2007-07-11 / Front Page

County pays $81,721 more in legal fees to defend elected officials against Guerra lawsuits

RICK SHUEY Reporter

After much discussion, Willacy County commissioners Monday approved payment of $81,721 in billings from two attorneys for defending elected county officials against legal attacks mounted by district attorney Juan Angel Guerra.

Attorney John Blalock billed the county $25,846 for hours and expenses between December 5, 2006 and May 4, 2007 for defending Sheriff Larry Spence, District Clerk Terry Flores in action 2006- CV-0399A.

San Antonio attorney Gayle Calderola defended Flores in a separate attack by Guerra, 2007-CV-0060A. Her charges to the county were $25,625 for services between March 31, 2007 and April 15, 2007, plus another $30,250 for services between April.

Guerra initiated the civil actions last December without approval of the commissioners court. Rather than disavow Guerra's action and censure the errant district attorney, commissioners agreed to use public funds for legal defense costs.

Thus encouraged, Guerra has broadened his legal attacks on county officials and employees. As legal bills continue to mount, commissioners lament the expenses but are still reluctant to take action to curb Guerra.

Pct. 4 commissioner Aurelio Guerra, brother of the district attorney, suggested that the county might decline to pay for legal defense of some county employees.

"On [sheriff's chief deputy] David [Martinez] there is going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars accumulating. We did not approve legal representation for any and all officials of the county."

Pct. 3 commissioner Emilio Vera, Jr., presiding over the session, picked up the thought. "If I remember correctly what we voted on was representation for elected officials. I don't think we said any county employees."

County auditor Ida Martinez brought the commissioners back to reality by reminding them that the county is obliged to defend any officer or employee acting in their legal capacity.

The Texas Association of Counties (TAC) from which the county buys legal defense in- surance, will not pick up the bills in the present cases.

Martinez told the commissioners, "We continually get letters from TAC that they will not pay these charges because it is within the county - one county official suing other officers and employees of the county."

Pct. 2 commissioner Erasmo "Eddie" Chapa suggested that perhaps some way could be found to cap the charges or negotiate a maximum per hour charge, "But these services here have already been performed, and I don't see that we have any choice but to pay them."

The package of bills before the commissioners for approval contained some other large charges.

An additional legal expense came from attorney Gustavo Garza, $9,165 for service as special prosecutor in the State of Texas against Gloria Reyes Garcia, Andrea Sias Espinosa, and Rene Espinosa.

Accountant Frank Rodriguez was hired by the county to organize the account books of the public facility corporations owning the three county sponsored prison projects at the Raymondville Incarceration Park. The corporations, which together have issued hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds, had never set up the account books as required in their incorporating documents.

Questioned by Vera about a bill from Rodriguez, Martinez said, "You have two of the three corporations complete in that invoice. The total for all three of the corporations will be about $23,500."

Once the account books are set up, an independent audit must be made. These will be done by another accountant, at a cost of $12- 13,000 for each corporation.

When the time came to vote on approval of the package of invoices, Chapa and Pct. 1 commissioner A.J. Cantu voted "aye." Guerra and Vera abstained. The commissioners then looked at eachother, realizing that with only four present to vote the measure would fail passage. After brief thought, Vera changed his vote to "aye" and business moved on to the next agenda item.

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