Gregg County now is being sued by an East Mountain man who says it is withholding cellphone records relevant to a lawsuit filed against his hometown.
Meanwhile, East Mountain officials soon could be back in court after an attorney said the city failed to comply with public information requests that were part of the settlement of an earlier lawsuit.
And, according to what officials said at a council meeting this past week, the city's own attorney could be to blame for the lawsuit debacle in East Mountain.
They are the latest developments in a tussle that already has seen multiple lawsuits filed against the city, resignations of appointed and elected officials, allegations that East Mountain hiring violated the Texas Constitution — and that the situation has cost taxpayers dearly.
In the latest twist, attorney Andrew Korn filed motions Wednesday in Upshur County to overturn all orders of dismissal and reopen cases he had previously filed against the city of East Mountain pertaining to open records.
On Thursday, Korn electronically filed a petition with the Gregg County District Clerk's Office in which he is representing Ken Miller in a suit against the county.
In the Gregg County filing, the attorney said the county withheld cellphone records that would show a relationship between former East Mountain Police Chief Betty Davis and deputies and lieutenants within the Gregg County Sheriff's Office that resulted in Davis receiving special treatment from the sheriff's office, such as a failure to act on criminal complaints filed against her.
Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said Friday he had not been formally served with a lawsuit and could not respond to questions about it.
In the event of a lawsuit, however, he said all questions would be deferred to the county's attorney, Robert Davis of Tyler. Davis' office was closed Friday, and he could not immediately be reached.
Korn represented Miller, Gari Bellis and Lester Glover in lawsuits the men filed against East Mountain, most of which pertained to the city refusing to comply with requests for public information.
On March 13, the city collectively settled all of the lawsuits. According to terms of the settlement, Mayor Neal Coulter and Davis each were required to resign; the city was required to pay $58,000 to the plaintiffs and their attorney; and it was required to comply with the public information requests.
In the requests, the plaintiffs were seeking Davis' cellphone records; the city paid a portion of her phone bill, which made those records public under state law. The men also were seeking bank statements and other financial records, including copies of canceled checks.
Visiting Judge Paul Banner approved the settlement and ordered the cases collectively be dismissed; however, Banner noted during the hearing that should the city not comply with all terms, the cases could be reopened.
According to the motions Korn filed Wednesday in Upshur County, the city has continued not to produce all of the public records.
According to the motions, the city has:
Failed to produce full and correct copies of canceled checks from any of its bank accounts
Made improper redactions of telephone numbers from Davis' cellphone records, or has made redactions without the proof required to permit such redactions
Redacted telephone numbers that are known to the plaintiffs, "meaning that any claim to confidentiality of those numbers has been waived"
Produced a message log for Davis' cellphone, but only for a 90-day period and reformatted the carrier's message log "to avoid producing an entire category of information"
Failed to produce any text messages, pictures or video from Davis' cellphone numbers for any period of time.
City officials did not answer phone calls from the News-Journal on Wednesday or Thursday. Neither attorney Doug Ritcheson, who represented the city in its original court hearings, nor attorney Lance Vincent could immediately be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.
In the Gregg County lawsuit, Miller is seeking as much as $100,000, as well as a writ of mandamus from a judge that would require the county to release public information.
According to the lawsuit, part of the public information provided by East Mountain after its court hearings showed Davis was having an affair with Lt. Eddie Hope of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Gregg County Sheriff's Office.
The lawsuit claims that as a result of her relationship with Hope, Davis was given special treatment by deputies in the Gregg County division by "failing to meaningfully act on criminal complaints against former Chief Davis and former City of East Mountain Mayor Neal Coulter" and by "using the sheriff's law enforcement authority unequally against (Miller), whenever former Chief Davis asked or encouraged Gregg County deputies to do so."
According to the lawsuit, in January 2015, Miller delivered a written request to the sheriff's office for cellphone records, including those of Sgt. Antonio "Tony" Monsivais, whom Miller believed might have "aided or abetted any misconduct" by Davis or Hope.
