Two Harris County officials have questioned whether a conflict of interest exists in the case of a Houston-based international law firm that represents the county in some areas while simultaneously representing a company the county is suing in another.
The issue came to a head during an exchange between Patrick Oxford, the chairman and former managing partner of Bracewell & Giuliani, and Terence O’Rourke, first assistant county attorney, on Tuesday morning at a county commissioners court meeting.
O’Rourke interrupted Oxford as the lawyer began to speak during the public comment period, asking whether it was appropriate for Oxford to address the court.
“There is an issue about (Bracewell & Giuliani) representing us and being against us at the same time,” O’Rourke said. In an interview during a break in the proceedings, O’Rourke said, “They can’t be on both sides.”
The firm has managed about $2.8 billion worth of bond transactions since 2008, county records show. Bracewell & Giuliani also represented the county in 2008 when five people sued the Sheriff’s Office for civil rights violations, O’Rourke said.
But Bracewell & Giuliani also represents one of the defendants, the Houston-based Waste Management Inc., in a suit filed by the county in December. County officials are attempting to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties due to dioxins, which are chemical pollutants, leaking into the San Jacinto River.
Oxford told the commissioners court that he was not there to speak about the lawsuit. Instead, he said, he was there “to urge simply that you reconsider the policy aspects of this case from your constituent's point of view.”
In Oxford’s opinion, it is incongruous for Harris County to sue a company that already has begun efforts to clean up the polluted Superfund site.
“We couldn’t find any other case in Texas where once remediation started, the county sued,” Oxford told Texas Watchdog in a phone interview. “People are not going to start remediation if they know they’re going to be sued. ... It’s going to have chilling effect on remediation.”
Oxford also said Bracewell & Giuliani had obtained waivers from “all the commissioners” as permission to represent Waste Management in the case while also representing the county in other matters.
But O’Rourke said that “the county did not grant a waiver and will not grant a waiver of any type.”
Commissioner Steve Radack said he felt the situation was a conflict of interest.
“Normally when you’re a client of somebody -- you really don’t want them doing things against you when they’re supposed to be working for you,” Radack said in a phone interview. “This case is very unusual. I’ve never seen lawyers come to a commissioners meeting. Normally, the action is taken inside a courtroom. I’ve never seen lawyers say, ‘Don’t sue us,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t sue us.’ “
Contact Mike Cronin at email@example.com or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
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