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Goodrich fills vacancy, halts mayor’s salary

GOODRICH -- An alderman position, salary for the mayor and the Christmas festival were main topics of discussion at June’s meeting of the Goodrich City Council.

With Carol Stephens in attendance, the council had the opportunity to ask what she envisioned for the future of the city. She was soon after approved for the vacant Position 4 seat.

“I am a part of the city now,” Stephens said. “I have been here now for a year from January. I am now a homeowner here. I think we are on the right track. I don’t want us to become a boomtown, but we need to pursue some other entities to get them into our city little steps at a time. I am a small-town girl. I am from Livingston. Goodrich has been a part of my life all of my life.”

The council now has all five (six including mayor) members. Stephens has experience on boards and councils, and has worked in real estate. The position was held by Kelly Nelson before she was elected mayor in May.

“We had talked about it in closed session previously with the attorney,” Nelson said. “She was the only one that was interested. We asked numerous people in the community.”

Council also discussed the cessation of pay for the mayor. A salary for the mayor’s position was approved two years ago, while Jeremy Harper filled that role. Nelson asked that the salary be eliminated.

“I cannot give the time that (former Mayor) Jeremy (Harper) gave,” Nelson said. “With my work, there is no way. I didn’t feel comfortable taking that money. I don’t deserve it. If I could devote the time that he did, then maybe. But I can’t.”

Also discussed was a date for the Christmas in Goodrich festival. Weather kept the festival from occurring last year. In 2015, a parade stretched the entirety of Loop 393, and the festival had food vendors and activities for those in attendance.

The date selected by council was Dec. 2. A budget of $5,000 — as was the year prior — was discussed as well.
“It is basically going to have to be that Saturday,” Nelson said. “The second (Saturday) is Livingston, the third is Trade Days, and the next is just two days before Christmas.”

Council hired Margarita Garcia to fill in while the city secretary is away. Garcia cleans the city hall building and helped with the previous election.

Local prosecutor named assistant U.S. Attorney

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LIVINGSTON -- Polk County Assistant District Attorney Tommy L. Coleman was sworn in as a Special Assistant United States Attorney on Thursday by U.S. Congressman Brian Babin (R-Woodville). Coleman, who will remain with the Polk County prosecutor’s officer, will now also be authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising in the Eastern District of Texas, which includes Polk County. [Read the full story on Sunday's edition (6.4.17) of the Enterprise.]

Coleman-Swear-in-1ADDITIONAL DUTIES — Polk County Assistant District Attorney Tommy L. Coleman (right) was sworn in Thursday as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney by U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (left). Coleman will remain with the local prosecutor’s office but will now have the added duty of prosecuting federal cases in the Eastern District of Texas.

Coleman-Swear-in-2District Attorney Tommy L. Coleman and U.S. Rep. Brian Babin with law enforcement officials from the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Livingston Police Department and Texas Highway Patrol.

LISD challenges UIL sanctions

Livingston Independent School District has requested that the University Interscholastic League rescind sanctions placed upon them in a March 22 meeting last year. The public reprimand and two-year probationary period were for rules related to submission of enrollment figures for reclassification and realignment.

Lion athletic teams were originally slated to move into District 10-4A Div. I for competition against Cleveland, Bridge City, Huffman Hargrave, Little Cypress-Mauriceville, Navasota and Silsbee in football. In basketball, a district of Lufkin Hudson, Jasper, Diboll and Huntington would have competed with the Lions.

In February, an appeals committee placed Livingston in District 22-5A, as it exceeded the 1,100-student minimum when combined with Livingston Academy. Schools in the district included Baytown Lee, Beaumont Central, Beaumont Ozen, Lumberton, Nederland, Port Arthur Memorial, Port Neches-Groves and Vidor.

The district’s alternative school, Livingston High School Academy seems to be at the center of the debate. At its largest point last year, the academy had 81 students enrolled, whereas there were 25 the year prior.

In October of 2015, Livingston board members changed the name of its alternative education school from “Challenger” to “Academy” for a more positive connotation. LISD superintendent Dr. Brent Hawkins said many of the kids in the academy are as much as two years and several credits behind. It provides an expansion in computer-based programs and the district assigned full-time teachers and a principal to help students.

According to documents obtained by the Enterprise, a letter from school district attorneys Karczewski and Bradshaw to the UIL claims that the “UIL failed to apply enrollment rules consistently to all school districts, rendering what appears to be, an arbitrary sanction.” They have requested that the UIL State Executive Committee (SEC) publicly rescind Livingston’s sanction of two years’ probation and provide clarification regarding the procedure to report students participating in alternative education for future enrollment reporting.”