On Jan. 28, 2015, Miller followed up about his public records request, and on Feb. 3, 2015, he delivered a written follow up inquiry to the sheriff's office.
A copy of Miller's inquiry, signed off on as being received Feb. 3, 2015, by the Gregg County Sheriff's Office is included with the lawsuit.
On March 3, 2015, Miller followed up by submitting a formal, typed public information request in which he sought the release of all phone call records for Coulter and Davis; all recordings for the sheriff's office, including dispatch, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 3 to 5, 2014, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. April 17, 2013, and noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 8, 2013; and the phone call logs for Monsivais for any of the aforementioned dates.
"Gregg County refused to file-stamp, initial, copy or otherwise confirm receipt of (Miller's) March 3, 2015, request for public information," the lawsuit states.
An accompanying video, which Miller shot with his cellphone on March 3, 2015, shows a deputy in the sheriff's office taking the public information request but refusing to file-stamp, initial and copy it for Miller after multiple requests from him.
On March 17, 2015, the sheriff's office responded that cellphone records for Monsivais are not maintained by the county.
According to other public information included with the lawsuit, the county confirmed that Monsivais receives a monthly cellphone allowance from the county, which he began receiving in 2013.
The sheriff's office said Monsivais was not employed there from June 20, 2014, through March 27, 2015.
The lawsuit states that because Monsivais received an allowance from the county, his cellphone records are public information.
The attorney general's office similarly ruled that Davis' cellphone records were public information because she received a stipend from East Mountain.
"Gregg County's response that it does not 'maintain' Deputy Tony Monsivais' cellphone records is not a legal excuse for failing to release these records. ... If preserving the cellphone data of its sheriff's deputies is too difficult for Gregg County, that is too bad for Gregg County because 'the State of Texas has chosen to pursue a policy of open government to serve the interests of the public, not the interests of bureaucratic expediency,' " the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks a judgment requiring the county to release the cellphone records.
City Council meeting
Public information presented this past week at an East Mountain City Council meeting detailed how the city spent down its general fund, then depleted its reserve fund, and now is relying on its water utility fund to pay for operations. Council members said Monday that the city has incurred a lot of expense because of the lawsuits that Miller, Glover and Bellis each filed.
The question on many minds in the community was: Instead of incurring a lawsuit and spending taxpayer money on it, why didn't the city just release the requested public information?
Former East Mountain Mayor Ronnie Hill had the opportunity to ask that question Monday.
The answer: The city's own attorney advised not to release the information and instead told officials to send anything related to Miller to him.
"We sent all that stuff to the attorneys ... Because our orders was anything to do with Ken Miller had to go through the attorneys," Councilman Lindley Huggins said Monday.
"Who gave you those orders, Lindley?" Hill asked.
Coulter, now a former mayor, hollered from the back of the audience "Lance Vincent," the city's attorney.
Huggins continued to explain that it was "the lawyers" who advised East Mountain officials that anything having to do with Miller should go through them.
Miller previously sued the city after, in 2013, the city refused to provide him with water service. Miller won that lawsuit in 2015 with a $145,000 settlement from the city. Vincent represented the city in that lawsuit.
After that lawsuit, Huggins said Monday, the attorneys advised that anything related to Miller should go through them.
"When all of this started we were told because of the previous lawsuit over the water meter (that) anything to do with Mr. Miller had to go through our attorneys," Huggins said.
"And the same attorney you had during the first lawsuit is the one who told you this," Hill responded. "And he just continues to send bills to the city."
Hill and his wife, Margaret, presented documents received through public records requests detailing city spending.
Hill told the public Monday that, so far, the city has paid about $12,000 to its attorneys, and the council didn't deny that.
More attorney bills also are expected to come, because more depositions have been taken since the city's last bills, officials said.