A former sergeant with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has sued the agency, arguing that he was improperly fired last year after reporting that state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, used her influence to halt investigations into a bar she and her husband partly owned.
However, Bill Miller — a consultant representing Huffman’s husband, Keith Lawyer — said Friday that Lawyer sold his interest in the bar in 2015, so there would have been no reason to interfere in an investigation that took place in 2017.
“He had a deferred payment, and that took him out of everything” related to the bar, Miller said.
The whistleblower lawsuit, filed Tuesday in state District Court in Travis County, claims Marcus Stokke was fired as the enforcement sergeant for 24 Northeast Texas counties after reporting Huffman’s “public corruption and obstruction of justice” to the FBI, federal prosecutors and TABC investigators.
The lawsuit also accused agency officials of giving in to pressure from Huffman by ordering Stokke to end investigations into alleged violations at Graham Central Station, a Longview bar that the petition said was at least partly owned by Huffman and Lawyer.
“(Stokke) was actually told to dismiss, and delete from the commission’s records … digital or paper documentation of the suspected violations” — including a report that alcohol was served to a customer who sexually assaulted a female customer in or near the bar, and the failure to notify regulators about 11 breaches of the peace, which typically refers to fights, at Graham Central Station, the lawsuit said.
Huffman denied the accusations.
“These claims are false and have no merit, and are not deserving of any further comment,” she said Friday.
Huffman is chairwoman of the powerful Senate State Affairs Committee and was recently named vice chairwoman of the newly created Select Committee on Violence in Schools.
The business interests of her husband include ownership or investments in several bars and nightclubs. According to Huffman’s 2017 personal financial statement filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, Lawyer also had a financial interest in the land that Graham Central Station, which appears to have closed, occupied in Longview.
That financial interest was listed because Lawyer had received a deferred payment from the 2015 sale of the bar, Miller said.
A spokesman for the TABC, which licenses bars under its duty to regulate the sale of alcohol, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Stokke is seeking at least $200,000 in damages and reinstatement of his job at the agency, where he had worked for 17 of his 21 years in law enforcement, according to the lawsuit. He also served as a police officer in Lufkin and Diboll from 1997 to 2001, state records show.
According to the lawsuit, Stokke reported the alleged effort to obstruct justice and falsify government documents to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which acts as an internal affairs division that investigates complaints against TABC personnel, in May 2017.
The lawsuit also said the reasons given for his firing on Oct. 31, 2017 — unlisted in the petition — “were false.”
Robert Goodman Jr., Stokke’s Dallas lawyer, told the American-Statesman that the agency accused Stokke of inadequate performance in several areas — allegations that were successfully challenged when Stokke was granted unemployment benefits on appeal after the Texas Workforce Commission originally denied his request, Goodman said.
“Mr. Stokke is a very experienced investigator,” the lawyer said.
Stokke also is seeking to reverse a “black mark” that the firing left on his record — a process before an administrative law judge that is still in the early stages, Goodman said.
The lawsuit also accused agency officials of retaliation by seeking to have Stokke’s peace officer commission canceled in November by reporting his firing as a dishonorable discharge to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which regulates the licensing of police officers.
According to the licensing agency, however, Stokke’s peace officer license remains in active status.
Running for re-election, Huffman easily defeated a challenger in the Republican primary and will face Democrat Rita Lucido, a family law lawyer, and Libertarian Lauren LaCount, former member of the Richwood City Council, in the November election.