The 89-page document cites 30 other school districts that had similar discrepancies in reporting 2016-2018 alignment data. Of the 30 school districts, 10 had more than the 81-student difference of Livingston, and districts such as Waco (458) and Bryan (316) were at the high end of the list.

Livingston’s reporting for an alternative education accountability campus in 2016 was its first year doing so and the district claims that it “understood ‘school’ and ‘resident students’ to mean students affiliated with each TEA campus number. Because the district’s (alternative education accountability or AEA) campus, Livingston Academy, does not participate in UIL activities, has a separate campus number assigned by TEA, and is not listed in the UIL portal, Livingston ISD did not report Academy student enrollment to UIL for realignment purposes. Once notified by UIL that it should have included an AEA campus enrollment in the figures submitted for Livingston High School, the district immediately cooperated with UIL and revised enrollment data for the high school.”

The documents also highlight correspondence between the UIL and school districts of Bryan, Lufkin and Brazosport. Each also did not report its AEA campus numbers, yet each were not sanctioned. Lufkin would eventally win a soccer state title in 2015, while participating in 5A.

Goodrich mayor removed from office

LIVINGSTON -- In a 411th District Court ruling, visiting Judge David Wilson removed Goodrich Mayor Jeremy Harper office on Monday.

The case was filed by Earlene Williamson of Goodrich and stems from the 2016 city election.

“I think that the people of Goodrich deserve to have honest leadership,” Williamson said. “Maybe now they can have that. I don’t feel like our leaders should be able to break the law. It is a matter of doing the right thing for the citizens of Goodrich.

I hope that the city council will do what’s right and straighten out the problems that they have helped to create. The citizens deserve decent, law-abiding leadership.”

Harper, who had around six weeks remaining on his second term, will have his seat claimed by Kelly Nelson, the city’s mayor pro-tem.

Under Texas law, candidates cannot seek elected office if they have been convicted of a felony offense.

“The contested election issue that Ms. Williamson was suing on is pretty much done,” the ousted mayor said of the charges against the council. “There was no findings to remove the candidates and they will continue to hold office as they are.

“The felony that I had on my record caused the judge to remove me, because the state says you cannot have a felony on your record and hold office,” Harper said. “We could have put in an order of stay for a higher court and most likely won. What happened to me — if it would have happened in the state of Texas — would not constitute a felony. That was the argument that our attorneys were making. I was only going to be in office another six weeks and I didn’t want to spend the city’s money to take it to an appellate court. That didn’t make sense to me.”

Harper said the charges were from the state of Louisiana in the late 1990s. The charges in question included theft greater than $500 in Natchitoches Parish in June of 1999 and issuing a worthless check in Rapides Parish in December of 1994.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he continued. “I want to let people know that it just been an honor for me to serve the citizens of Goodrich as there only mayor for the past 14 years. Before four years ago, there wasn’t anyone serving as mayor for a while. I do plan on filing an expungement on my record. If I was aware it was on my record, I would have filed years ago.”

Defendants in the case included Harper and aldermen Billy Sikes, Bobby Wright, Nelson, Louis Hill and Mary Orozco.

Charges against the aldermen were all “dismissed because the claims upon which the proceedings in the nature of quo warranto do not challenge the qualifications of them to serve as aldermen for the City of Goodrich,” according to court documents acquired by the Enterprise.

In the 2016 election, the race for Goodrich City Council Position 5 saw Mary Orozco defeat Robert Earl Williamson, brother of Earlene Williamson, by a vote margin of 26 to 18. Incumbents Nelson and Wright, as well as newcomer Hill, ran unchallenged.

Earlene Williamson, who is also a former Goodrich City Council member, filed a suit contesting the city of Goodrich election, originally listing five complaints for her protests.

The complaints included a sitting city council member serving as an election official, only one election officer present for the City of Goodrich, a ballot box turned over on a table, one position on the ballot while other terms had ended, and Orozco announcing on victory on her Facebook page before the vote was canvassed.

Federal lawsuits filed in Church's Chicken collapse

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LIVINGSTON -- The Houston law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz have announced a new lawsuit stemming from an Aug. 1 incident last year when three women — Hugolina Guerrero de Garzon, Joselin Damian Gonzalez and Erica Acevedo — suffered life-threatening burns as a result of a floor collapse at Church’s Chicken in Livingston.

Texas attorneys Benny Agosto Jr. and Kelly Woods of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz are representing Garzon and Gonzalez.

The floor beneath the workers collapsed, causing deep fryers to fall on top of them, spilling hot oil over their bodies. Both plaintiffs were rushed by life-flight to the burn intensive care unit, where they remained for months.

