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More on the lawsuit against Paxton’s deranged ballot access opinion

There are actually three counties suing him, not just the one I had originally noted.

The only criminal involved

At least three Texas counties — Tarrant, Williamson, and Harris — have sued Attorney General Ken Paxton and are asking a judge to strike down a legal opinion he released last year that says anyone can access voted ballots right after an election. The lawsuits allege Paxton’s opinion violates state and federal law, contradicts his own previous direction on the issue, and exposes local election administrators to potential criminal charges.

For decades, the attorney general’s office advised counties that voted ballots were to be kept secure for 22 months after an election, a timeframe mandated by federal law and Texas state election code. But only months before the November 2022 general election, even though neither law had changed, Paxton released an opinion saying the documents could be released to anyone who requested them, almost right after the ballots were counted.

Now, counties and election officials across the state are stuck. They can follow Paxton’s new opinion — which is only a written interpretation of the law — and potentially open themselves up to criminal penalties for violating state law, or they can defy the state attorney general and open up themselves to costly lawsuits.

That’s why now the counties are asking a judge to step in and settle the question.

Paxton’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. Paxton so far has filed a response only to Tarrant County’s lawsuit, which was filed in October and was the first of the three challenges. Paxton’s office denied the county’s claims.

Experts say the move by three different counties to challenge the Texas attorney general’s legal opinion speaks to the complicated position it has put local election officials in. His opinion, they say, has caused chaos, and has no basis in state law.

“These counties don’t have a choice. They have to worry about whether Ken Paxton is going to take action against them,” said Chad Dunn, an Austin-based attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Dunn said Paxton’s opinion “is laughable. The election code is clear. I’ll be just shocked if the state court system ends up agreeing with Ken Paxton and the ballots are public.”

[…]

The Texas attorney general’s office, including Paxton’s own administration, has affirmed this interpretation of the law since the 1980s. The practice of keeping the ballots preserved and confidential for 22 months, experts say, prevents the documents from being tampered with or compromised and protects the documents’ reliability in case there’s a request for recount or other election challenges.

Paxton released his opinion in August after a request from state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans, who said members of the public and legislators desired “to audit the outcome of Texas elections.” In a footnote, Paxton acknowledged that the attorney general’s office had issued a previous opinion in 1988, before he took office, saying unauthorized access to the ballots during the preservation period is prohibited. But the new opinion offers no clear explanation of his decision to change a decades-old precedent.

Paxton’s office “does not have the authority to make or change the law; that is a responsibility that solely rests with the Texas Legislature,” Tarrant County’s lawsuit says.

Paxton’s new opinion does not address the potential criminal exposure of election officials, who could be charged with a misdemeanor amounting to $4,000 in fines or up to a year in jail, or offer a clear timeframe of how quickly election clerks must provide the records to requesters.

“The Election Code provides a few limited circumstances where the custodian has express authority to access ballots prior to the 22-month expiration. Responding to [public information] requests is not one of those circumstances,” the Williamson County lawsuit says.

The three lawsuits are technically challenging Paxton’s Public Information Act decisions — which experts say is not an uncommon practice — and not his legal opinion directly. In order for counties to be able to challenge an attorney general’s opinion in court, the counties must have “standing and show a reason why it affects” them said Bob Heath, an Austin-based election and voting rights lawyer and a former chair of the opinions committee of the Texas attorney general’s office. The counties are doing so through the Public Information Act challenges that are based on Paxton’s decision, which Heath says is “wrong.”

“That’s a way to get to this opinion, and the opinion obviously poses a real problem for counties or for election administrators and county clerks,” Heath said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said, I’m just waiting to see when the court will issue a ruling. After that, it’s a matter of what the Supreme Court will do. I have some hope, but these days that always has to be tempered with extreme anxiety. Stay tuned.

Paxton sued over his deranged ballot access opinion

Good.

The only criminal involved

The Williamson County attorney’s office has sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, claiming a ruling he made that gives the public immediate access to ballots after an election violates state law.

County officials, the lawsuit said, can be charged with a misdemeanor if they release the information before a 22-month period required by the state election code that ballots must be kept confidential.

[…]

Three people requested to see the Williamson County ballots on Aug. 17, 2022, and Aug. 23, 2022, from different county elections, including all 2021 elections and the March 2022 primary, according to the lawsuit. The only reason they gave for their request was that the attorney general had ruled on Aug. 17, 2022, that ballot information could be released before the 22-month waiting period if there was a public information request for it, said the lawsuit.

County officials, the lawsuit said, did not want to release the information before the 22-month waiting period was over, saying the information was confidential, according to the Texas Election Code.

The attorney general’s office responded in a Nov. 9 letter saying that the ballot information is public information and that the county must release it immediately, the lawsuit said.

The county disagreed with Paxton’s ruling, saying the Texas Legislature “has decreed that the voted ballots remain secure for the 22-month preservation period and has criminalized the unauthorized access to those ballots,” according to the lawsuit.

“The Attorney General does not have the authority to overrule the expressed command of the Legislature by ruling that the Open Records Act supersedes the Election Code provision.”

The lawsuit also said that Paxton had made multiple rulings the county had received in 2022 “that the ballots and cast vote records were confidential during the 22-month preservation period” before Paxton changed his mind and ruled that the public must be allowed access to the ballots.

Linda Eads, a law professor at Southern Methodist University and a former deputy attorney general for litigation for the state of Texas, said she was shocked by Paxton’s August ruling.

“Section 66.058 (of the Texas Election Code) is specific and makes clear that election information is deemed confidential and must be treated as such, even if the more general statute Section 1.012 says election information is public information,” said Eads.

See here and here for some background. The courts have on occasion been willing to put a check on Paxton’s power, and I hope this will be one of those times. At least we’re in the state courts, so the Fifth Circuit won’t be involved. The Lege could modify the law in question to moot the claim, but with any luck there won’t be the time or the inclination to do that in this session. We may have to worry about it again in 2025, but we have enough to occupy ourselves with now, so let’s not borrow trouble.

A long look at the lack of accountability in Uvalde

CNN has a very long piece about how there are many investigations going on about the Uvalde massacre but seemingly little to hold anyone accountable for it. Uvalde residents, especially the parents of Robb Elementary children, are increasingly frustrated with the lack of information and the lack of action.

At Uvalde school district and city council meetings this week, community members again pressed their elected officials on why officers at the school that day haven’t been relegated to desk duty or fired. The school district superintendent also was asked why he had not sought an independent investigation into the tragedy, and the mayor was pressed on how and why the city chose an Austin, Texas, investigator to lead its internal review.

“We have yet, almost three months later, to hear any answers or to see any accountability from anybody at any level — from law enforcement officers, to campus staff, to central office and beyond,” Uvalde resident Diana Olvedo-Karau told the school board. “And we just don’t understand why. I mean, how can we lose 19 children and two teachers tragically, just horribly, and not have anybody yet be accountable.”

