Like a Dog in the Dirt

In 1992 Earl Travis was a former city employee who testified for the defense in a discrimination suit against the City of Houston. The city won. A week later Travis accepted the city's job offer and a hefty raise, becoming a top administrator in Houston's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Last week Travis testified for the city again, this time in a whistle-blower suit brought by Rafael Licon, a former dogcatcher with the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Control (BARC), of which Travis was top dog at the time. This time the jury gave the plaintiff $56,000 in lost and compensatory wages and $50,000 in exemplary damages. There was no word at press time on any impending promotions on the horizon for Travis, who is now deputy director of the Health Department.

The suit, which Licon filed after being fired from the department in 1994, is the latest in a lengthening line of blows to BARC, which operates under the city's Health Department. In September 1998 the department made news after it euthanized a Kingwood family's two pedigreed golden retrievers without proper permission. BARC characterized the mistake as a communications breakdown. Later that month videotapes surfaced on local television news showing BARC officers dragging dogs into trucks by their necks. In December 1998 Councilman Joe Roach called for an investigation of the department after animal control officers failed to respond to complaints about three loose rottweilers on the day before the dogs mauled a four-year-old boy.

None of which surprised Licon, an animal control officer for BARC from 1990 to 1994. In his four years as a dogcatcher, Licon says, he saw dogs suffocated in city trucks with faulty ventilation blowers. He saw cats dunked and held under in flea-dip solution. And according to Licon, who is Hispanic, the few Hispanic employees at BARC, and the Hispanic citizens in the neighborhoods that BARC serves, weren't treated much better. He says he was commonly accosted by co-workers -- a majority of whom are black -- with the greetings "wetback," "spick" and "fucking Mexican." One day he watched an elderly Hispanic woman in the Denver Harbor neighborhood cry in her yard over what Licon judged to be an unfair animal impoundment. That's when Licon decided to start howling with a letter campaign to city councilmembers, his state representative and then-mayor Bob Lanier.

Licon failed to get action through these channels, so he made an appointment to speak before City Council. Health Department-Council liaison Linda Layton intercepted him outside of Council chambers and allegedly offered to set up a meeting between Licon and Health Department director Mary deVignes Kendrick, if Licon would postpone his Council speech. Licon did, but that meeting never materialized. Shortly afterward, Licon was fired.

Last Thursday a jury in state District Judge Tad Halbach's court ruled that the city acted with malice in retaliating against Licon.

Health Department information officer Kathy Barton says Licon's attorneys sought more than $1 million in damages. She points out that the jury did not rule in Licon's favor on every question in the verdict. "I think the important ones, the discrimination on national origin, the hostile workplace, those were 'no' findings, and we're very pleased about that," Barton says.

Still, Licon's attorneys -- Mark Lazarz and Martin Shellist -- are pressing ahead with similar lawsuits filed by other former employees against the Health Department. "I want to get this department of health, reveal them for what they are. Because it is a just a travesty," Shellist says.

Licon, whose multiple sclerosis confined him to a wheelchair throughout the trial, was suffering from laryngitis the day after the verdict, and said only that he was happy with the jury's decision. As to whether it would lead to changes within BARC, he seemed to echo Barton's feelings, though perhaps for different reasons, when he said, simply, "I don't know."

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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