In the past six months, Garzon, 34, with three children and a husband, and Gonzalez, 17, have undergone numerous surgeries and continue medical treatment daily, with extensive treatment expected in the future. To date, their current medical bills have exceeded $1 million dollars.

The lawsuit was filed in Harris County against Cajun Global, LLC, Cajun Operating Company, Store Capital Corporation, Store Capital Acquisitions, LLC, Store Master Funding VIII, LLC, Triangle Capital Properties, LLC, Royal Texas, LLC, The Vertex Companies, Inc., Mohammad Hadi Rahman, and Yesenia Zumaya — the owners, operators, managers and controllers of the Church’s Chicken.

The lawsuit alleges these companies failed to maintain a safe work environment for the workers, failed to properly inspect and maintain the premises and failed to remedy a known dangerous condition.

“This is the worst case I have ever seen, with absolutely horrifying life-long injuries,” Agosto said. “We filed suit shortly after this happened. We filed in Polk County, representing Joselin and Hugolina. Erica Acevedo is with another attorney and they are in federal court in Dallas County.”

After the suit was filed in Polk County last year, it was moved to federal court in Lufkin. The reasoning, Agosto said, was that his firm sued “foreign” companies (not in this state) and sued one Texas company. However, the Texas company is wholly owned by “foreign” members (out of state).

“Because it was so recent, I was still investigating who all would be defendants and all of the facts,” Agosto said.

“Sometimes when you file a lawsuit, you do it to gather facts. Because they were forcing my moves, I decided to voluntarily withdraw from that (original) lawsuit, which was approved by the federal judge. That allows me to restart once I’ve done my homework.

“We have reports from inspectors and different companies and figured out that there was a lot more defendants and a lot more facts,” Agosto said of filing a lawsuit for the second time. “There were general managers and store managers that were aware of what was going on prior to this incident occurring. Our new lawsuit has a lot more defendants and a lot more facts.

“There are nine defendants, but they are all interrelated. There is the national Church’s, which is owned by Cajun Global and then there is the Texas group that is owned by Store Capital. We put a lot of detail into the lawsuit. There are individuals in the lawsuit, including a company called Vertex, who did an inspection four months prior to the incident and said everything was great. Two others are a regional manager and owner, and a general manager. We had to restart this because we could not sue an engineering firm without a Certificate of Merit that the law requires us to get. We had to wait until that report was final so that we could comply with the law.”

Filed once more, the new venue will be Harris County. Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz is the firm is the oldest operating plaintiff firm in Texas. Augusto describes the firm as old-fashioned trial lawyers and is thankful for the opportunity to represent two of the women.

Each lawsuit is for $75 million dollars, which Agosto admits there is not an exact science for. However, it is based off medical bills, future expenses and lost wages, among many other factors. Acevedo’s attorneys asked for $50 million in their lawsuit.

“Because we have been doing this for so long, we know what these cases are worth,” Agosto said. “The life-care plan is done by a medical doctor, who is preparing a report for what their medical bills are going to be for these women for the rest of their lives. It is in the millions of dollars just for medical.

“To date, each one of the women have exceeded a $1 million and one is over $3 million. Hugolina has had over 14 surgeries and Joselin has had 10 surgeries. Treatment and bills in the future is also going to be in the millions. That doesn’t account for lost wages, earning capacity, impairment, scarring, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and all of the things that they are entitled to. When we come up with these numbers, we come up with what we call hard numbers and then we have to add to that non-economic factors, which are intangibles.”

According to the attorney, 90 percent of Garzon’s body was burned and Gonzalez has had 70-75 percent burned.

“The scarring is permanent and all they are doing is taking the little bit of skin that they have left to do skin grafts,” he said. “The skin was burnt so severely because the hot oil was 300-400 degrees.”

When the collapse occurred, all three women fell into a hole that was about three feet deep, according to Agosto. They fell onto a subfloor when the fryers then tumbled on top of them.

“Erica and Joselyn were able to crawl themselves out, but Hugolina was trapped by the fryer and a cooler that fell on top of her. She stayed in there until one of the customers goes in and pulls things off of her and they were able to pull her out.

“The ambulance arrived relatively quickly, but (the women) were in there for minutes and we have 9-1-1 calls where you hear the women in pain and crying. You can hear the fear in the caller asking for people to come help. This was a horrific, devastating moment for these women. They have a great attitude, because they go to the Catholic church there in town, but their spirits are sometimes up and sometimes down. Physically, they will never be the same.”

