Turner Co-sponsors Proposal to Bar Confidential Settlements Involving Taxpayer Funds, Public Officials

FORT WORTH — State Rep. Lon Burnam wants to make sure government is as transparent as possible.

So he filed a bill to prevent confidentiality agreements in legal settlements of civil cases where taxpayer money is involved or claims are released against a public official.

“I want to correct a wrong that has been going on for a long time,” said Burnam, D-Fort Worth. “It’s our money, and we have a right to know.”

One of the most recent public cases Burnam’s bill would have impacted is the confidentiality agreement attached to a $375,000 settlement last year in a case involving sexual harassment allegations against Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon.

Few details were released in September, when county officials approved a no-fault settlement with former Assistant District Attorney Sabrina Sabin after officials investigated her complaints. All sides signed a confidentiality agreement.

Details of Sabin’s allegations emerged last month after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, acting on an open-records request from the Star-Telegram, ordered some of the information in the case to be released.

Burnam said his proposal was not prompted by this case.

“I got involved first in the Texas Legislature in 1973 when they passed all the reform legislation. I have been involved in better open government ever since,” he said. “Many are more aware of this [issue] now because of what is going on in Tarrant County government.

“But this has been going on all along — public entities covering up and making secret settlements,” he said. “I want to stop that.”

Melody McDonald, public information officer for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said Shannon hasn’t read the proposed bill. But, “conceptually, he has no problem with it.”

The measure, House Bill 382, has been referred to the Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee and has drawn a co-sponsor, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie.