Houston furniture magnate Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale has filed a lawsuit against the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office accusing it of refusing to turn over public records related to the November 2022 election, adding to an array of GOP litigation aimed at the county’s elections process.
According to the petition filed Monday night, Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant and former TV journalist, submitted multiple requests for public information on behalf of the Gallery Furniture owner, who was a major donor supporting Republican candidates including County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s opponent Alexandra del Moral Mealer.
In response to each of the requests for public information, the elections office responded by seeking an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office allowing it to withhold the information due to ongoing litigation, the lawsuit states.
The petition also acknowledges the county has provided some of the requested documents.
In a statement Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee’s office said: “The requests for these documents were handled the same as any other requests for documents related to ongoing litigation against the county. We’re evaluating the lawsuit and will let the courts sort it out.”
The Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office also issued a statement, saying it readily has responded to requests that do not require documents subject to the litigation, and has sought an opinion from the attorney general’s office on those that do.
“According to the Public Information Act, the attorney general’s office has 45 working days from the day after the request to respond. As of today, the office has not received an opinion on how to proceed with these particular public information requests. Any suggestion that the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office lacks transparency is false,” it said.
The lawsuit is an example of why the Texas Legislature should repeal the “litigation exception” provision in state law that offers public offices an option to withhold records during litigation, said Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney who works with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“There is no justification for denying the public information about a controversy just because it involves litigation,” Aleshire said. “In fact, when something controversial enough happens to be the subject of a lawsuit, that is exactly when the public most needs to know what the record shows. Yet, the way the (Texas Public Information Act) is written, no one — except those involved in the underlying lawsuit — can get access to the public information.”
The “litigation exception” typically is upheld by courts, so McIngvale’s lawsuit is unlikely to produce the requested records, he said.
However, state law does not prevent the county from providing the records, but rather gives the county discretion to decide.
“It does not make the records ‘confidential’ (where it would be illegal to disclose the information); it just means the government is not required to disclose the information,” Aleshire said. “But they could if they are willing to do so.”
So if I understand this correctly, the Elections Office could provide these documents on demand, but legally they don’t have to until they get an opinion on it from the AG’s office. That may be a bad feature of the law as it now exists, but it is the law and a district court is highly unlikely to deviate from the normal course of behavior. Which makes this entire spectacle little more than a plea for attention and a waste of everyone’s time. Have I got that right? The Press has more.