What will settle lawsuit cost taxpayers?

March 3, 2008 4:07:39 PM PST
Harris County will pay $1.7 million to a pair of Houston brothersSean and Eric Ibarra sued the county, Sheriff Tommy Thomas and four deputies. Today's settlement agreement resolves the Ibarras' federal lawsuit and ends the trial. They had claimed their civil rights were violated during an undercover drug raid at their neighbor's house six years ago.

The Ibarras photographed and later videotaped deputies during the raid. The deputies confronted them and after a violent struggle arrested them.

The Ibarras were criminally charged but Sean was acquitted. The case against Eric was dropped. They say it was important for them to pursue their civil case.

Sheriff Thomas says he stands behind his deputies. They will return to work, and the county did not admit any wrong doing in the settlement agreement.

The case ultimately cost District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal his job after his emails were subpoenaed and made public, but that's not all. Today's settlement was a bargain, if you go strictly by the $5 million the Ibarra brothers' lawsuit was demanding. But this has been about a lot more than money. It was political, as well as financial. And county taxpayers have to pay for both.

Consider this the blink in a poker game.

Assistant Harris County Attorney John Barnhill said, "As with any offer made during a trial -- and this trial is ongoing -- this settlement could go away, depending on ensuing testimony."

Over the weekend, the county got a settlement offer to get rid of the lawsuit that had toppled a district attorney and tried to take down the sheriff. It took commissioners less than 20 minutes to take the deal.

"The rational thing to do, I think, and unanimously the commissioners agreed, was to go ahead and accept the offer of settlement," explained Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

That means county taxpayers will pay a considerable legal bill that's still being totaled. There is the $1.7 million settlement, plus at least $600,000 in outside defense counsel for the elected officials and other county employees involved in the lawsuit. The county will also pay court costs and legal fees for plaintiffs' attorney Lloyd Kelley, which makes a minimum bill of $2.3 million. According to the county judge, it was time to move on.

"This was just a case where there were so many collateral issues coming up, it made sense to clear the decks and move on," Emmett said.

Collateral issues and political fallout ? all taken off the books the day before the primary election. That's the other cost legal analyst Joel Androphy sees.

"I think that's why this case got settled," he said. "Not because they were worried they'd get hit with 2 or 3 million dollars. They were worried they were going to lose in some elections. Remember, this is Monday. Tomorrow is Election Day. They had to get this case settled today or it wasn't going to settle."

The settlement of the lawsuit, though, does not mean former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal avoids his contempt case stemming from the deletion of hundreds of emails. That will be up to the federal judge.

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