2007-10-17 / Front Page

Legal expenses for Willacy County employees & officials limited by new policy

Policy retroactive to current civil & criminal cases

Willacy County commissioners unanimously passed a new county policy that requires all elected officials and employees to appear before commissioners court to seek pre-approval of all legal expenses. This includes any criminal cases or civil lawsuits resulting from the performance of their duties.

The motion puts a cap of $25,000 per individual per incident. An additional limit on attorneys fees was set at the rate paid by the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), which is currently $150/hour.

Commissioner Eddie Chapa researched and wrote the motion, that was seconded by Commissioner Aurelio "Keeter" Guerra. Judge Protem Emilio "Junior" Vera was the third "yes" vote, and Commissioner Abiel Cantu was not present at Monday afternoon's meeting.

Chapa said he worked with a TAC attorney on drafting the motion.

"I did this for two reasons," Chapa said. "To protect taxpayers, and to provide a safety net for employees for legal expenses that TAC won't cover."

Commissioner Guerra said after the meeting that he agreed with Chapa's motion.

"We're trying to stop the bleeding," said Commissioner Guerra, referring to the extraordinary amount of legal bills that the county has been paying recently.

Two recent legal bills caught Chapa's attention.

1. A $37,393 bill was submitted by Brownsville Attorney Larry Walsh for representing a former grand jury at last April's Court of Appeals hearing. A prior grand jury foreman had been subpoenaed to testify on a civil case filed by District Attorney Juan Angel "Johnny" Guerra.

2. A $104,997 bill was submitted by San Antonio Attorney Gayle Calderola for representing Willacy County Chief Deputy David Martinez on a Class B Misdemeanor charge of filing a false police report. Martinez's criminal charge was initiated by District Attorney Guerra, and is still pending trial.

Both attorney's recently made presentations at commissioners court, where commissioners said that they were going to seek an outside legal opinion on who is responsible for paying the bills.

The Chronicle/News calculates that the following current and former county employees and officials will need to appear before commissioners court to request approval of legal expenses in the defense of their pending civil or criminal cases.

- County Judge Eliseo "Cheyo" Barnhart (3 civil and 1 criminal case).

- County Clerk Terry Flores (2 civil cases).

- Special Prosecutor Gustavo "Gus" Garza (3 civil and 1 criminal case).

- District Attorney Juan Angel "Johnny" Guerra (13 civil and 2 criminal cases).

- A former Grand Jury Foreman (1 civil case). Name withheld to protect the sanctity of their proceedings.

- Twelve members of the current grand jury (1 civil case). Names withheld to protect the sanctity of their current proceedings.

- Investigator Marte Guillen (1 criminal case).

- Secretary Ofelia Guerrero- Hernandez (1 criminal case).

- District Judge Migdalia Lopez (3 civil cases).

- District Clerk Gilbert Lozano (2 civil cases).

- Chief Deputy David Martinez (1 civil and 1 criminal case).

- Sheriff Larry Spence (2 civil cases).

Not included in the list are several Raymondvile Police Department officers who are not employed by Willacy County.

A few of the above cases are being paid for by the TAC, however most are not since they resulted from county officials suing one another and criminal cases.

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