“It’s approaching three months, and we are still being placated with tidbits or being outright stonewalled or being given excuses” about the city police department’s response, said resident Michele Prouty, who passed out complaint forms against Uvalde police at Tuesday’s city council meeting. “What we have instead — what we are traumatized again and again by — is an inept, unstructured national embarrassment of a circus tent full of smug clowns. These clowns continue to cruise our streets sporting their tarnished badges.”

A looming US Department of Justice after-action report has perhaps the strongest chance of giving a clear understanding of how the day’s horrific events unfolded, experts who spoke to CNN said. Such reports tend to home in on opportunities for improvement, while discipline typically must be backed by precise allegations that would hold up if challenged by an officer or subject to court hearings or arbitration processes.

But it’s not clear precisely what parameters those who are overseeing reviews of the city and school district police departments are using to identify systemic failures or root out findings that could lead to discipline for officers.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has said its wide-ranging internal review could result in referrals to an inspector general. The agency also is conducting the criminal investigation into the Uvalde massacre itself — probing details such as how the shooter got his guns and his online communications before the attack — separate from the internal review of its officers’ conduct at Robb Elementary. Part of that work, it has said, is “examining the actions of every member of (a) law enforcement agency that day.” But it’s not clear whether officers are cooperating with the inquiry.

The district attorney reviewing the criminal investigation, Christina Mitchell Busbee, said she would “seek an indictment on a law enforcement officer for a criminal offense, when appropriate, under the laws of Texas.” But it’s not clear under what law any officer might be charged or whether evidence so far supports charges.

Meantime, how Texas DPS has cast its own role in the tragedy already has come under scrutiny. Its officers were at Robb Elementary earlier than previously known — and longer than Texas DPS has publicly acknowledged — materials reviewed by CNN show, with at least one DPS trooper seen running toward the school, taking cover behind a vehicle and then running toward an entrance within 2-1/2 minutes of the shooter entering. The agency’s director instead publicly has focused on when the first DPS agent entered the hallway where classrooms were under attack.

Further, a Texas DPS spokesperson who made three phone calls to a DPS sergeant inside the school during the 70-plus minutes officers waited to confront the gunman later gave journalists a narrative that quickly unraveled. Since then, news organizations, including CNN, have sued the Texas DPS for access to public records related to the massacre.

Amid the inconsistencies, the head of the state’s largest police union, along with a senior state lawmaker, have questioned Texas DPS’s ability to investigate itself. “I don’t know that we can trust them to do an internal investigation,” Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, told CNN.

“It would be best if the investigation were headed up by an outside independent source that the public can have total confidence in,” said Wilkison, whose union represents law enforcement officers across the state, including some in Uvalde. 

[…]

It’s not clear whether any internal city investigation was underway between the May 24 massacre and the announcement of the internal investigation, though best practices for investigations dictate they usually begin as close to the incident as possible.

Then at a July 26 city council meeting, city officials said they’d hired the firm of Jesse Prado, a former Austin police homicide detective, to lead their review. Council members said their investigator should finish his work within two months, then Prado will make recommendations — possibly including disciplinary actions — to the council.

“If there’s any officer that’s in violation of any policy or procedure that they needed to act on and did not and might have caused these children to die, these teachers to die, I can assure you, heads are going to roll,” Uvalde City Councilmember Hector Luevano said during the session. Prado declined to comment for this story.

City officials, meantime, have refused for nearly two weeks to answer questions about their review of officers’ actions that day. Tarski Law, listed on the city council’s website as city attorney, also declined to comment and referred questions to Gina Eisenberg, president of a public relations firm that specializes in “crisis communications” and was hired by the city to field media requests. Eisenberg said the city would not comment. McLaughlin, the mayor, said Tuesday he couldn’t characterize the city’s relationship with Eisenberg, who hired her or who is paying her bill, saying, “I don’t know anything about her. I have nothing to do with it.”

Eisenberg also declined to answer questions about the city police department review process. McLaughlin was certain such a process existed but wasn’t aware of related procedures, he told CNN on Tuesday. The internal investigation led by Prado was launched August 1, Eisenberg said. The city attorney chose Prado for the job without a bidding process and based on word-of-mouth recommendations, the mayor told CNN; Tarski Law referred CNN to Eisenberg, who wouldn’t provide a copy of its contract with Prado’s firm, explain what the department’s internal affairs process was before the shooting or say whether that process was used at any time before Prado was hired. Eisenberg said the city would not release further information or comment.

The full scope of Prado’s investigation also isn’t clear — whether he’s conducting an after-action review meant to identify failures for future understanding or investigating specific allegations of broken rules in response to internal complaints, or some hybrid. Prado will have “free range to take the investigation wherever the investigation takes him,” McLaughlin told CNN on Tuesday. While it’s unlikely Prado’s source materials will be released, the mayor said, he vowed to make Prado’s report public after first sharing it with victims’ families — “if I have any say in it.”

“When we see that report, whatever it tells us we need to do and changes we need to make — if it tells us we need to let people go or whatever it tells us — then that’s what we will do,” McLaughlin told CNN.

[…]

While it’s unclear when any of the reviews of law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde massacre will wrap up, the Texas DPS probe — like the others — could have implications for its own and other officers, raising the stakes for how impartially and transparently it’s handled. As with the other probes, too, how it’s conducted and what it concludes will impact what closure families of the slain in this small, tortured city can receive.

Texas DPS “was fast to wash its hands, to point fingers and to make sure that the general public, particularly the elected officials, knew that they were spotless, blameless and that this was a local problem,” said Wilkison, the police union chief.  ”No one created this environment, (in) which everyone’s to blame except DPS. No one did that except them. If we’re to never, ever let this happen in Texas, we have to know what happened, exactly what happened.”

Even with that long excerpt, there’s a ton more at the link, so go read the whole thing. I can’t say I’m a big fan of CLEAT, but Charley Wilkison is right that the report DPS is working on is deeply suspect. I expect that the Justice Department probe will be the most useful, but all they can do is make recommendations. They have no power to change anything. That’s up to DPS and the locals themselves, and it’s clear none of them are particularly motivated to examine themselves.

As I see it, there are two paths to actually making things happen. One is through lawsuits, filed by the parents of the murdered children. File against DPS, against the city of Uvalde, the Uvalde police and the Uvalde school police, and so forth. This will be painful for them, it will take years to get to a conclusion, and it will be a massive fight to get the kind of information they’ve been demanding released, but the discovery process once it kicks in will be a very effective provider of sunlight. The downside is as noted – it will take years and be traumatic over and over again for the families – but in the end I would expect to finally get a real view of what happened, and maybe some financial penalties for the malfunctioning government entities.

The other is through elections. The people of Uvalde should give strong consideration to voting out their entire city and school district governments. Maybe some of those same parents might want to run for one or more of those offices. You want transparency, put some people in power who are truly committed to it. Along those same lines, voting in a new Governor would be the most direct route to getting transparency from DPS. I feel quite confident that Governor Beto O’Rourke will be delighted to appoint a new head of DPS with a mandate to clean house and make public all of the things that department did wrong in this debacle. Nothing like a little regime change to make things happen.

