“……in July 2011 insurance agents and BISD employees complained to the board about the process used to select insurance vendors……….They voiced their concerns that the selection and awarding contracts to vendors were not handled properly and fairly because Escobedo had a personal relationship with Joe Salazar, an insurance agent, and after the passing of Johnny Cavazos, he had managed to gain control over BISD’s insurance contracts. Escobedo also had close ties with Kent Whittemore, and Whittemore helped select the insurance companies, all of which went to Joe Salazar.” On several occasions afterward, Longoria saw Whittemore dining with Salazar, the suit says. Whittemore said he has retained counsel to fight the allegations, which he said are without merit…………………”
By GARY LONG The Brownsville Herald | Posted
The Brownsville Independent School District Board of Trustees has called a special meeting for Monday in the wake of a $2 million lawsuit against four of its members, BISD, its superintendent and legal counsel by Trustees Catalina Presas-Garcia and Luci B. Longoria.
The agenda includes authorization to hire a law firm that specializes in immunity defenses of lawsuits against public officials and to retain counsel to initiate removal proceedings against Presas-Garcia and Longoria. The agenda states that the two women are to be excluded from an executive session discussing the matters with counsel. The meeting is set for 12 p.m. in the boardroom of the BISD Administration Building, 1900 Price Road.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Longoria and Presas-Garcia filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Brownsville seeking damages of “not less than”
$2 million along with declarative and injunctive relief and attorney fees from BISD, Superintendent Carl A. Montoya, Trustees Herman Otis Powers Jr., Minerva M. Peña, Jose Hector Chirinos, and Cesar Lopez, and board attorney Baltazar Salazar individually and in their official capacities.
The lawsuit stems from Presas-Garcia’s censure at the April 2 and July 23, 2013, board meetings. Former board President Enrique Escobedo initiated the action both times and a majority of board members voted in favor of censure on each occasion. A motion at the July 23 meeting to censure Longoria was tabled.
The officials named in the lawsuit were served with the complaint just prior to the BISD Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, the first board meeting since Escobedo was found dead on Dec. 30 of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Brownsville.
The meeting included numerous tributes to Escobedo, who had served on the board since 2002. Longoria and Presas-Garcia were among those offering tributes and consoling Escobedo family members at the meeting.
The lawsuit alleges a conspiracy among Escobedo, Salazar, the four named trustees and other BISD officials to deny Presas-Garcia and Longoria their free speech rights under the Constitution. It alleges First Amendment retaliation, First Amendment prior restraint, defamation, common law defamation, libel, slander, violation of the two women’s Fifth Amendment right to liberty without due process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, and violation of the First Amendment related to the censure.
It says the two women suffered lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, damage to reputation in the past and future, mental anguish in the past and future and loss of pension or retirement benefits.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the censure on which it is based as null and void because it was done in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. It seeks damages “of not less than $2 million together with such equitable declarative and injunctive relief as the Court deems proper, in vindication of their respective rights of free speech” in addition to attorney fees and litigation costs.
Frank E. Perez and Associates and the Law Office of Star Jones in Brownsville, filed the action.
According to the lawsuit, the facts giving rise to the matter have been “persistent and ongoing since 2011.” Among other “relevant facts” it says that Longoria and Presas-Garcia have questioned the board majority’s decisions both as trustees and private citizens but that they have been systematically shut out of participation. The lawsuit says:
>> That in July 2011 insurance agents and BISD employees complained to the board about the process used to select insurance vendors.
“They voiced their concerns that the selection and awarding contracts to vendors were not handled properly and fairly because Escobedo had a personal relationship with Joe Salazar, an insurance agent, and after the passing of Johnny Cavazos, he had managed to gain control over BISD’s insurance contracts. Escobedo also had close ties with Kent Whittemore, and Whittemore helped select the insurance companies, all of which went to Joe Salazar.” On several occasions afterward, Longoria saw Whittemore dining with Salazar, the suit says.
Whittemore said he has retained counsel to fight the allegations, which he said are without merit.
>> That the day after the board majority terminated the legal services contract with previous board counsel Thompson and Horton LLP in February 2013, Presas-Garcia and Longoria witnessed Montoya, the BISD superintendent, having lunch with Baltazar Salazar, and it appeared they were negotiating Salazar’s contract.
>> That “Escobedo retaliated against and harassed (Presas-Garcia) and (Longoria) by continuing to intimidate and humiliate them in committee meetings and regular Board meetings. Escobedo’s conduct, and that of his co-conspirators, was committed in violation of Plaintiffs rights to associate with persons not of the political leanings of the Majority but with those seeking legitimate governance. Their conduct was unlawful, violated Plaintiffs constitutional rights and caused each Plaintiff damages.”
The lawsuit also makes repeated allegations that Escobedo steered business to his brother Jaime’s company, American Surveillance, of which he was vice-president.
It also notes that in the agenda item for the July 23 meeting used the word “censorship” in place of “censure.” The board ultimately corrected the mistake, changing “censorship” to “censure,” but that was a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act because the item was not posted that way originally, according to the lawsuit.