Kemah Seeks Removal of Top Law Firm Amidst Legal Battles, Mayoral Controversies

In the latest legal controversy swirling around a tiny tourist town southeast of Houston, Kemah’s city council members are seeking to boot a well-known law firm that has represented the municipality in multiple lawsuits and legal issues.

In a specially called meeting Tuesday night, the council will hold a closed executive session to discuss terminating legal representation provided by firm Lewis Brisbois, including in a “city hall investigation,” and to “end the City’s relationship with same law firm, taking any and all steps necessary to achieve this result.”

The posted agenda also states the City will consider asking the Texas Municipal League to reassign special counsel for cases currently defended by the group on behalf of Kemah.

Lewis Brisbois attorney Bill Helfand, has represented Kemah in legal disputes for decades, most recently with attorney Justin Pfeiffer on a federal lawsuit alleging the City engaged in violations of the Takings, Due Process, and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. and Texas Constitutions.

In T&W Holding Company v. City of Kemah, owners of a property housing a local bar, food truck, and residential units, accused city officials of creating pretenses to revoke previously approved permits and illegally towing the food truck. Only after the owners threatened the towing company with a lawsuit did they return the truck a year later, but without the permits, most of the property has remained closed for business.

During discovery for the lawsuit, under Helfand’s guidance, the City twice turned over a trove of documents only to later seek to “claw back” four of them, including communications between Mayor Carl Joiner and former building code administrator Brandon Shoaf. In his request to pull back the documents, Helfand told the plaintiff’s attorneys he had gone “thirty-five years without a mistake.”

Although Helfand’s request for a claw back claimed the documents had been inadvertently released and are protected under attorney-client privilege, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison rejected the claim, noting that the submissions included a detailed index and that one of the disputed documents had been submitted to the court twice.

The plaintiff’s attorneys also accused Helfand of making false statements to the court and have submitted pending requests for sanctions against the well-known attorney.

Requests for sanctions are common in litigation but rarely imposed. In a previous case, Tollet v. The City of Kemah, Helfand and the City drew sanctions from U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt for allegedly attempting to hide records until they were threatened with a criminal investigation.

Writing that both the City and Helfand’s conduct had “been vexatious and committed in bad faith,” Hoyt ordered joint sanctions of $50,000, although the amount was later sharply reduced by the appeals court.

In relation to the T&W Holding lawsuit, although Shoaf resigned from the City earlier this year, he is a witness in the case and Helfand is also representing him individually at the expense of Kemah.

In 2021, Lewis Brisbois was tasked with an investigation into Kemah Police Chief Holland Jones, and later delivered a report to the city council in an executive session. After the City sought to block a Public Information Act request for the report, the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG) ruled that it must be released. Instead, Helfand filed a still-pending lawsuit against the OAG in an attempt to keep the report out of the public eye.

In the summer of 2021, the city council also voted to hire Lewis Brisbois to examine circumstances around a contract for a renovation and expansion of City Hall. Under Joiner’s oversight, the costs for the project more than doubled by the time of completion in 2019, and design defects allegedly led to flooding and mold issues. Although the firm provided a report to the council, it also has not been released to the public.

Helfand is best known for his part in defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against a still-pending whistleblower lawsuit.

In October, Kemah City Council unanimously voted to file a criminal complaint against Joiner and request investigations from the Galveston County district attorney, the Texas Rangers, the OAG, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Weeks later, the council again met in a special meeting, and after an executive session lasting more than two hours, voted to terminate the city’s relationship with the Gregg & Gregg law firm and replace long-time city attorney Dick Gregg III.

Complicating the city’s legal issues, in a sworn deposition for the T&W Holding lawsuit, Joiner stated that he did not play a role in building permitting nor give directives regarding code enforcement. But evidence indicates the mayor may have been directly involved in permitting for at least three different properties, including that owned by T&W Holding.

In relation to one of those properties, attorneys for owner Veronica Crow have sent the city a demand letter outlining a timeline of events. This includes Shoaf’s instructions to add and then remove dirt, and then telling her she must resubmit her permit application. During her negotiations with the city, Crow began recording her meetings with Shoaf and Joiner, including one in which Joiner, an architect, allegedly offered to re-design her property and erroneously told her she could not build two cottages on the lot.

Crow’s itemized demands now top $600,000, and although Gregg acknowledged receipt, the City has not formally responded.

Kemah’s legal controversies extend beyond Joiner to previous mayors. In an affidavit for the T&W Holding lawsuit, former Mayor Terri Gale alleges that city officials gave a confidential file on the T&W Holding property to former mayor Matt Wiggins, after which City Administrator Walter Gant and Shoaf began targeting that property to block permitting for operations and building.

Joiner served as mayor from 2015 to 2019, when he was unseated by Gale, but recaptured the office in a contentious three-way race with Gale and Wiggins in 2021.

In April 2020, Gale filed a criminal complaint with the Galveston County district attorney’s office regarding missing files when she took office, but no action has been taken.

Wiggins has also been indicted on felony charges of Abuse of Official Capacity while serving as president of the Galveston Water Control District, with a jury trial scheduled for December 12, 2022.

Under Helfand, Kemah is seeking to have the T&W Holding lawsuit dismissed. Even if that was granted, the federal court could consider the request for sanctions separately, or the request could go to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Update: After an executive session, Kemah City Council took no action on the proposal to replace Lewis Brisbois in pending litigation.