Public costs of harassment case remain unclear

More than five weeks after city officials say they “resolved” a sexual harassment case involving the city attorney, the city refuses to say whether the legal assistant who filed a federal complaint received taxpayer money as part of the settlement.

That leaves the total costs to the public unclear ahead of City Attorney Larry Long’s departure next month.

An open records request filed by the Odessa American for records of any payments related to the sexual harassment case is pending, but the city declined to voluntarily disclose the information and plans to fight to withhold it.

City spokeswoman Andrea Goodson, citing direction from the city’s outside attorney, said she could not even confirm or deny the existence of a payment.

“I have learned a confidentiality agreement was included in the resolution of the sexual harassment complaint against Larry Long. Therefore, the only statement I can give you is ‘the matter has been resolved’.”

But open government experts say the city cannot spend public money in secret.

“They can’t write a confidentiality agreement just to write themselves out of the public information act,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit promoting open government. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Any payment of public funds is clearly public information, while other parts of a settlement may be public too, open government experts said.

“Do these officials realize these are taxpayer [dollars] — not their funds?” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney who specializes in open government litigation. “The public has a right to know.”

The OA has also requested the cost of paying the city’s outside counsel, Odessa attorney Cal Hendrick, for work related to the sexual harassment case. The city has said it will release that figure after examining records (Hendrick represents the city in other matters, including the ongoing lawsuit filed by the OA in June alleging violations of Texas open meetings law).

The legal assistant filed a complaint this summer accusing Long of harassing her in ways such as touching her hair against her will and staring at her. An HR report obtained by the OA corroborated her account and pointed to behavior by Long such as sitting too close to her and calling her pet names.

Authors of the report, including HR Director Bonita Hall, who later resigned, noted it was repeated behavior from another sexual harassment case in 2007 that resulted in a month-long unpaid suspension for Long and reforms that went unheeded.

But the City Council never disciplined Long as the HR report recommended. Two City Council members who reviewed the July 24 report — District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales and District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff — recommended against discipline for Long. The remaining three council members said they were not provided the HR report for months.

Hall later resigned. And the legal assistant filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The city anticipated a lawsuit.

The OA obtained the HR report in November as the city fought its release. On Dec. 19, the state Attorney General’s office ordered the release of the report. The city complied this week, but has yet to respond to other requests for other records related to the case.

Long announced his resignation on Nov. 28. Long said his last day would be Feb. 28, telling reporters he wanted to work through his next birthday for better retirement benefits and because he has work he wanted to continue. The city attorney has denied the allegations and repeatedly declined to discuss them.

After Long resigned, the city projected about another $10,800 toward Long’s retirement benefits through the state. Long’s current salary, after the City Council awarded him a 3 percent raise in November, is about $201,500.

The legal assistant remained a city employee after filing the complaint and was moved from the City Hall office where Long works. She has not responded to questions for comment after Long’s resignation.