The verdict is in.

The state attorney general’s office on May 4 issued an opinion in favor of Henderson County Auditor Ann Marie Lee. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says Lee did nothing wrong in hiring a Tyler law firm to process open records requests in 2006.

Last year, the county auditor’s office received requests for a number of large documents. Lee said one request she received was for 12 months’ worth of e-mails from the county’s server, totaling about 129,000 communications.

In July 2006, Lee hired the firm Hardy and Atherton to determine which requests had to be legally fulfilled.

“At the time, I was trying to maintain my position in the office,” Lee said Tuesday. “There was a lot of turmoil.”

She said she received consent from the judges of the 3rd, 173rd and 392nd District Courts to hire the firm on July 27, 2006.

Abbott’s opinion was addressed to Henderson County Attorney James Owen, in response to a letter Owen had written on Nov. 1, 2006.

In the letter, Owen asked whether district judges could authorize a county auditor to hire legal counsel to perform the duties of the county attorney without the consent of the county attorney or the county commissioners. He also asked if the judges could appropriate county funds outside the normal budget to pay for the services.

Owen said Tuesday he had written the letter to Abbott on the county commissioners’ behalf. He said a county commissioner asked an assistant attorney general at a seminar held last year whether they should hire an attorney to handle open records requests.

“One of our commissioners had been told at the seminar that they shouldn’t hire an attorney,” Owen said. “What I told them is that they shouldn’t base their decision on an off-the-cuff response.”

The summary of Abbott’s opinion read in part, “The County Attorney of Henderson County has no exclusive duty to represent Henderson County in all civil legal matters. Thus, the County Auditor’s retention of outside legal counsel did not improperly impinge on an exclusive duty of the County Attorney.”

The summary further stated that the question of whether claims for legal fees were lawfully incurred “requires an examination of facts and circumstances that the opinion process cannot address.”

Owen said Tuesday, “I think that offers clarification. I think that it was helpful.”

Lee said, “I’m pleased that (the attorney general’s office) supported my decision.” She added that she respected Owen’s concerns.

Lee said that, to date, no one has visited her office to pick up the large documents requested in 2006.

She said it would be difficult to calculate what it had cost to gather and print the documents.

“Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said. “It’s been overwhelming.”

The county commissioners approved a payment of more than $6,200 in attorney fees to Hardy and Atherton in 2006. Later, in a commissioners court meeting on Nov. 15, 2006, Owen questioned the legality of the county paying the fees.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney said at the meeting he did not see a problem with the county paying the fees.

He compared it to other bills the county had paid for private attorneys.

Owen responded that the situation with Hardy and Atherton was different because the firm had been hired to carry out a task Owen was required by statute to perform.

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e-mail dgordon@athensreview.com

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