*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office.
Harris County has responded to Ken Paxton’s request to drop its lawsuit against scandal-plagued Volkswagen. Its answer? A polite no.
Earlier this month, the Republican attorney general asked Harris and Fort Bend counties to halt their lawsuits over the automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its diesel vehicles to skirt emissions limits. Paxton, who has filed two lawsuits of his own, said he wanted to go it alone.
“The alleged violations by VW harm Texans throughout the state, and a separate Harris County lawsuit undermines the ability to achieve a comprehensive and just statewide resolution of this matter on behalf of Texas,” Paxton wrote in a letter to Vince Ryan, the Harris County attorney.
Paxton used similar language in a letter asking Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes Jr. to drop his litigation.
In a reply to Paxton dated Oct. 15, Ryan wrote, “we were pleased to learn that the Office of the Attorney General has joined Harris County” in the claims against Volkswagen. “We look forward to working together once again in connection with this important effort.”
In other words: No, thanks.
By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential damages on the table.
That's because under state law, when local governments file such suits, the state is required to join as a "necessary and indispensable party." In these types of cases, the counties and state split any money.
But the counties would not directly get a share of any damages in the suits Texas is leading.
Any civil penalties recovered in Paxton’s environmental lawsuit would flow into the state’s general fund, while penalties from the consumer protection case will go to the Texas Supreme Court’s judicial fund for programs that provide legal services to poor people, said Cynthia Meyer, a spokeswoman for Paxton’s office. Any other “meaningful restitution” she added, would go directly to consumers duped by Volkswagen’s emissions software.
Ryan’s letter to Paxton noted that in 1998, Harris County, along with other counties, recovered about $2.2 billion from the tobacco industry through litigation — on top of the billions that the state recovered for itself.
Fort Bend, meanwhile, said it is still evaluating Paxton’s request and will “review alternatives with the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court.”
“We look forward to working with the Office of the Attorney General in our lawsuit to pursue VW and protect the interests of our citizens,” Randy Morse, the assistant county attorney, said in an email.
Asked for comment Monday, Paxton's office said its letter to Harris County speaks for itself.
"We look forward to taking input from the appropriate local governments as we lead the state’s lawsuits against Volkswagen," Meyer said in an email.
Volkswagen has stopped selling the cars and apologized and says it is cooperating with all authorities investigating its practices.