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More questions than answers

Town Hall leaves citizens without explanations as Sheriff , DA noticeably absent

By Dawn Burleigh

The Orange Leader

A Town Hall meeting, scheduled since Feb. 14, left citizens with unanswered questions concerning the Robert Montano case.

While Orange County Commissioners Court was in attendance for the over 50 residents present, the ones with the answers did not attend.

Orange County District Attorney John Kimbrough and Sheriff Keith Merritt released a statement on Monday stating lawyer/client privilege and the risk of violating Texas Open Meetings Act by ‘disclosing the confidential discussions that were held in a closed meeting, which would violate the law.’

Upon learning of the statement, County Judge Stephen ‘Brint’ Carlton sent a statement by email, “I am disappointed the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office have refused to discuss public information with the public.  As public officials, we have a duty to be open, honest, transparent, and accountable to the people.  I will not hide behind future litigation in an unrelated case in an effort to avoid discussing glaring and deadly mistakes in completed litigation.  I will still live up to my obligation as an elected official and attend the Town Hall this evening to answer as many questions as I can for as long as it takes.  The public has a right to hear from us about this catastrophic outcome.”

A ruling issued in November 2016 by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans was not favorable of Orange County according to Carlton.

“It was disturbing,” Carlton said. “It did not look good for Orange County.”

Montano, 41, of Orangefield, was arrested on Oct. 7, 2011 by Orange County deputies for public intoxication. He was reportedly under the influence of bath salts according to a previously published Orange Leader article.

Montano was placed in a medical observation cell for five days until his death, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states Montano, who was a known mental health patient, did not receive ‘basic human needs’ consisting of medical and mental health care, food or water during his incarceration.

According to the appeal, Jail personnel failed to prepare a required suicide-risk form for Montano, a repeat omission of which the jail had been made aware just four months earlier when a random inspection by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards noted missing suicide screening assessments, separate from the earlier-referenced required database query for mental-health records. Two jail employees were later disciplined for failing to complete Montana’s screening. While the county’s health services plan required written observations of suicide-risk detainees every 15 minutes, the county admits written observations of Montano were recorded only a proximately every 30 minutes.

While two employees were disciplined, none were terminated in connection with this case.

“This is $3.5 million of your hard earned money,” Carlton said during the meeting on Monday night. “We want to explain why we are not pursuing it and paying the settlement and what the court is doing to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Carlton said the decision from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was the ‘absolute worse outcome’.

“This allowed us to hear what the jury heard,” Carlton said. “Employees changing statements and not following guidelines.”

The $3.175 million awarded to the Montano family was from contingency funds.

“It was 41 percent of the balance,” Carlton said. “In 2015, shortly after taking office, I discovered we did not have insurance. The purpose of the insurance to protect the taxpayers.”

The county has not had lawsuit insurance as far back as 1996, according to Carlton.

While Carlton does not see the need to review ever case with a Town Hall meeting, he felt one was necessary after five and half years of the public being told no comment due to on going litigations.

“The litigation is over now,” Carlton said. “We have to regain the trust.”

The county is involved in another lawsuit which will not be covered by lawsuit insurance.

A second case was filed in January 2015, and the lawsuit insurance was acquired in the summer of 2015.

The case was referred to in the joint statement released by Orange County District Attorney John Kimbrough and Sheriff Keith Merritt, “In addition, we do not believe it is in the best interest of the county to publicly address past or present legal strategies given the fact that the county is currently defending other claims of a similar nature against the jail. Statements that are made by county officials or employees may be taken out of context and used in a way that is detrimental to Orange County.”