The Santa Clara County Government Center, with trees and cars in a parking lot in the foreground
The Santa Clara County Government Center is pictured in this file photo. County leaders are working to improve public transparency when it comes to lawsuit settlements.

Santa Clara County leaders are still trying to lift the curtain on how taxpayer money is used to pay for lawsuit settlements on issues such as jail deaths.

The Board of Supervisors took action to publicize such settlements last year, but reports haven’t fully delivered. Now supervisors want to include even more details for the public. They voted last month to include a brief description of county-involved settlements exceeding $1 million, the basis of the claim and whether there was an admission of liability by the county. Discussions surrounding lawsuits filed against the county — and potential settlements — are not usually scrutinized in public.

“The board knows (what’s being discussed) because we’re in closed session, but in terms of the public knowing what’s going on, it sort of requires you to follow and find something buried in the consent calendar,” Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has spearheaded the push for more transparency, said at a June 18 meeting.

The county’s top attorney said additional details shouldn’t be a problem to make public.

“We would be happy to give a brief description,” County Counsel Tony Lopresti said at the meeting.

A 2023 report on the neglect of a jail inmate who was paralyzed for life — and whose settlement cost the county $7 million — prompted supervisors that year to request quarterly public reports on settlements of $1 million or more. The idea was to hold county leaders more accountable for payouts that aren’t typically open to public discussion and scrutiny — yet have cost the county $20 million over the last eight years.

But the county’s reports on these settlements have since been lumped in with the consent calendar at meetings — a section of the agenda for routine contracts that don’t always get discussed in public.

“We don’t really talk about what the basis for this claim is,” Simitian said.

He referred to the only case disclosed on the county’s most recent quarterly report, spanning January through March. The report contained no information beyond the names of the plaintiffs, Soheil Hejazi Shoar and Farzaneh Mohammadi, and the $2 million settlement amount the county agreed to in March.

Federal court records show the lawsuit concerned the in-custody death by suicide of 52-year-old jail inmate Vahid Hejazi Shoar in 2021. The family’s lawsuit said Vahid Shoar told jail workers he planned to kill himself once placed in his cell. The lawsuit doesn’t say why he was arrested, but said he had been arrested more than once and was on suicide watch on multiple occasions. A slew of situations had caused Shoar anguish — marital and family troubles, the loss of his food truck business, homelessness and the recent death of his father and uncle.

“He felt hopeless,” the lawsuit reads.

Shoar was arrested for the last time in December 2020, and was initially placed on suicide watch. But he was later discharged back to a single cell, alone, and was not directly supervised or observed every 15 minutes with cell checks, according to the lawsuit.

He died by suicide in January 2021 and the county didn’t tell his family until five days later. The lawsuit said prior to his death, Shoar pleaded to talk to his son but jail workers denied his requests.

“He never did get to talk to his son that day,” the lawsuit reads.

Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg agreed with Simitian that the reports on such cases should tell the public more. While county administrators said the county has never made an admission of liability in a settlement agreement, Ellenberg said that kind of detail should be included in the disclosures.

“I think it’s important from a public interest perspective,” Ellenberg said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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