Criss can't stop release of TWIA settlement information, OAG says

Marilyn Tennissen Nov. 22, 2010, 10:31am


AUSTIN - Galveston Judge Susan Criss cannot order the Texas Windstorm Association to withhold information about a $189 million lawsuit settlement or the attorneys' fees, the Texas attorney general's office ruled today.

In July, TWIA and more than 2,500 Galveston residents settled suits over certain damage claims from Hurricane Ike in 2008. Part of the settlement included undisclosed fees to at least 66 law firms and attorneys.

State Rep. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), who is co-chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee for TWIA, first requested information from TWIA. He expressed concerns about the finances of the settlement, how much was paid in attorneys' fees and the impact it could have on the state revenue if TWIA exceeded its reinsurance limits.

But Houston attorney Steve Mostyn, who represented many of the plaintiffs, said any information about the settlement or fees should remain confidential.

Mostyn requested and received from Judge Criss in September a temporary restraining order prohibiting the release of settlement information.

In the meantime, the Southeast Texas Record, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and three other entities requested the information from TWIA under the Public Information Act.

Today's ruling affirmed a 2009 determination by the Office of the Attorney General that TWIA is a governmental body subject to the Public Information Act.

" ... the Act does not allow a court to withhold from disclosure information that the Legislature has deemed to be expressly public," wrote James Morris, assistant attorney general, Open Records Division, on Nov. 22.

Mostyn had claimed the requested information would violate the policy holders' privacy, even though the requests specifically indicated they were not seeking "any confidential information relating to any individual or corporate policyholders."

Another attorney, Ken Lewis of Beaumont's Bush Lewis PLLC, argued to the OAG that his clients had signed confidentiality agreements upon settlement.

But the OAG ruled that "information is not confidential under the Act simply because a party anticipates or requests that the information be kept confidential."

The OAG also found that TWIA failed to follow proper procedure when it asked the attorney general's office to rule on the requests. It was required to submit the specific information that it wanted withheld, but never sent the OAG any more documents.

"Therefore, the information that TWIA failed to submit is presumed to be public ..." the OAG wrote.

Aside from Mostyn and Lewis, none of the other attorneys involved in the lawsuits submitted legal briefs arguing that the information be withheld.

The OAG did find that TWIA can withhold pre-mediation and mediation reports, but the "rest of the requested information must be released to the requestors, to the extent it is responsive to their respective requests."

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