DPS covers its tracks

The Texas Department of Public Safety is under heavy criticism for how it handled the search for the missing Democratic legislators last week, with allegations of harassment of the legislators’ families and misleading the Department of Homeland Security about Pete Laney’s plane. In response to the accusations, the DPS has announced that it has destroyed all records related to their actions last week.

“We can maintain intelligence information only if there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal activity and the information is relevant to that criminal activity,” an agency statement said.

“Any kind of intelligence information that we can maintain or disseminate must not be used in violation of the privacy and constitutional rights of individuals.”

The unsigned DPS statement said the Democratic walkout on May 12 was not a criminal investigation so the agency could not legally maintain the information. The order to destroy the documents came on May 15.

I’m just speechless. There’s no way you can spin this as protecting privacy because the people whose privacy would be affected by the investigation are the ones who are demanding it. This is a hamhanded coverup, as clumsy and bullheaded as torching a jewelry store to hide evidence of a burglary. I can’t imagine anything the DPS could have done that would have been less likely to make this issue go away.

Of course, they’re not the only ones who are stonewalling:

Congressional Democrats also raised questions May 14 about whether the DPS misused a federal Homeland Security Department agency in searching for former Speaker Pete Laney’s airplane the day of the walkout.

A DPS officer had called the Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center asking for help locating Laney’s aircraft.

The federal agency last Thursday put out a statement saying the DPS had mislead the interdiction service into believing it was searching for an aircraft that was missing and had possibly crashed.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has refused to release tapes of the telephone call from DPS.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram has a fuller story that names the person responsible for giving the order to destroy:

AUSTIN – One day before Democrats ended their boycott of the Texas House last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety ordered the destruction of all records and photos gathered in the search for them, documents obtained Tuesday show.

A one-sentence order sent by e-mail on the morning of May 14 was apparently carried out, a DPS spokesman said Tuesday. The revelation comes as federal authorities are investigating how a division of the federal Homeland Security Department was dragged into the hunt for the missing Democrats — at the request of the state police agency.

Addressed to “Captains,” the order said: “Any notes, correspondence, photos, etc. that were obtained pursuant to the absconded House of Representative members shall be destroyed immediately. No copies are to be kept. Any questions please contact me.”

It was signed by the commander of the DPS Special Crimes Service, L.C. “Tony” Marshall.

As vile as this act is, it’s not clear that it’s a crime:

State law generally requires that records be kept for a certain period of time, but it was unclear late Tuesday how those guidelines would affect DPS’ actions.

Angela Hale, spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, said it would be a crime to destroy records that had been requested under the Texas Open Records Act. It could not be determined late Tuesday if there was a standing request for the records before they were destroyed.

Hale said destroying records before state guidelines allow it would not be within the purview of the attorney general.

Rob Wiley, past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said it may not be a crime, but it is not how state agencies typically handle records.

“As a general rule, government agencies don’t destroy records this quickly … that is very unusual,” he said.

“A reasonable person would certainly believe that somebody thinks something ought to be hidden,” Wiley said. “The likelihood was there was some kind of attempt to use the governmental processes for what was clearly a partisan political issue.”

This AP wire story notes that there was a request for the DPS information:

State Reps. Lon Burnam, Yvonne Davis and Timoteo Garza — members of the House law enforcement committee who were among the fleeing lawmakers — filed a Texas Public Information Act request Monday seeking all printed and electronic documents about the DPS involvement in the search.

By Monday all of the records were already destroyed, though of course that was not yet known. Whether a Texas Public Information Act request meets the standard that Attorney General Abbott’s spokeswoman mentioned for a criminal case is something I couldn’t say. Bear in mind, though, that when these reps asked about these records at a Public Safety Commission meeting, they were not told they had been destroyed.

Democratic Reps. Lon Burnam, Yvonne Davis and Timoteo Garza filed a Texas Public Information Act request Monday seeking all printed and electronic documents about how the agency searched after the legislators didn’t show up for the House session May 12.

But officials did not answer Burnam’s questions during a Public Safety Commission meeting Tuesday, saying a response would not be appropriate because it was during the public comment period.

“It was very gracious and polite stonewalling,” said Burnam, D-Fort Worth.

So if this was during the public comment period, then why had the records already been destroyed? That doesn’t add up.

On a side note, Josh Marshall outlines Tom DeLay’s role in all this, in DeLay’s own words, here.

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