AUSTIN – Rather than comply with a decision from the state’s chief attorney, a Corpus Christi law firm sued the Texas Attorney General’s Office – a move aimed at keeping how much trial lawyers, including a sitting member of Congress, profited from a construction defect lawsuit filed by Hidalgo County under wraps.
The Snapka Law Firm, styled as plaintiff as “The Snakpa Law Firm As Special Counsel For Hidalgo County,” filed the petition for declaratory judgment on Dec. 23 in Travis County District Court.
Hidalgo County is not a named party in the lawsuit. Additionally, the scope of The Snapka Law Firm’s contract with Hidalgo County appears to be limited solely to representation of Hidalgo County with respect to a construction defect dispute and does not encompass representation of the county in open records litigation.
In October, The Record obtained a settlement agreement showing that Snapka Law issued a check for $685,992.81 to the county as settlement proceeds from the construction defect lawsuit. Missing from the records, however, was a breakdown of what the attorneys who represented the county were paid, including how much U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez made from the deal.
As previously reported, Gonzalez, a Democrat representing Texas’ 15th Congressional District, signed a modified contingency fee contract on Dec. 7, 2018, to represent Hidalgo County in a construction defect suit, entitling him to 25 percent of the attorney’s fees.
In addition to the Gonzalez and Snapka firms, Hidalgo County also retained the law firm of Felipe Garcia, the brother of then-Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia. Felipe Garcia’s firm was also entitled to 25 percent of the attorney’s fees, with the remaining 50 percent going to Snapka’s firm.
The House Ethics Manual clearly states members “are prohibited from engaging in professions that provide services involving a fiduciary relationship, including the practice of law.”
A spokesperson for Gonzalez previously told The Record that all of the work the congressman did on the case was performed before he took office in 2017.
Gonzalez was elected on Nov. 8, 2016. The original contract he signed with Hidalgo County was on Oct. 25, 2016.
Records show the Texas Comptroller’s Office never approved the 2016 contract, as was required by law, but that the law firms hired by the county proceeded with the lawsuit, which was filed on Dec. 28, 2016 – just days before Gonzalez took office.
The modified contingent fee contract between Hidalgo County and the three law firms hired by the county in the construction defect dispute include provisions requiring the law firms to keep “current and complete time and expense records” as well as requiring the law firms to provide Hidalgo County with a written statement showing the firms’ computation of the contingent fee paid to them. The contract further states that these records are public information subject to required public disclosure.
According to Snapka Law’s lawsuit against the AG’s Office, on Sept. 3, 2019, Hidalgo County received a request from Mark McCaig, a Houston attorney, seeking, among other things, time and expense records maintained by the county’s special counsel and the amounts paid to them.
The open records request prompted the county to turn to the AG’s Office, which on Nov. 20 found that the government code does not permit the entirety of an attorney fee bill to be withheld.
Hidalgo County had argued that the sought information consists of privileged attorney client information.
“You state these communications were intended to be confidential and have remained confidential,” the AG decision states. “However, upon review, we find the information has been shared with individuals you have not demonstrated are privileged parties.”
In its suit, Snapka Law is asking that the court nullify the portions of the decision requiring the release of information that it argues is protected by attorney client privilege.
The man who requested the information, McCaig, believes the public has a right to know exactly how much work Congressman Gonzalez actually put in and how much he profited.
“It is disappointing that the Snapka Law Firm has filed a lawsuit seeking to obstruct transparency and block the release of non-privileged records -- records that its contract with Hidalgo County clearly states are public information,” McCaig said.
“Congressman Gonzalez owes it to the public to immediately disclose how many hours he worked on the construction defect matter and how much he was paid by Hidalgo County for that work.”
Cause No. D-1-GN-19-0008845