DPS can keep Uvalde info secret for now

Hopefully not for much longer.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

A state district judge ruled Wednesday that the Department of Public Safety does not have to turn over records related to the Uvalde school shooting sought by state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who had sued the state police in hopes of securing them.

The order by Travis County 419th Civil District Court Judge Catherine A. Mauzy was narrow, however, and sidestepped the question of whether the state police can withhold records concerning their response to the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School. Mauzy concluded that Gutierrez had not properly filed his request under the Texas Public Information Act, the state’s public records law, and therefore DPS was not obligated to fulfill it.

Still, the outcome grants a reprieve for the state police, who have fought to keep secret the details of how 91 officers responded to the shooting. Gutierrez, whose district includes Uvalde, wrote a letter to DPS Director Steve McCraw on May 30, requesting the agency’s training manuals as well as any documents that detail how the state police responded to the shooting that day. In a hearing last week, DPS officials said that request should have gone to the agency’s media relations office.

Gutierrez said Wednesday he disagreed with the ruling and suggested the state police were simply looking for an excuse not to comply with his request. The lawmaker has been among the most critical state officials of how DPS has handled the shooting.

“It is most absurd that Department of Public Safety continues to fight even the most benign distribution of documents, like a training manual,” Gutierrez said. “And they refuse to do it because they’re culpable of their negligence and malfeasance on that day.”

See here for the background. Sen. Gutierrez has since released a statement that says he will appeal, and he will also re-file his request per the court’s orders. If so, then one way or another he should be able to get that information eventually. I’m sure we’ll have to go through more litigation before DPS complies. But I do expect that at some point they will have to.

Paxton escapes open records lawsuit

Sheesh.

Best mugshot ever

The Travis County district attorney’s office will not proceed with a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for refusing to release his communications around the time of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Despite determining that the attorney general likely violated the state’s open records law, the district attorney’s office said it would not sue because journalists who had requested Paxton’s records declined to testify in court in order to protect their sources.

The district attorney’s office launched its investigation of Paxton’s office after editors at Texas’ largest newspapers filed a complaint earlier this year alleging that the attorney general was breaking the state’s open records law.

In a hand-delivered letter to Paxton on Jan. 14, Jackie Wood, the district attorney’s director of public integrity and complex crimes, stated her office concurred with the allegations in the editors’ complaint and gave Paxton four days to cure the violations or face a lawsuit.

“We were encouraged that the district attorney agreed that Paxton’s office violated the law,” said Maria Reeve, executive editor of the Houston Chronicle. “We hoped that those facts would be sufficient for a lawsuit to proceed — and that our reporters would not need to testify.”

Paxton’s general counsel, Austin Kinghorn, said the allegations were “meritless.”

Wood later asked the journalists if they’d be willing to testify in court about the roadblocks they encountered trying to obtain records from the attorney general’s office. The newspapers declined to do so over concerns that reporters could be forced to testify about their unnamed sources or newsgathering methods. If they refused to answer, they’d risk being found in contempt of court.

“Therefore, it is the decision of this office not to proceed to seek declaratory and injunctive relief in order to bring Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Office of the Attorney General into compliance with the public information requirements of the Texas Government Code,” Public Integrity Unit Team Leader Rob Drummond wrote in a July 1 letter to Reeve.

See here, here, and here for the background. On the one hand, I understand that the papers didn’t want to put any of their employees in legal jeopardy. On the other hand, I feel like they had some duty to pursue this to a conclusion, since they filed the complaint in the first place. Was there no way for a private citizen, someone who wouldn’t have sources to risk, to testify in their place? I don’t understand the legal subtleties of this. I’m just frustrated by the outcome.

Congressional Dems ask Paxton to release Uvalde info

He won’t, because he sucks, but you gotta ask.

Best mugshot ever

Nine Democratic members of the U.S. House from Texas on Tuesday called on Attorney General Ken Paxton to order the release of government records related to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde that local officials are attempting to withhold.

In a letter, the group said that authorizing the release of records would help the families of victims heal by revealing the full truth about what happened at Robb Elementary School that day. They also said disclosure was important because officials have repeatedly changed their story about law enforcement’s response to the shooting.

“A first step in restoring trust in law enforcement and healing requires transparency from state and local officials,” the letter states. “You have a choice: shine a light on what went wrong to help Uvalde heal or be part of the cover up.”

It is signed by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Al Green of Houston; and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde County, declined to join, Castro’s office said.

The city of Uvalde has declined to fulfill any records request from The Texas Tribune since the shooting, even those unrelated to the incident. In Texas, public agencies seeking to block the release of records must forward requests to the attorney general, citing specific exemptions under the Texas Public Information Act.

[…]

The members of Congress who signed the letter also said public officials should not hide behind what is known as the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption to releasing public records meant to protect individuals who are never convicted of a crime. However, this exemption can also be applied to suspects who have died and thus won’t face prosecution, as is the case with the shooter in Uvalde.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said last month it would be “absolutely unconscionable” for officials to use the loophole to withhold records related to the shooting.

See here, here, and here for some background. That sure was a show of courage from Rep. Gonzales, wasn’t it? As for Paxton, he does six unconscionable things before breakfast, so I would not hold out much hope for him to do something non-hideous here. But as I said, you have to at least put him on the spot about it.

Uvalde versus DPS

Someone’s not happy.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin on Tuesday accused state authorities of selectively releasing information about last month’s school shooting to scapegoat local law enforcement and intentionally leaving out details about the state’s response to the massacre.

New details emerged this week about the timeline of the shooting based on surveillance video from the school’s hallways and a transcript of officers’ body cameras. The records show that officers might not have attempted to open the doors of the classrooms where the gunman had holed up with victims. During a state Senate committee held earlier Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers that law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure.”

McLaughlin lambasted McCraw for what he described as a selective release of information about the investigation, focusing on blaming local law enforcement and leaving out the role of McCraw’s agency during the shooting.

“McCraw has continued to, whether you want to call it, lie, leak … mislead or misstate information in order to distance his own troopers and rangers from the response,” McLaughlin said Tuesday evening.

McLaughlin said none of the entities with information about the investigation into the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School — DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI — have briefed Uvalde city officials about their findings.

McLaughlin said he had been asked to refrain from sharing details about the investigation while it was ongoing but said Tuesday he would now start releasing that information as it became available to city officials.

“The gloves are off. If we know it, we will share it,” he said.

McLaughlin’s comments at a special City Council meeting seemed to contradict a press release issued just hours before, in which the mayor had said city officials would refrain from commenting on the investigation “or reacting to every story attributed to unnamed sources or sources close to the investigation.”

