Hidalgo County goes to AG again over releasing courthouse docs

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Hidalgo County is again asking the Texas Attorney General for an opinion over whether it can withhold releasing documents related to the unfinished courthouse, the contractors tasked with building it, as well as additional contractors hired to uncover construction defects.

The county is further seeking to withhold documents pertaining to security threats made against the courthouse.

The Monitor has been attempting to obtain such records for months, since first reporting in early April that the county had discovered issues so significant it felt the need to hire an outside engineering firm to determine just how far the problems go.

The newspaper requested the findings of that inspection, which was conducted by Houston engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, or WJE.

The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

However, the county instead released a four-page summary of the inspection findings to local media two days before notifying the newspaper that it was seeking an attorney general opinion to withhold any additional information.

In that correspondence, dated July 21, and again on July 28, the county claimed that the information is excepted from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act for three primary reasons.

>> Concerns that releasing the courthouse’s building specifications, such as blueprints or technical drawings, could allow bad actors to take advantage of any potential security vulnerabilities.

>> The county expects, or may already be a party to, litigation involving the courthouse.

>> Disputes between the contractors and the county remain ongoing.

The Monitor used those exception claims to file an additional request for information.

The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

For instance, the county cited threats that have been made against the courthouse to justify its first claim for withholding records. But the county did not elaborate about when those security concerns surfaced, nor whether they involve the new courthouse or the one currently in operation.

The Monitor requested documents, including law enforcement records, of any “attempted incidents” that the county had referred to in its July correspondence.

At least one such incident has already made it into the public sphere.

In August 2021, Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra reported shots had been fired at the new courthouse.

“Deputies were called to the new courthouse after being advised by a construction worker that over 10 bullets struck and damaged windows and the walls on the east side of the building,” Guerra posted on X (then Twitter) on Aug. 17, 2021.

At the time, Guerra said the investigation was ongoing.

A visitor walks along a path near the new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

And it — or other similar incidents — may continue to be unresolved, according to the county’s latest correspondence, a seven-page letter dated Aug. 22.

“The County asserts that it may withhold the information … as its release would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation/prosecution by the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office,” the letter stated.

The county further states that other law enforcement records related to the courthouse are exempt from disclosure due to a part of the statute that allows information to be withheld if a matter does not end with a successful prosecution.

Also, Hidalgo County makes several assertions stating that records over the courthouse may be withheld due to myriad legal justifications.

Aside from its previously stated reasons that documents between the county and Morganti Inc. — the company that previously served as construction manager on the project — may be used in “reasonably anticipated litigation,” the county is now also stating that information about the attorneys it may use in that litigation should also be withheld.

That includes the engagement letter with such a law firm, which would outline the terms under which the firm was hired, as well as the scope of work the county expects it to perform.

A courtroom is shown during a tour of the new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Last month, the county announced that Morganti had stopped working on the courthouse at all.

Since then, however, Hidalgo County has engaged Jacobs Engineering — the firm it first hired in 2018 to head the courthouse construction — to again take over the project, as well as its legal issues.

“Jacobs is prepared to add staff… to support the work in the event Morganti leaves the project for any reason…” the company told Hidalgo County officials in an Aug. 3 letter prior to the announcement that Morganti had abandoned the construction project.

“Jacobs is also prepared to offer Litigation and Claims Support, as a Separate Scope of added service…” the engineering firm further stated.

During an Aug. 8 meeting, county commissioners approved Jacobs’ new scope of work at a rate of $100,000 per month.