July 12, 2006
Earle sues over DeLay investigation information request

Travis County DA Ronnie Earle wants to keep some of the details about his investigation of Tom DeLay a secret.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle doesn't want to release details about his investigation of former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay - specifically, how he's been spending taxpayer money to bring money-laundering charges against DeLay.

Earle is suing the state attorney general to keep the information private.

In March, before DeLay resigned from Congress, the Houston Chronicle filed a request under Texas' open records law for vouchers, hotel and airfare receipts, plus budget documents, memos and e-mails describing the expenses for the DeLay inquiry and related investigations.

Earle appealed to Attorney General Greg Abbott, arguing that releasing the information could compromise the prosecution.

The state's lawyer, who reviewed examples of the information, generally ruled that Earle didn't have to disclose secret information related to grand jury investigations but noted that the public records law requires disclosure of "information in an account, voucher, or contract" relating to the expenditure of public monies.

Earle sued last week to overturn that opinion.

"The first obligation of law enforcement is the protection of the public," Earle said in a statement Monday. "This opinion makes that job harder."

Earle complained that releasing such documents would reveal information about investigations or prosecutions before a suspect or defendant could legally access it.

"Such premature revealing of often sensitive and sometimes life-threatening information could adversely effect public safety," Earle wrote.


Austin lawyer David H. Donaldson Jr., a First Amendment specialist, said state law anticipates such a conflict between the public's need to know what officials are spending and the protection of criminal investigations. He said it's the attorney general's role under the law to act as a referee and decide what, if anything, can be released.

Donaldson said prosecutors might keep secret specific vouchers that would reveal the identity or location of an informant, but prosecutors should release documents showing how they are spending the public's money.

"I think the Public Information Act contemplates the public having a general sense of how much is being spent on a particular criminal investigation," Donaldson said.

Rick Casey gives some background on this today. I can understand Earle's concern, but in this case I think it's misguided. Unless I'm really missing something here, this sounds like a legitimate public interest request, and I believe Earle should comply with it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 12, 2006 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

Earle is prudent in being cautious because the Chronic is capable of sowing discord for its own gain under the guise of the public's right to know. Consider for instance the main source of the Chronic's income is not from the public, and the fact that the public cannot invoke public records laws to look into the Chronic's business ledger.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on July 12, 2006 10:46 AM

Yes, he should comply with it once his investigation has been completed. The public has a right to this information, but Earle also is within his rights to withhold the information until he is done.

Journalists hate it when anyone doesn't give them what they want, and so they are spinning up this non-story.

Posted by: Jeb on July 12, 2006 10:46 AM