I mean, Steve McCraw put all the blame on Pete Arredondo, so it’s not a big surprise that Uvalde’s mayor didn’t care for that. As a reminder, McLaughlin is the guy who got all mad at Beto O’Rourke when O’Rourke interrupted Greg Abbott’s press conference – you know, the one he held just before he headed out for a big fundraiser – to demand that Abbott do something in response to the massacre. This was back when Abbott and DPS were praising Arredondo and Uvalde police for their response, which is to say, back before any of the truth started coming out. McCraw, meanwhile, is a longtime hatchet man for Abbott and Rick Perry before him, and deserves exactly zero benefit of the doubt. This is a fight where you can root for both sides to lose with a clear conscience.

The real issue here is the coordinated resistance to releasing data about the police response to the mass shooting. This is the appropriate response to that.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, is suing the Texas Department of Public Safety over records related to the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary last month.

“In the wake of the senseless tragedy, the people of Uvalde and Texas have demanded answers from their government. To date, they have been met with lies, misstatements, and shifts of blame,” Gutierrez said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

State and local Uvalde officials have fought the release of records that could provide clarity around the botched emergency response to the shooting that killed 19 children and two educators. Law enforcement responding to the shooting waited more than an hour on the scene before breaking into the classroom to kill the shooter.

Gutierrez said he filed an open records request on May 31 for documentation about police presence and ballistics at the shooting, and he still has not received a response. Per state law, DPS had 10 business days to either respond or make a case to the attorney general.

[…

Abbott’s office on Tuesday said all information related to the shooting has been shared with the public or is in the expedited process of being released. Full results of the ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI will also be made public, according to the governor’s office.

That same day, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said city officials have been left out of briefings related to the investigation from entities, such as DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI.

Sen. Gutierrez’s press release is here and a copy of the lawsuit is here. I cannot wait to see what response the defendants make to this. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police Chief Pete Arredondo has been placed on administrative leave by the district.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

Paxton thumbs his nose at open records demand

Water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Ken Paxton DGAF about government, ethics, accountability or any of that other namby-pamby stuff.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the Travis County district attorney’s determination that Paxton violated open records laws by withholding information related to his trip to Washington D.C. on the day of the Capitol insurrection was “meritless” and that his office had fulfilled its obligation under the law.

Last week, the district attorney’s office gave Paxton four days to turn over communications requested by the state’s leading newspapers relating to his trip or face a lawsuit.

On Friday, Austin Kinghorn, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, dismissed the district attorney’s findings, saying the office had provided no provisions under the state’s open records law that had been violated and implied that the newspapers had made the requests to publish stories about them.

“In each instance, complainant’ allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA and its requirements,” Kinghorn wrote. “Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following ‘numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,’ complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office’s authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants’ media outlets.”

[…]

In the letter, the attorney general’s office said the newspaper editors base their complaint on an “awareness of a small number of inconsequential documents they believe should have been produced” in public records requests and “baselessly speculate” that Paxton is failing to comply with the open records law.

Kinghorn said the “inconsequential documents” include a text message sent to Paxton’s personal cell phone by a Dallas Morning News reporter and two “spam” emails and an internal email that announced the temporary closure of an office parking garage.

See here for the background and here for a copy of Paxton’s response. This was of course the most predictable event imaginable, and basically serves as the pregame warmup for whatever comes next. Which will be a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court, and after that a million legal maneuvers by Paxton to delay, obstruct, and as feasible ignore the whole process. It will end with a final ruling from the Supreme Court sometime between now and the heat death of the universe. If somehow Ken Paxton is still in office when this is ultimately resolved, it will be incontrovertible proof that we are indeed in the darkest timeline. Adjust your expectations, is what I’m trying to say here. The Chron has more.

Paxton accused of violating open records law

Put it on his tab.

Best mugshot ever

The Travis County district attorney has determined that Attorney General Ken Paxton violated the state’s open records law by not turning over his communications from last January, when he appeared at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The district attorney gave Paxton four days to remedy the issue or face a lawsuit. The probe was prompted by a complaint filed by top editors at several of the state’s largest newspapers: the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.

In a letter hand delivered to Paxton on Thursday, the head of the district attorney’s public integrity unit said her investigation showed the attorney general’s office broke state law by withholding or failing to retain his own communications that should be subject to public release.

“After a thorough review of the complaint, the (district attorney’s) office has determined that Paxton and (his office) violated Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code,” wrote Jackie Wood, director of the district attorney’s public integrity and complex crimes unit, referring to the open records statute.

The district attorney’s office will take Paxton and his agency to court if they do not “cure this violation” within four days, Wood warned. For open-records complaints against state agencies, the law says the Travis County district attorney or the attorney general must handle them. The newspapers filed the complaint with the district attorney.

[…]

Jim Hemphill, the immediate past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Paxton may take issue with the DA’s investigations — or he could voluntarily choose to release this and other records to the public.

“It’s a rare occurrence where a requestor actually has tangible evidence,” Hemphill said. “It will be interesting to see how the attorney general responds to this.”

The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records, even if those records are stored on personal devices or public officials’ online accounts. The attorney general’s office enforces this law, determining which records are public and which are private.

On March 25, six news outlets jointly published a story that raised questions about whether Paxton was breaking open records laws.

On Jan. 4, five newspaper editors filed a complaint asking the district attorney to investigate the alleged violations. Anyone can file a complaint with a local prosecutor if they believe a public agency is withholding information in violation of the Public Information Act.

Wood’s notice to Paxton said the district attorney’s office concurred with the allegations in the editors’ complaint.

First, the editors raised concerns that Paxton’s office was using attorney-client privilege to withhold every single email and text message sent to or received by him around the time of the Jan. 6 rally, which preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Paxton and his wife were in Washington that day and appeared at the rally.

Wood said withholding all of Paxton’s communications during that week violated the law. As evidence, she noted the attorney general’s office released nearly 500 pages of communications sent to or received by First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster — including some emails that included Paxton as a recipient.

The newspaper editors also said the attorney general’s office had no policy for handling work-related records kept on personal devices or accounts.

When a Morning News reporter sent Paxton a work-related text message and another reporter requested all his messages that day, Paxton’s office responded that no responsive messages existed. A spokesman for Paxton later said the attorney general doesn’t have to retain “unsolicited and unwelcome text messages to personal phones.”

Wood noted that the attorney general’s office stated in the past that the communications of government officials were subject to retention policies and the open records law.

Finally, the editors raised concerns that Paxton was turning over other people’s communications in response to requests for his own text messages.

The DA’s investigation agreed that Paxton had not provided his own text messages with officials at the attorney general’s office in Utah — where Paxton and his wife traveled during the February freeze — and instead turned over a copy of another person’s text to Paxton. The attorney general’s office did not explain why Paxton didn’t provide his own version of the text exchange.

See here for some background. The answer to how Paxton will respond is obvious: He’ll denounce the Travis DA’s actions as unfair, biased, and partisan, and he’ll not only not comply he’ll do everything in his power to delay a court decision that might force him to comply. Honestly, even then I doubt he’ll actually comply – I’d bet he destroys records first, and dares everyone to do something about it. I don’t think anything short of handcuffs and a jail cell will move him. What in his past record suggests otherwise? As the Trib notes, the January 6 commission in Congress is also seeking records relating to communications between Paxton and Donald Trump at that time. What do you think are the odds he’ll comply with them?

