The City of Odessa paid $30,000 to a legal assistant who accused former City Attorney Larry Long of sexual harassment, documents that the city fought for months to keep from the public show.
The city admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement but agreed to the payment for “emotional distress.” The city promised to pay for annual training for all employees including management to prevent further sexual harassment. The settlement also included an agreement to keep details of the case confidential, while promising that the legal assistant would not face retaliation and that she wouldn’t sue.
Notably, the settlement payment finalized in late November fell below the $50,000 threshold that would have required City Council approval during a public meeting. The City Council never disciplined Long, against the recommendations of the city’s own human resources department that corroborated the legal assistant’s account.
The legal assistant, whose name the OA is withholding, had complained in July 2017 that Long sexually harassed her in ways such as touching her hair against her will and staring at her.
HR investigators produced a report less than two weeks later that also pointed to behavior by Long such as sitting too close to her and calling his employees pet names while also noting that the behavior was similar to another sexual harassment case a decade ago that resulted in an unpaid suspension for Long.
But two City Council members who sit on the personnel committee — District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales — had dismissed the HR findings, which remaining council members said they did not see for months. Ultimately, the City Council allowed Long to resign and work through February in part so he could receive better retirement benefits.
After Long announced his resignation in November, the City of Odessa projected paying about another $10,800 toward his retirement benefits before his departure. Long’s salary, after the City Council awarded him a 3 percent raise that month, was about $201,500.
Long’s last day was Feb. 28, following a retirement party the week prior in the City Council chambers that records show cost about $200. He had denied the allegations and repeatedly declined to discuss them with reporters.
Other records released Wednesday showed that in the weeks after the legal assistant filed the complaint, she expressed her concern to the city’s HR Director Bonita Hall.
“I just wanted to follow up with what is going on in regards to any disciplinary action,” the legal assistant wrote Aug. 2. “We have discussed moving me elsewhere, but I feel that just moving me doesn’t remedy the problem. I feel that would only be punishing me. Please let me know if there will be any disciplinary action against Larry.”
Hall, who would resign in November, wrote that HR, the city manager and the City Council did not mean to punish her, while noting that it would fall to the council’s personnel committee to make a decision on the complaint.
On Sept. 12, the City Council met behind closed doors about Long. But they took no action. The same night, three council members formed a majority to fire then-City Manager Richard Morton.
Days later, the legal assistant said she wanted the move.
“I am not comfortable sitting where I am currently at. I would like to be moved away from Larry’s office,” the legal assistant wrote to Hall on Sept. 18.
She was moved to another city building.
“For no action to be taken means for me as an employee that they did not take me seriously,” the legal assistant told an OA reporter who contacted her in October, before the settlement. “Somebody much higher than I am can do whatever they feel like doing, and they probably won’t get in trouble.”
She also said she worried that if she had not complained, someone else could be harassed.
“I can’t quit my job knowing that it might,” she said.
Later, she filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which led to the settlement.
The OA filed a request for the settlement on Jan. 2 under the Texas Public Information Act. Documents later released showed someone else had requested the information too.
But an outside attorney for the city, Cal Hendrick, fought to withhold them and argued that releasing the records “would be a violation of federal law” because of a confidentiality agreement between the city and the legal assistant as part of the resolution to the complaint she filed with the EEOC.
Indeed the settlement prevents the legal assistant from talking about the case.
But open government experts said that any payment of public funds that were part of a settlement represented clearly public information that the city should not be able keep secret.
And the AG’s office ultimately agreed, finding that “a governmental body cannot, through an agreement or contract, overrule or repeal provisions of the” Texas Public Information Act. The act specifically refers to “a settlement agreement to which a governmental body is a party” as one of the categories of public information.
The AG’s office released an opinion March 6. But the city still didn’t release the information for more than a week.
New Interim City Attorney Gary Landers said Wednesday that from now on, the city would handle public information requests. That includes another request for records about another complaint against Long that Hendrick also fought to withhold on behalf of the city.
It’s unclear when those records will be released as the AG’s office reviews the city’s request made through Hendrick to withhold them. But they relate to another complaint filed by a senior city assistant attorney who alleged pay discrimination based on his gender.
That complaint was filed about three months ago, and city leaders say the investigation remains ongoing.
By Jan. 16, the city disclosed it had paid $23,300 for Hendrick’s work related to the sexual harassment complaint.
In the 2007 sexual harassment case involving Long, the cost of the investigation and attorney’s fees amounted to nearly $35,000 total.
PREVIOUS VERSION: The City of Odessa paid $30,000 to settle the sexual harassment case against former City Attorney Larry Long. The city finally released the total amount paid to the woman after fighting a Freedom of Information request from the Odessa American and waiting a week after the state attorney general ruled the information should be released. Check back later for more information.