City of Austin spends millions on outside legal fees



Posted on November 21, 2011 at 11:13 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 21 at 11:27 PM

AUSTIN -- From the Occupy movement to equal rights marches, the City of Austin is no stranger to protests, but sometimes, people like George Ramsey push the envelope.

“There was a protest against the war at City Hall, and I had an 'F-Bush' sign,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey's sign was hard to miss and it caught the attention of Austin police.

“The policeman came up there and said he would arrest me if I didn't leave,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey didn’t leave, and was soon arrested. He filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin for violating his First Amendment rights. Two years later, the City settled for $18,000.

“Freedom of speech is not meant to be agreeable. So I took it to the maximum to teach the people what freedom of speech is all about,” Ramsey said.

The KVUE Defenders along with the Austin American-Statesman found that City of Austin settlements topped more than $14.6 million in the last five years.

  • When a city employee fell asleep behind the wheel and hit another driver, the City paid out $14,000.
  • When police tased a man on Thanksgiving Day, the City paid $40,000.
  • When a city garbage man threw a trash can on the sidewalk and hit a bicyclist, he received $68,000.
Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, says many times incidents that escalate to lawsuits could have been prevented altogether.

“Even though there has been a policy in effect, whether it's through training or discipline or supervision, the officers don't abide by it,” Harrington said.

Harrington handled the case of Joseph Cruz, a young man severely beaten by an Austin police officer in 2008. Cruz’s family sued, and ultimately, the City paid them $62,000.

But Harrington says the City still hasn't learned from all the lawsuits.

“It's like any business in the private sector; if you have an employee that's making mistakes, you correct it because you know there will be greater liability down the line. That does not happen right now,” Harrington said.

“I think those are lawyers that are looking for taxpayer dollars so they're going to bark up that tree,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

Acevedo says he does use those costly mistakes as lessons for his department, and disciplines officers when needed.

“For people to say that we have a culture of not holding people accountable, I don't know what department they're watching, but they're not watching the Austin Police Department,” Acevedo said.

That isn’t the only way Harrington says the City could save. KVUE and the Statesman's investigation found the City of Austin spent an additional $6 million during the last five years hiring outside legal counsel to settle claims.

“I’m afraid it's true in Austin and probably everywhere," Harrington said. "There's patronage here, and we give out some of our money to our friends. But it doesn't serve us, the taxpayers, well that you have to go out and hire private attorneys when the city attorneys could do the job.”

Anne Morgan, chief litigator for the City of Austin, says outside counsel is hired for open record disputes, union contracts, and when there's a potential conflict of interest.

“For example if we have a case where a police officer has been disciplined for doing something, and we get a lawsuit that involves both the City and a police officer, there are times when just the perception that there may be a conflict requires that we hire outside counsel,” Morgan said.

The City currently has 57 attorneys on staff. Morgan says hiring more wouldn't guarantee savings.

“There's always going to be a need for outside counsel,” Morgan said.

Regardless of the process, Ramsey says his settlement was an $18,000 lesson for the city, and he hopes it was a lesson learned.
You can follow investigative reporter Keli Rabon on her Facebook page here.

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