We know who and what Ken Paxton is. He’s shown us, every day. I commend the newspapers for pursuing this, and the Travis County DA for taking action. It’s just that it will take more than a lawsuit to make him budge. He’s going to require a consequence he fears. We’re nowhere close to that. The DMN and the Statesman have more.

What is Ken Paxton hiding?

I was almost tempted to start this post with the rhetorical “Just when you think Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower” gambit, but then I realized I have never thought Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower. Even with that, this is amazing.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas attorney general’s office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general’s work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton’s office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton’s open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton’s office, which is supposed to enforce the state’s open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton’s personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton’s email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

[…]

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor’s office, must seek the agency’s approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton’s messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn’t need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency’s open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general’s executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general’s office regarding “legal services to the state.”

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it’s odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

“It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege,” Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn’t seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general’s office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton’s personal devices or accounts.

It’s a long story involving multiple news outlets, as well as Paxton’s Utah trip during the freeze, which he appears to have been lying about. Part of the problem here is Ken Paxton’s utter contempt for the rule of law, and part of it is that there’s no obvious mechanism for holding him accountable. Filing a lawsuit may eventually result in some of this information turning up – assuming Paxton doesn’t just delete it all, while citing a data retention policy to back his actions up – but who knows how long that could take. For sure, the Republican legislature isn’t going to do anything. The voters get the ultimate say, but that’s a long way off as well, and as long as this communication is being withheld, they don’t have the full story. I know that you already know this, but Ken Paxton is the worst. See Lauren McGaughy’s Twitter thread for more.

Quid pro Paxton

How tawdry. And I can’t wait to hear more.

Best mugshot ever

Late last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fired multiple senior aides who accused him of accepting a bribe. A court filing obtained by The Texas Tribune reveals for the first time what four of those aides believe Paxton received in exchange for helping a donor with his business affairs.

An updated version of a lawsuit filed by the four whistleblowers claims that Austin real estate developer Nate Paul helped Paxton remodel his house and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an affair.

In return, the aides allege, Paxton used his office to help Paul’s business interests, investigate Paul’s adversaries and help settle a lawsuit. The claims in the filing provide even more details about what the former aides believe Paxton’s motivations were in what they describe as a “bizarre, obsessive use of power.”

“Some of Paxton’s actions directing the [Office of the Attorney General] to benefit Paul were criminal without regard to motive,” the amended petition reads. “Others were so egregious and so contrary to appropriate use of his office, that they could only have been prompted by illicit motives such as a desire to repay debts, pay hush money, or reciprocate favors extended by Paul.”

[…]

The latest filing is vague on many details. It says that Paxton purchased a home worth around $1 million in the Tarrytown neighborhood of Austin in 2018. In 2020, the filing says, the house underwent renovations, “although permitting records in Travis County could not be located.”

“In mid-2020, some of the Plaintiffs received information suggesting that Nate Paul, either personally or through [a] construction company he owns and controls, was involved in the project,” the lawsuit states.

The filing doesn’t describe the nature of Paul’s alleged involvement or how they received the information.

The whistleblowers for the first time also allege that Paxton may have helped Paul because the developer gave a job to a woman with whom he had an extramarital relationship. The lawsuit notes that the woman had no previous experience in the construction industry, “much less managing construction projects.” The woman, who the Tribune is not naming because she is not a public figure, did not return a call for comment.

See here, here, and here for some background. It’s important to remember that what have here are allegations, not evidence. This could all fall apart in court, if it ever makes it that far. Which doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it for what it is, and hope that it all makes Paxton SO MAD. We just need to maintain perspective for the time being.

The last whistleblower

Nothing like a fully cleaned house.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas attorney general’s office has fired the last remaining whistleblower who alleged Ken Paxton broke the law in doing favors for a political donor — just days after aides had sued the agency alleging they suffered retaliation for making the report.

Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar — who had already been placed on paid leave — was fired Nov. 17, according to internal personnel documents obtained by The Texas Tribune, making him the fifth whistleblower to be fired from the agency in less than a month. The three others who reported Paxton to law enforcement have resigned.

On Nov. 12, Vassar and three of his former colleagues filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Texas attorney general’s office, claiming they had suffered retaliation after they told law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by using the agency to serve the interests of a political donor and friend, Nate Paul.

Joseph Knight, Vassar’s attorney in the lawsuit, said the justification Vassar was given for his termination amounted to “made-up, nonsense reasons” — and that he believes the firing was an act of retaliation. Vassar was hired by the agency in 2015.

Neither the attorney general’s office nor Ian Prior, a political spokesman for Paxton, returned requests for comment on why Vassar was terminated, though Prior has said previous terminations were not acts of retaliation but rather related to policy violations.

See here for more on the whistleblowers’ lawsuit. As we know, the FBI is investigating Paxton for the allegations that have been leveled against him regarding Nate Paul. Nothing else new to report here, so just let the anticipation wash over you.

Paxton sued by four whistleblowers

Start popping the corn.

Best mugshot ever

Despite his role as the state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Ken Paxton “believes he is above the very law” he is supposed to uphold, several whistleblowers say in a new lawsuit seeking damages after he allegedly retaliated against them.

In the lawsuit filed this week in Austin, four top former Paxton aides recounted some of the extraordinary efforts the attorney general allegedly made on behalf of his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor — everything from empowering Paul to go after business adversaries to helping him stave off foreclosure.

They say Paxton frequently met with Paul without his security detail present and abused his office to “advance the legal and personal interests” of the Austin businessman. Over time, Paxton “became less rational in his decision making and more unwilling” to listen to criticism of his actions, they said.

[…]

“The most senior members of the [office of the attorney general] believed in good faith that Paxton was breaking the law and abusing his office…,” ” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit provides more detail about allegations that have been leaking out in press reports since early October, including Paxton’s efforts to hire an outside lawyer to oversee a criminal investigation sought by Paul.

The FBI raided Paul and his businesses last year, and he has complained vociferously that he was treated unfairly and illegally by state and federal law enforcement. Those complaints reached Paxton and eventually led the attorney general to launch a probe — at Paul’s urging.

“Paxton rarely showed an interest in any pending criminal investigations, but he showed an extraordinary interest in the investigations sought by Paul,” the lawsuit alleges.

Among the “perceived adversaries” that Paul wanted the attorney general’s office to investigate: a federal magistrate judge, FBI agents, a federal bankruptcy judge, a local charity and a credit union, according to the lawsuit.

Though criminal investigators concluded “no credible evidence existed” to warrant state charges, Paxton pressed on and eventually hired an outside lawyer to oversee an investigation, which has since collapsed amid the controversy.

