Brothers put under secret surveillance

May 12, 2008 9:30:17 PM PDT
Something the Harris County Sheriff's Office didn't want anyone to know. In the weeks before two brothers took their lawsuit against the county to court, undercover investigators were spying on them. The sheriff's department says it was trying to get some information on the Ibarra brothers, who were suing the county for civil rights violations. The question is, did the surveillance go over the line?

For two and a half months, the Ibarra brothers have celebrated the fact their long and winding journey through the legal system was finally over. And now, they are thinking about more legal action against Harris County, the entity that has already paid them big. This, after we told them the sheriff's office was secretly watching them

For six years, as Erik and Sean Ibarra were navigating the criminal and civil justice systems, they often looked over their shoulders.

"I was always mindful of someone following me," said Erik.

Paranoid of retaliation.

"You never know what may happen," said Sean.

They were taking on the county, the district attorney and the sheriff's department, claiming civil rights violations, that deputies beat them up after videotaping a drug raid at a neighbor's house. They knew they could be targets.

"That was one of our biggest fears," said Erik.

And now, we know they were being watched.

"It's spooky, you know," added Sean.

In an email to Eyewitness News, the sheriff's department admits for three days in October 2007, a special secret investigative team watched the Ibarra brothers before the start of their civil trial. The department says the purpose was to "obtain background information."

"It's kind of shocking," said Sean.

And they weren't the only ones surprised. We've learned the Harris County attorney didn't have a clue either and in every other civil case where plaintiffs were secretly being tracked, the county attorney knew.

"They have no business investigating a civil case for the county attorney, who doesn't know about it," said KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy. "What it suggests is that obviously the criminal side of it wants to do their own investigation for potential retaliation purposes."

The Ibarras say their privacy was violated. Six years of angst just won't go away.

"Now knowing this, it's like, who' still watching us?" wondered Sean.

After sending the initial email, admitting to the the surveillance, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office never returned our call requesting further investigation or comment. In his 11 years as county attorney, Mike Stafford says he is aware of only three cases in which county investigators watched people who were suing the county.

The county settled the lawsuit with the Ibarra brothers, cutting them a check for $1.7 million. Monday night, we talked to the Ibarras' attorney, Lloyd Kelley, who is considering further legal action.

"This is your government doing that and they have no legitimate basis," said Kelley. "This is not drug dealers. They know that. These are not people that are involved in criminal activity. They know that. So they're using your resources to spy on people who have complained."

The Ibarra lawsuit also led to the release of racially and sexually charged emails from former District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's county-issued computer. Rosenthal later resigned.

13 Undercover has also been examining Sheriff Tommy Thomas' emails after a judge ruled he illegally ordered three-quarters of a million of them deleted. That cost taxpayers $30,000 in legal fees.

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