Suit alleges Galveston leaders allowed early re-entry to influential residents

Marilyn Tennissen Sep. 23, 2008, 5:37am

City leaders in Galveston are faced with the enormous task of bringing their city back to life after Hurricane Ike. Now they are also faced with a lawsuit by a local attorney that accuses officials of allowing affluent and influential residents to pass through roadblocks and reenter the city, while denying entry to others.

On Sept. 19, only six days after Ike made landfall near the western end of Galveston Island, attorney Anthony Griffin filed suit in the Southern District of Texas-Houston Division against the city of Galveston, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas and City Manager Steven LeBlanc.

Griffin named himself, and other similarly situated, as plaintiffs.

He claims the defendants' actions "deprive plaintiff of his property interest, due process of law and equal protection under the law," the 27-page original complaint states.

Griffin, a civil rights attorney once named Citizen of the Year for the Galveston Black Heritage Festival, claims he witnessed "prominent Galvstonians being escorted onto the island by police escort" while he was turned away for not being among the personnel considered essential to recovery.

He argues that the reentry policy was inconsistent, and that keeping him out has caused harm to his law practice.

"The laws should be applied in a rational manner," Griffin writes. "The law should not be applied to reward one's friends, or to enable and empower the majority or the favored."

Ike pummeled the island city at around 2 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, with hurricane force winds and a storm surge that inundated homes and businesses with 5 to 10 feet of water. Following the storm, streets were littered with debris and the city was left without electricity, gas, running water, sewage service, fuel or medical care.

Ahead of the storm, Mayor Thomas issued a mandatory evacuation, which was heeded by around 60 percent of Galveston's 57,000 residents. Griffin says he was one of those residents, evacuating to Houston on Sept. 12.

When the storm passed, Galveston officials announced that no one would be allowed back on the island, with the exception of essential emergency personnel, the complaint states. But Griffin claims he soon discovered that some Galveston residents were getting past the roadblocks.

"Plaintiff began to learn that the city was allowing others outside the designated list to return to check on their properties and begin work," Griffin writes.

Griffin said he attempted reentry on Sept. 13, but was turned away. He attempted again on Sept. 16, but an officer said he was "under strict order only to allow emergency personnel on the island."

"Plaintiff inquired as to why contractors not associated with the city were being allowed entry, but not home owners or small business owners, and why those with influence were being admitted," the complaint states.

Later that day the city enacted a "look and leave" policy to give anxious residents an opportunity to assess their damage between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Griffin writes that he made it into Galveston and determined that his properties were intact but needed immediate repair. In the suit, Griffin says he was told he could return the next day and planned to come back with construction and cleaning supplies.

While in the city, Griffin claims he saw at least 50 private contractors doing work at the American National Life Insurance Company, which was founded in Galveston in 1905 by W.L. Moody Jr., as well at a bank on Market Street and at other downtown commercial locations.

The next day, Griffin says he waited in line for four hours to be allowed back into the city, only to learn the "look and leave" policy had been terminated without any official explanation.

According to media reports, the "look and leave" policy only created a chaotic situation, as vehicles lined more than 10 miles of Interstate 45 out of Houston and the city became overwhelmed with returning evacuees.

As he waited in line, Griffin claims he saw prominent citizens and multiple contractors being allowed access.

Griffin alleges that his exclusion was an intentional retaliation for the numerous lawsuits he has brought against the city of Galveston during his 30 years of legal practice on the island.

According to the suit, "when plaintiff approached the stop point, the officer informed plaintiff that he knew who plaintiff was and that under no circumstances would he be allowed on the island."

He contends that he saw or heard that the lawyer for the Moody businesses, a funeral home director, a gift shop owner, restaurant owners, hotel operators, several church ministers and even a hairdresser were allowed entry, even though none met the criteria of "essential emergency personnel."

Griffin asks the court for a temporary restraining order to allow him, and others similarly situated, "to enter the island under court order to retrieve their personal and business papers and allow some provisions for protecting their personal and business properties."

He claims that by being kept off the island, he is suffering immediate and irreparable harm. Griffin mentions that he has several legal cases approaching the end of the statute of limitations, a scheduled status conference, oral arguments before the court of appeals and an upcoming criminal trial he needs to prepare for.

"… to plaintiff, destitution, homelessness would be the immediate consequence of not being afforded the same privileges as the special list of Galvestonians that are being provided privileges outside the noted declaration," the suit states.

Griffin says he has no e-mail access, limited telephone numbers of clients, "spotty" cell phone service, no current mailing address and no ability to contact other counsel in pending litigations.

"Counsel has looked at office space in Houston, but does not have the materials necessary to complete any agreement (check book, banking numbers, routing numbers, etc.)," Griffin writes.

Griffin alleges that the city's reentry policy is a "pretext and a ruse" and not based on concerns for the safety and health of the residents.

In addition to the claims that his rights have been violated, Griffin alleges that Mayor Thomas' decision to extend the disaster declaration was done without a vote by the city council in violation of Texas law.

Court assignment is pending.

The Galveston Daily News reports the city will open to residents on Sept. 24.

Case No. 4:08-cv-02801

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