The lawsuit doesn’t just give more detail about the accusations that have already been reported. It also provides fresh allegations about Paxton’s abuse of his power to make rulings in disputes over the release of government records — once again to benefit Paul.

Though the attorney general’s office makes rulings in up to 40,000 open records disputes each year, the whistleblowers say they are “only aware of Paxton taking a personal interest in decisions that relate to Paul.”

In one instance involving records that Paul was seeking from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Paxton “personally took the file,” which included records sealed by a federal court, and “did not return it for approximately seven to ten days.”

In other open records cases involving Paul he told his deputies what conclusion he wanted them to reach even if it was unsupported by the law, according to the lawsuit.

Oh, mama. Let’s look at the Trib story for more details.

The whistleblowers are asking for reinstatement, as well as compensation for lost wages, future loss of earnings and damages for emotional pain and suffering. If they succeed, it will be taxpayers, not Paxton himself, who bear the majority of the litigation costs.

Under the Texas Whistleblower Act, any adverse action taken against whistleblowers within 90 days of their report to authorities is “presumed” to be retaliation for that report. The firings, as well as other actions alleged in detailed complaints to the agency’s human resources department, all fit within that three-month time frame.

Paxton has dismissed the whistleblowers as “rogue employees” wielding “false allegations.” But media reports in The Texas Tribune and other outlets, as well as public documents, show four instances when the attorney general’s office intervened in a legal matter in a manner that seemed to help Paul — events that are also detailed in the new lawsuit.

Paul and Paxton are friendly, but the full nature of their relationship remains unclear. Paul donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. Paul said in a court deposition last week that they have known each other for years, and sometimes had lunch together. Asked whether they were friends, Paul said “I consider the relationship, you know, positive.”

[…]

But for the whistleblowers, the most troubling example came this fall, when Paxton hired a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney, Brandon Cammack, to vet complaints made by Paul that he had been mistreated during the 2019 raid on his home and office.

Maxwell and Penley had been tapped to look into Paul’s complaints given their leading roles in law enforcement and criminal justice. But they had found, according to the lawsuit, “no credible evidence existed to support any state law charges.”

When Penley said he believed the investigation should be closed, Paul, his attorney and Paxton all “pushed back.”

Paxton soon turned to an outside investigator, Cammack, to vet Paul’s complaints against authorities, hiring the young lawyer through a process his top aides characterized as unusual and improper.

The office also considered hiring Joe Brown, a former U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas and onetime Grayson County district attorney — experience, legal experts say, that would have better positioned him for the position. Brown told The Texas Tribune he interviewed for the job in late August but eventually negotiations stalled.

Emails Brown sent the agency show he was concerned about allowing the attorney general’s office — or Paxton himself — to direct a probe that would ultimately lead to prosecution. One of the authorities Paul targeted in his complaint was the Texas State Securities Board, which in 2014 fined Paxton $1,000 for violating the Texas Securities Act, a law he was later indicted for violating.

“While I will fully investigate the circumstances related to the referral received, and provide a report related to any potential criminal charges, I am not committing to handling the prosecution of any resulting case,” Brown said in an email to the agency.

But he added that he might be willing to take on such a prosecution “after any ethical conflicts which could arise have been fully considered.”

Ultimately, the agency opted to hire the less experienced Cammack — Paxton’s decision, according to the lawsuit.

The four plaintiffs are David Maxwell, Mark Penley, Blake Brickman, and Ryan Vassar. I wonder if the other whistleblowers have their own legal action planned, or will just be witnesses in this one.

Reading these stories crystallized something for me that I hadn’t consciously considered before, which is why would Ken Paxton do all this stuff for one asshole like Nate Paul? Not to be too crude about it, but a $25K campaign contribution only buys you so much. There’s plenty of that kind of money out there for Paxton, so why would he (allegedly) do all of this crazy and maybe illegal stuff for that guy? There has to be more in it for him than that. All of these stories note that the “full nature of the relationship between Paxton and Paul is unclear”, and that just has to be the key to cracking this. There is something else we don’t know, maybe more than one something else, and until we find out what that is, we are not going to understand this story. Maybe this lawsuit will be the fulcrum that helps unearth whatever that is.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: HCC

Here’s our last group of finance reports for people on the ballot in 2019, HCC Trustees. You can find the full list of finance reports here, which includes PACs and past candidates/Trustees. They’re listed alphabetically by first name and the only way to tell if someone has a current report is to click on them, so it’s not the most efficient system. But at least it exists online, an achievement for which I claim some measure of credit. As before, I have separated the three candidates up for election this year (HCC Trustees serve six-year terms, so the default is for three of them to be up in a given cycle) from those who are not on the ballot.

Zeph Capo, District 1
Dave Wilson, District 2
Neeta Sane, District 7

Adriana Tamez, District 3
Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, District 4
Robert Glaser, District 5
John Hansen, District 6
Eva Loredo, District 8
Pretta VanDible Stallworth, District 9 – No January report available as of February 21


Name              Raised    Spent    Loan  On Hand
==================================================
Capo                   0        0       0    2,064
Wilson                 0        0  12,782        0
Sane                   0    4,766       0    6,553

Tamez                  0    1,127       0    4,824
Evans-Shabazz      1,090    1,560       0    1,183
Glaser                 0        0   5,000    8,325
Hansen                 3        0   5,000    8,931
Loredo                 0       72       0      183
Stallworth

Again, pretty boring, but there are a few things worth mentioning. One is that like Diana Davila, Dave Wilson left the “cash on hand” field blank in his form, so it’s your guess and mine how much of that outstanding loan remains available. Not that it really matters, as Wilson has always self-financed his campaigns, and I’m sure he’ll do that again this year. Neeta Sane’s District 7 is partially in Harris County and partially in Fort Bend. That has nothing to do with finance reports, but in November when you’re checking election results, you need to also look at the results in Fort Bend to get the true picture in her race. In 2013, the Harris County Clerk results showed her losing to opponent Anne Williams, which confused me until this fact was pointed out to me.

Yes, John Hansen actually reported a contribution of $3 – it was $2.93, if you want to be exact. I wish I could tell you more about that contribution, but as it was for under $50 it was not itemized. The same is true for Eva Loredo’s $72 worth of expenditures. If either Mr. Hansen or Ms. Loredo would like to fill in the details, I’d love to hear them. I realize that the number of people who could possibly care about this is probably in the single digits, but I’m one of them and I can’t stop thinking about that $2.93 donation to the Hansen campaign. I just have to know more.

What you need to know even more than that is that this is our chance to void ourselves of the rubbish that is Dave Wilson. In our ongoing conversation about how we choose judges, in which I have defended the partisan election model, I’m occasionally asked if that means that I disapprove of non-partisan elections in the odd-numbered years. The answer to that is no, I’m generally fine with that, but let’s be clear that if there had been partisan elections for HCC Trustee, there’s no way Dave Wilson could have gotten himself elected. He would not have made it through a contested Democratic primary, and he could not have won that seat as a Republican. Every election system has its pros and cons, and Dave Wilson exploited a weakness in this one. We can’t let him do it again. At least this time, we know enough going in to make sure he cannot hide under cover of electoral obscurity. Spread the word, and vote his sorry ass out in November.

