Pubdate: Sat, 17 Jul 2004
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: Jim McBride
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Judge, Lawyers Won't Reveal Settlement Amounts

Just as Tulia residents began getting their checks from a $6 million
civil rights settlement, a new controversy began brewing over whether
the public is entitled to know how much each plaintiff receives.
Retired state district Judge Ron Chapman, who decided how the
settlement would be divided among the 45 defendants, said the checks
were delivered Thursday night. The defendants will share $4 million,
while some of the lawyers who represented them will receive $2 million.

When asked whether he would release the amount each person received
under the taxpayer-funded settlement, Chapman told the Globe-News he
and lawyers in the case have agreed not to divulge a breakdown of the
settlement, $5 million of which came from the city of Amarillo.

"It has been determined by the attorneys and me that that's a private
matter. If the individuals want to divulge it, they're certainly free
to," Chapman said.

Joe Larsen, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of
Texas, disagreed with Chapman, saying that specific details of the
individual settlement amounts must be released under Texas law.

"Under the Public Information Act, a judge does not have the power to
seal a settlement," unless the settlement is deemed confidential by
law, Larsen said.

"There is a category of information that specifically is settlements
between a governmental body and a third party, which is what you have

James Farren, Randall County Criminal District Attorney, said details
of how much money each person received from the settlement should be
publicly released because the settlement was paid with taxpayer funds.

"This is the public's money," he said. "The people here are parties to
the thing. It's their funds, and as a citizen, I think I have the
right to know how that money got distributed."

Farren said Randall County has not received a breakdown of how the
settlement was paid out.

Civil rights groups claimed the drug cases were racially motivated
because 39 of the 46 arrested or charged in the 18-month drug sting
operation were black. Tom Coleman, the former undercover agent who
made the arrests, is white.

Coleman, 44, testified at trials that he bought cocaine from dealers
in Tulia, though he had no audio or video surveillance to back up his
claims. He faces aggravated perjury charges in connection with
post-conviction hearings for a few of those imprisoned.

Along with their checks, each claimant will get a letter from the
judge. "It's my heartfelt hope that you would use this in a positive
way to improve your future and your family's future," the letter reads.

Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which
assisted in the lawsuit, said each check was for a "significant
amount" but declined to give details.

If the $4 million were split evenly among the 45 people, it would mean
the checks would average a little under $90,000.

Rather than have checks delivered to each defendant's home, those in
Tulia met at one home to sign for them, said Billy Wafer, one of the
defendants. He declined to disclose the amount he received but said he
planned to save it for his children's future.

"It's a great blessing," Wafer said. "I thank God for it. I really do."

Ted Killory, an attorney for one of the defendants, said he was
pleased the wrongly accused got at least some compensation, but "no
amount of money is going to make up for losing four years of life in

Last week, a financial planner visited Tulia and talked to about 25 of
those getting compensation - many of whom have never had checking
accounts - about how to save and invest the money wisely, Gupta said.

Gov. Rick Perry granted pardons last year to 35 defendants. Charges
were dropped against others arrested.

Several Panhandle communities, counties and law enforcement agencies
that made up the drug task force to which Coleman was assigned agreed
earlier this year to settle the lawsuit brought by two defendants.

Their cases were dropped after they provided alibis for when Coleman
said he bought drugs.

The judge met with most of the defendants last month to decide how
much each would get based on how much time they spent in jail and the
financial losses related to their arrests. There were 46 defendants,
but one has since died.

"There was very little bitterness about the whole travail," Chapman
said of his conversations with the defendants. "More than one was
willing to just leave it in the hands of God."

There will be no more litigation related to the discredited drug
cases, Gupta said.

"It's the end of the line," she said. "It closes the circle on these

Associated Press reporter Betsy Blaney contributed to this
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