Cajun Global is the third largest fast food company in the country behind McDonald’s and Burger King. Church’s was founded in San Antonio in 1952. Members that own Cajun Global mostly reside in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

After remaining in the hospital for six months the women are now being given both physical and emotional therapy, Agosto said. They are also undergoing follow-up surgeries because when the skin heals, it does not do so perfectly. There are portions of the skin that are tight and cannot move. None of the injuries are thought to be life-threatening and have been stabilized. Unless something unforeseen — such as infection — takes place, they will be healthy enough to survive.

However, Agosto said with the third and fourth-degree burns over the body, it could impact internal organs in the future.

“It is still going to be ongoing for several months. They are trying to get back to the best they can, because ‘normal’ is not the word. That’s why these cases are as large in magnitude that we are suing for. It’s not because we think a lot of money needs to be paid for what happened. If we do not come after these defendants hard now, we can’t come back years later and say they need more help. It all has to be done at the lawsuit now. That is why we hire life-care planners and economic experts, because now is the time that we have to prove it.”

03-24-churchs-lawsuitPRESS CONFERENCE — Attorney Benny Agosto Jr. (right) answers questions about the federal lawsuit filed in connection with the Aug. 1, 2016 incident at Church’s Chicken in Livingston that left three employees badly burned. Once of the victims, Hugolina Guerroro de Garzon (center) is pictured with her husband.

Tribe given support during Austin event

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AUSTIN -- Hundreds of community members from the Polk County area packed five charter buses and traveled to Austin on Wednesday to show their support of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe during their special event on the south lawn of the State Capitol.

The tribe was honored as the state approved a resolution for Alabama-Coushatta Day at the Capitol, presented by State Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and State Representative James White (R-Hillister). The event was a major milestone in the tribe’s public campaign to raise awareness of their community and economy during an ongoing legal battle with the state over Naskila Entertainment.

The large crowd from Polk County arrived as the Alabama-Coushatta Color Guard and Tribal Dancers kicked-off the event on the south lawn with their Grand Entry and dance performances, which also began to draw in the locals from downtown Austin.

Tribal council members and representatives welcomed the crowd, which included state house and senate members, and thanked them for their support. Local officials from Polk and Tyler County were also in attendance to speak and show their ongoing support.

Visitors were all invited to learn about the Alabama-Coushatta’s history, community and how to support its efforts to keep the Naskila gaming facility open. Tribal leaders told legislators that Naskila has served as a much-needed economic boost for the tribal community during its first year of operation.

Informational and cultural displays were set up for visitors to learn more about the tribe, while a free barbecue lunch was served to all in attendance. Free shirts and promotional items were also given away to visitors.

Sen. Nichols later visited for a short time to address the crowd and acknowledged the importance of the event for the tribe’s popularity among state officials in Austin.

“I can guarantee that every house member and senate member and their staff knows about the tribe now,” Nichols told the Enterprise. “It’s a great way for the tribe to introduce themselves to everybody because they have unique issues that are important...Things like today with having such a large presence at the Capitol is very meaningful because a lot of members did not even know we had the tribe in East Texas. This opens it up.”

Rep. White also came to speak and openly expressed his ongoing support for the tribe’s Naskila campaign.

“I’m so proud of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and I’m honored to represent them,” said White. “What this does today is shows their contribution to the state of Texas and we need to lift them up. I think with all the court scenarios going on right now, they are being treated very badly. This shows that they contribute and they have doing it for a long time.”

Court proceedings on the Naskila gaming facility are expected to start by mid-2017. For more information and updates on the Support Naskila campaign, visit supportnaskila.com.

IMG 2987A large group forms on the south lawn of the State Capitol Building as the Alabama-Coushatta Color Guard and Tribal Dancers lead the Grand Entry to kick-off a special event, raising awareness of the tribal community during an ongoing legal battle with the state over Naskila Entertainment. The event was part of an approved resolution, sponsored by State Senator Robert Nichols and State Representative James White.

Alabama-Coushatta-at-the-Capitol-2An Austin local enjoys a game of catch with a Tiny Tot tribal dancer during the Alabama-Coushatta’s special event by the State Capitol.

IMG 3116Tribal Chief Colabe III Clem Sylestine, State Senator Robert Nichols and State Representive James White stand with the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Princesses in front of the State Capitol Building.

IMG 3159The Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Dancers and Princesses stand in front of the Capitol after the tribe’s special event in Austin.

IMG 3046A free barbeque lunch, catered by Pok-E-Jo’s Smokehouse, was served to all visitors of the Alabama-Coushatta Day at the Capitol on Wednesday.

IMG 3072(Pictured on left) Rep. James White is thanked for his ongoing support of the tribe and receives an Alabama-Coushatta emblem patch.

IMG 3091Free promotional items were also given away to visitors of the Alabama-Coushatta Day at the Capitol on Wednesday.

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