CBS4 On Your Side: your city, your county, your money
In the past three years El Paso County and the city of El Paso have spent more than $3 million, combined, settling lawsuits. CBS4 On Your Side spent months reviewing legal documents to see where your tax dollars were going. We looked at fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017.
When the city of El Paso resolves to settle a lawsuit, it severely limits the amount of information that is made public through the Freedom of Information Act. CBS4 On Your Side found that between fiscal year 2015- 2017, the city settled 32 cases for $1,633,842.02. The legal documentation for many of those cases, however, is just one or two pages long and states only that the city and the plaintiff have agreed to a settlement. Details of the original lawsuit are often not available.
In fiscal year 2016, the city settled nine cases for nearly $1 million. Three of the largest settlements CBS4 On Your Side discovered were made that year.
High Ridge Construction received the biggest payout. The city cut the company a check for $525,000.00 on August 17, 2016. Two weeks later, on the last day of the fiscal year, the city paid Saratoga Homes $312,500. The day before, the city paid Mazie’s LP and Whitney Properties LP $115,000. A spokesman for the city confirmed that case was connected to damage from the historic 2006 flood.
In fiscal year 2015, the city paid out another six-figure settlement, this time to Weidner Inc. and MFR Performance Solutions. The case was settled in federal court and, therefore, more information was made available about the original lawsuit. The owner of the company, Marv Weidner, filed suit, alleging breach of contract and copyright infringement connected to a consultant contract he was awarded from the city. Weidner and the city settled for $120,000.
CBS4 On Your Side also found at least two cases filed against the El Paso Police Department that were settled out of court. One of them originated from a deadly officer-involved shooting in June 2012. The family of Bernie Morales contended that Officer Albert Gomez used unjustified deadly force against him. That case was settled for $35,000.
Nine days after Morales was killed, police were called to the Walmart at North Mesa Street and Remcon Circle in west El Paso, where, Henry Lozano claimed, officers attacked him without cause and beat him "senselessly." The city paid $15,000 to settle that case.
Over the same three-year period, El Paso County settled far fewer cases -- 13 --but for nearly as much money -- $1,385,334.78. The vast majority of that money came from cases tied to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. CBS4 On Your Side found four six-figure settlements connected to the Sheriff's Office.
Three of the lawsuits were filed by Sheriff’s Office employees or now-former employee Michael Peters, Lisa Latimer and Yolanda Campos.
Details on Peters’ case were not made public. In fiscal year 2017, the county agreed to pay him $225,000. In turn, Peters agreed to never work for the Sheriff’s Office again.
A year earlier, Lisa Latimer filed suit claiming violation of the Texas Whistleblowers Act. That case was settled for $100,000.
In fiscal year 2015, El Paso County Detention Officer Yolanda Campos filed a gender discrimination lawsuit. The county paid out $269,834.78 to settle that case.
The county’s biggest payout went to the family of Sgt. James Brown, of Fort Bliss.
In 2012, the active-duty soldier self-reported for a two-day sentence in the El Paso County jail. Brown, who served two tours of combat duty, reported in writing that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
At some point during his stay, Brown appeared to have an episode in his cell that caused him to bleed. When Brown failed to speak with a jail guard, a team of guards in riot gear rushed into his cell. That event was recorded on video. The video shows Brown saying multiple times that he was having trouble breathing. Near the end of the video, Brown’s breathing becomes shallow. He is no longer blinking or being responsive.
Brown’s family filed suit contending that at no time did anyone inside the Detention Center call 911 or call for an ambulance. The county settled that case for $450,000.