Darian Ward resigns

Adios.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Darian Ward

I shake my head.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday staunchly defended his press secretary’s job performance following her recent two-week suspension for conducting personal business on city time and failing to turn over public records requested by a local journalist.

Turner also lectured reporters on the newsworthiness of the city’s disciplinary action against Darian Ward, saying other issues are more important than “whether or not somebody did something on an email.”

Ward, who was allowed to return to work Dec. 27, sent or received roughly 5,000 emails from her government account related to her company, Joy in Motion Enterprises, or other personal business matters over the last four years, according to a city memo. However, Ward, who at the time was among those responsible for fielding Texas Public Information Act requests for the mayor’s office, produced just 30 pages of emails in response to a journalist’s October records request.

“Ms. Ward, you misrepresented to the requestor the volume of documents regarding the TPIA request under state law, and you misinformed the chief of staff and me; you spent a significant amount of city time conducting your personal business rather than focusing on your work task,” mayoral Communications Director Alan Bernstein wrote Ward on Dec. 11, informing her that she had violated multiple city policies.

[…]

“It’s pretty flagrant,” said Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based in Missouri. “I’m surprised the mayor retained this individual.”

Turner said “no employee ought to be utilizing personal emails on city time,” but said he was not concerned about Ward’s performance.

“She’s done her job extremely well since I’ve been here, over and above,” he said. “I have no question with regard to her work performance.”

The mayor, who bristled at reporters’ questions about Ward, added that he imposed a stiffer punishment than the city’s legal and human resources departments had recommended.

Ted Oberg had the initial report about Ward’s suspension. For what it’s worth, I once had a coworker who was fired for doing something very similar to what Ward was suspended for. She was a lousy employee and was probably going to get herself fired for something eventually, but her email follies provided the fulcrum. If there are no further revelations to be made, and if Ward manages to adopt a more work-appropriate posture going forward, then we’ll all forget about this in a few weeks. If not, then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be a good enough employee in other respects to outweigh the negatives. Campos has more.

ACLU seeks information about state’s compliance with Trump election commission

From the inbox:

Today the ACLU of Texas filed an open records request with the Texas Secretary of State seeking documentation related to the State’s compliance with the federal Election Integrity Commission, which had asked states to submit voters’ full names, the last four digits of their social security numbers, their voting histories and information regarding felony convictions. The ACLU’s request seeks all communications between the Texas Secretary of State and the Election Integrity Commission, including records relating to the “views and recommendations” Texas submitted at the Commission’s request.

“The true threat to electoral integrity is voter suppression, not voter fraud,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “This nonsense of voter fraud is a lie peddled by politicians complicit in a corrupt scheme to rig elections by keeping minority and low-income Americans away from the polls. We are demanding this information of state officials to ensure they are doing everything they can to advance the right to vote, not threaten it.”

The ACLU of Texas’s request comes days after the ACLU national office sued the Trump administration over the Commission’s failure to comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that guarantees transparency and public accountability of advisory committees.

“The President’s Election Integrity Commission is a voter suppression machine, pure and simple” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “It threatens our right to privacy, endangers the foundations of our democracy, and its mission is based on a lie. No wonder it conducts its business behind closed doors.”

The Commission’s vice chairman Kris Kobach, who requested the sensitive voter information, was recently fined $1,000 by a federal magistrate judge in a voting-related lawsuit for “deceptive conduct and lack of candor.” The judge said that Kobach and his legal team had “made patently misleading representations to the court.”

The ACLU of Texas is not requesting any information related to private voter information or voter roll data.

See here for a copy of the open records request, and here for a copy of the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Trump Commission, which is one of seven that have been filed so far around the country. This phony commission is all about suppressing the vote. It needs to be resisted on every front.

How is the state going to do its voter ID education outreach?

You don’t need to know.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas will spend $2.5 million to spread the word about changes to the state’s voter ID law before the November election, but will not release details of how that money will be spent.

More than half of that taxpayer money will be spent on advertising, but officials will not say which markets they intend to target with television and radio spots.

As part of that outreach effort, the state will send “digital toolkits” to an estimated 1,800 organizations across Texas to engage local communities on voter education. The state will not identify those organizations or communities.

The outreach effort was mandated by a judge in Corpus Christi earlier this month after Texas’ voter ID law was found by a federal appeals court to discriminate against minorities. The court ordered the state to water down the law by expanding the types of identification voters can present at polls to cast ballots in time for the November election. The state also agreed to spend $2.5 million to educate voters and election officials across Texas about the changes.

The state hired public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to design its outreach effort, but asked the court to keep details of its plan under seal, preventing public scrutiny of such things as which regions to target with ads and which groups should receive education materials.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, which asked the court to keep the information under seal, has said in court filings that those documents include “proprietary” or “confidential” information produced by Burson-Marsteller. Paxton’s legal team cited a 1978 case involving for President Richard Nixon, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that media outlets could not have access to tapes from a Watergate obstruction trial.

Among the documents sealed at the attorney general’s request are a chart listing local markets and dates Burson-Marsteller has recommended for purchasing advertisements to educate the public about the changes to the voter photo ID requirements. Another document names the 1,800 groups recommended to help spread the state’s voter messaging at the local level, a list compiled by the public relations firm.

The state has provided, in a court filing, a broad outline of how it plans to spend the $2.5 million, but so far has refused to release any details.

[…]

Texas’ open records law long has allowed the state to shield details about dealings with corporations on the basis that trade secrets or confidential corporate information could be disclosed.

In this case, Bill Cobb, an Austin lawyer who handles open records issues for corporations, said it is possible that some of Burson-Marsteller’s “secret sauce” could be at risk of being exposed if other PR firms competing for a state contract on voter education could benefit.

“Everyone agrees that open government is a good thing,” Cobb said. “but everyone agrees if Coke has to give its recipe to the government that its competitors aren’t allowed to get it.”

Cobb noted that a recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court in a case involving Boeing has made it easier for the state and corporations to keep information secret.

“Companies have to make a business decision – could this information harm my future business prospects” said Cobb, a former deputy attorney general under Greg Abbott. “But now corporations don’t have to prove it’s a trade secret, just that a competitor could gain an advantage from acquiring the information.”

See here and here for some background. I’m sorry, but the stated rationale for keeping this all under wraps is a huge pile of baloney. How exactly are “a chart listing local markets and dates … for purchasing advertisements” or a list of “groups recommended to help spread the state’s voter messaging at the local level” proprietary information that could give an advantage to Burson-Marstellar’s competitors if they became known? This isn’t a product rollout for a new consumer toy or business innovation. It’s a public service project. It’s also a political campaign, and it should be held to the same standards of disclosure that any other campaign would be held to for things like advertising expenditures. Otherwise, we’re just taking Ken Paxton’s word for it that he and his office are doing everything they are supposed to be doing to comply with this ruling that by the way they still intend to appeal because they know they’re the ones in the right. What could possibly go wrong with that? Judge Ramos needs to amend her order to require some spilling of the beans.

