Houston is home to a long list of famous plaintiffs’ lawyers. Did you know that Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan is trying to add his name to that list?
There are legitimate public policy reasons that protect local government from litigious plaintiffs; however, the Harris County Attorney’s office and Vince Ryan are using this veil to harass local citizens and business.
Recently, we saw Vince Ryan use expensive resources such as private investigators and jury consultants to attack a political foe, Dave Wilson. Thankfully, the Harris County jury did the right thing and Dave Wilson is now serving as a Houston Community College Trustee; but, this is a glimpse into the strategies and motivations of our current county attorney. In Dave’s case, Vince Ryan had to prove that Dave did not live where he said he did at the time of the election. So, months later, Vince Ryan employed private investigators to watch Dave Wilson. This entire episode was intended to harass Dave Wilson.
The Harris County Attorney’s office has established arrangements with various local law firms to file lawsuits on behalf of Harris County. Recently, Harris County, through outside law firms, has filed lawsuits against BP, Halliburton, the Melcher family, and Waste Management. Not only is this bad public policy; but, these lawsuits hit at the heart of some of the most prominent donors to the Houston arts and culture.
Channel 8, Houston Public Television, operates from the LeRoy and Lucile Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting on the University of Houston campus. Houston Public Radio also operates from the Melcher Center. The Melcher family supports many important local charitable causes and community activities.
The Melcher family owns the property that houses the new Liberty Kitchen, located at San Felipe and Briar Oaks. Vince Ryan filed harassing litigation against the Melchers through a third party law firm over this notable property. The sole purpose in filing these lawsuits is to force a settlement, which brings money to the county and to the outside law firms.
Vince Ryan has begun a pattern of using outside law firms to sue local entities and families. Earlier this summer, Harris County joined a lawsuit against ten companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident. As reported on 60 Minutes, the recovery effort against BP is resulting in fraudulent claims against the company. While the State of Texas and the City of Houston have filed similar lawsuits, it is difficult to claim that the BP disaster created a negative economic impact on Harris County, Texas. Many local businesses, including environmental firms, barge, and shipping companies, thrived during the clean up effort. That being said, I mention the BP litigation to highlight the mechanics that Vince Ryan is using to file these lawsuits – give business to outside law firms (friends of Vince) generally in exchange for political support.
There is a legal doctrine called standing – a presumption that citizens cannot sue the government. Standing is generally the first sword drawn when the government is in a defensive posture. The City of Houston and the Harris County Attorney’s office all have standing “experts” on call and these are the first attorneys to the courthouse whenever a lawsuit is filed against local government.
So, what happens when government goes after good people with bogus lawsuits? Good government deserves the standing protection because we do not want our tax dollars to be wasted on fraudulent lawsuits. Should government lose its standing protection when they use government to hijack wealthy families and successful businesses? Are we at risk of losing this protection because of government gone wrong? This is a slippery slope because, today, it is the Melchers; but, tomorrow, it could be you.