Details of harassment claim against district attorney could be released next week (TX)

The Texas attorney general is expected to rule next week on whether details of a sexual harassment claim filed against Tarrant County’s top law enforcement official will be made public.

The complaint, filed by Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Sabin, was settled in September for $375,000. As part of the settlement, Sabin agreed to drop her claim against District Attorney Joe Shannon, his office and Tarrant County.

Several news organizations, including the Star-Telegram, filed open-records requests with the county, seeking additional documents and information.

The county released documents showing that nearly $100,000 was spent investigating the accusations and asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for a ruling to keep details of the complaint and its investigation private.

“Obviously, the nature of the alleged harassment and content of the requested information is of an intimate nature and clearly not the public’s concern,” Assistant District Attorney Ashley Fourt wrote in an October letter to Abbott.

In a Dec. 30 letter to Abbott, Dallas attorney Robert Hinton said it’s “reprehensible” that the county has not told the public what was alleged and urged Abbott to make the information public.

Hinton said he represents several Tarrant County residents, but he declined to name them.

“When a county expends almost $475,000 because of … allegations against the District Attorney, the public is entitled to find out what is going on,” Hinton wrote. “These are elected people.”

A spokesman for Abbott said a ruling is expected Tuesday.

When the settlement was announced, the county said that Sabin, 44, had alleged that she encountered workplace harassment and retaliation after complaining about her work environment.

But in a Sept. 6 letter to the attorney general, obtained by the Star-Telegram, Fourt elaborated, calling the allegation “sexual harassment by an elected official.”

Shannon is the only elected official in the district attorney’s office.

Last week, Shannon’s office released this statement:

“As we previously have stated, there are several sides to every story, and this is no different. All claims have been vigorously denied and disputed. This was a no-fault settlement agreement signed by the parties, which included an agreement not to discuss details or disparage anyone. This office has complied with all applicable laws concerning this matter and will continue to do so. It would be improper to elaborate further.”

Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius declined to comment Wednesday on Hinton’s letter. At the time of the settlement in September, Maenius said that “neither the county nor the district attorney’s office is admitting any fault at all.”

“We believe we would probably be successful in litigation; however, the costs of that litigation would be much more than the settlement cost,” Maenius said.

Sabin could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Susan Hutchison, declined to comment.

In its request, made under the Texas Public Information Act, the Star-Telegram sought to obtain Sabin’s original complaint to the Tarrant County Human Resources Department. The newspaper also requested all investigative documents resulting from the complaint, costs of the investigation and documents related to the eventual settlement.

Sabin graduated from Texas Wesleyan University Law School in 2004 and started at the district attorney’s office on Sept. 1, 2005. Shannon has served as an adjunct law professor at Wesleyan since 1998, according to the school’s website.

According to documents that have been released, Sabin “verbally reported to her supervisor allegations that she had been harassed in the workplace.” That led to an investigation by the county Human Resources Department.

“Prior to the completion of the T.C.H.R.’s investigation, this D.A. Employee on May 23, 2012, filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission … and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of Dallas,” Fourt wrote in an October letter to the attorney general.

“In her charge, [Sabin] claims she was harassed by an Elected Official and retaliated against by unnamed persons who allegedly spread rumors about her.”

The county hired the Jackson Walker law firm to investigate the accusations. The firm later requested that the WhitneySmith Co., a Fort Worth-based human resources consulting firm, also be retained.

Documents released by the county show that Jackson Walker submitted invoices for $49,502. The bill from WhitneySmith was $43,651.

After the settlement agreement, Jackson Walker withdrew from the case, citing a conflict of interest. The county then hired a second law firm, Kelly Hart & Hallman of Fort Worth, to aid its attempt to keep additional information from being released.

The amount of legal fees paid by the county to the second firm is not known.

“Tarrant County strongly believes that the [Public Records Act] does not require, or in some cases does not permit, release of the requested information to the Requestors,” Andrew Weber, an attorney with Kelly Hart & Hallman, wrote in a letter to the attorney general.

“It is presumed that the information is not a legitimate public concern unless the requestor can show that, under the particular circumstances of the case, the public has a legitimate interest in the information, notwithstanding its private nature.

“As it is, the public already has the information that is legitimately public: It knows that the complainant filed a complaint, that the complaint was settled, and the terms and the dollar amount of the settlement. The various individuals’ interest in the confidentiality of their personal information outweighs any negligible public interest.”

In his letter, Hinton said that before the settlement, Tarrant County commissioners had “done nothing but deceive the public in the manner that they posted these matters on their agendas.”

“The way the Commissioners’ Court in Tarrant County has tried to cover this matter up is reprehensible,” Hinton wrote to Abbott. “My clients think this is a lot of money, and if Mr. Shannon has done something wrong, he should be paying for it out of his own pocket, rather than using taxpayer money.”


Details of harassment claim against district attorney could be released next week
Tim Madigan
January 4, 2013