for March 14.

The county has spent more than $125,000 on Rosenthal's contempt proceedings and his attempts to keep some e-mails private.

Thanks, Chuck. You're a gift that just keeps on giving, aren't you?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 03, 2008 to Local politics
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