On finding the next HPD Chief

I don’t know about this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen to select Houston’s next police chief through a private executive search firm, taking the position that the applications and résumés of job candidates do not have to be made available through the Texas Public Information Act.

The process stands in stark contrast to that used by his predecessor, Annise Parker, who in 2010 released the applications of 26 candidates for police chief in response to a records request.

“I am not going to conduct this process in the media,” Turner said via email Friday. “I didn’t do that with the searches for a new city attorney, the Flood Czar, the Education Director and other positions within my administration. My goal is to find the best candidate for the job and you don’t get the best candidate when the search is conducted in the media, especially if the publicity could endanger an applicant’s current position. It will be done on my time line. In the meantime, HPD is operating quite well under the very capable leadership of Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo.”

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said the search for a new chief is being handled by a six-member transition team along with the executive search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates. She declined to provide any records on the city’s arrangements with the firm, saying its services are being provided at no cost and without a contract.

Civil rights activists and open records advocates have been sharply critical of what they see as Turner’s lack of transparency, which comes as they are demanding a new chief to reform police operations.

“This is not a transparent process they are using,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, who heads the review committee of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Besides the mayor, the chief of police is one of the most important positions in the city, and all the stakeholders should be aware of what’s going on.”

Larsen said the city has a legal responsibility not only to provide records it has but also records it controls.

[…]

After the Chronicle made a similar open records request for chief applicants this year, Turner’s staff first sought an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to withhold the information. The city later withdrew its AG request, saying it had no records of any kind relating to applicants for the chief’s job.

“The city does not have any responsive information,” said Evans, Turner’s director of communications. “As was the case with the City Attorney, this is being handled as part of the transition process.”

[…]

C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former City Council member and Houston police chief under two mayors, said he doesn’t see a downside to Turner withholding the list of candidates as long as the finalists are disclosed after an appointment is made.

“Once the mayor nominates someone for council approval, then that’s when the questions should start – what was the process used to nominate this person, and who the other candidates were,” Bradford said.

“Now is not the time to do it.”

Bradford said that before he was appointed chief in 1997, then-Mayor Bob Lanier announced the names of 12 candidates from within HPD and four from outside the department who were vying for the position.

“I recall when 12 of us were competing, there were some nasty things that happened,” he said.

The story notes that Mayor Parker released applications of candidates who had been screened by a nonprofit group back in 2010 when now-retired Chief McClelland was hired. The story doesn’t say whether those applications, which were disclosed as the result of an open records request they made, came to them before or after McClelland was hired. If it’s the latter, then I think the distinction Bradford draws is a reasonable one. It can get awkward for some job applicants to be known to be looking elsewhere, which can cause some potential candidates to shy away from applying for a job if they know their status as an applicant will be made known. Disclosing the names of just the finalists for the job sounds like an acceptable compromise. On the other hand, it’s seldom wrong to err on the side of disclosure in matters involving the public interest, and there’s nothing untoward about people asking questions about who the candidates are for HPD Chief. Perhaps a full accounting of what we will know and when we will know it will suffice for now. We do need to know more than what we currently do.

Irving ISD sues AG’s office over Ahmed Mohamed

Oh, brother.

Ahmed Mohamed’s former school district has sued the Texas Attorney General — defying an order to reveal details of a federal investigation related to the Muslim teen’s arrest after bringing a homemade clock to school last year.

Dozens of Democratic U.S. Congress members called for a civil rights investigation of Irving officials last September, after Ahmed was handcuffed at MacArthur High for showing his teacher the clock.

The Department of Justice launched an investigation days later, sending Irving ISD a multi-page letter that outlined accusations of harassment and “discipline of students on the basis of race, religion and national origin.”

For months, Irving ISD has been handing over records to comply with the government’s investigation — even as it has resisted requests by The Dallas Morning News to see the letter that launched it.

Among other reasons for keeping the investigation’s details secret, the district has argued that it expects to be sued, citing a demand from Ahmed’s lawyer to pay millionsor face a civil rights trial.

But the Attorney General’s office rejected those concerns this month and orderedIrving ISD to make the investigation letter public.

Instead, on Thursday the school district took the rare step of suing the state’s highest law enforcement agency — setting up a trial that could take months to resolve.

Irving ISD argues that the Attorney General’s order “is inconsistent with previous rulings … and is simply contrary to the common law understanding,” but cites no examples or other cases to support the claim.

See here for the background. It’s not often that I say this, but I’m really rooting for the AG’s office to win this lawsuit. Way to cover yourselves in glory, Irving.

High speed rail opponents sue TxDOT and AG’s office

They seek information that they say they have been denied so far.

A group opposed to a private firm’s plans to build a bullet train stretching from Dallas to Houston has filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in an effort to obtain communications between the firm and state officials.

Texans Against High-Speed Rail submitted a public information request last year to TxDOT seeking any documentation from the agency related to Texas Central Partners, the private firm developing the rail. The group is arguing that many of the documents responsive to the request were withheld and the information that was released was heavily redacted without clear reasoning.

“I think there’s a lot of documents that were not provided,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, a group of largely rural opponents attempting to derail the project. “I think there were a lot of documents that were redacted inappropriately. We’re hopeful that we can work with the state and get this resolved relatively quickly and painlessly.”

Workman said the request, submitted on March 20 last year, asked for any documents concerning Texas Central or its proposed high-speed railway from 2009 to 2015. The lawsuit claims the resulting records would likely consist of email communications between the various entities involved with the project.

Upon receiving the request, TxDOT kicked it to the Attorney General’s office, seeking a ruling on whether the documents could legally be released. According to the lawsuit, Texas Central submitted a brief to Paxton’s office urging them not to release certain information as it “contains trade secret and confidential commercial and financial information.”

Texas Central submitted a copy of the brief to Texans Against High-Speed Rail with much of its contents redacted. The lawsuit claims the redacted brief limits the group’s ability to challenge a ruling from the Attorney General because they cannot develop an “effective challenge” without “sufficient identification of the alleged confidential information.”

The Attorney General ruled in July that TxDOT could withhold documents discussing certain information. Workman said the group eventually received some documents from their request earlier this year, though they had significant holes. The Attorney General’s office did not return requests for comment Thursday.

The theory that Texans Against High-Speed Rail is working on is that the state is secretly in cahoots with Texas Central, rather than simply serving as a regulator. Anything’s possible, I suppose, though I don’t really see Ken Paxton as being particularly sympathetic to Texas Central. But we’ll see.

More questions about body cameras and video accessibility

Still sorting it all out.

Months after statewide body camera legislation took effect and the Houston Police Department outlined its policies regarding the devices, local criminal justice watchdogs worry that some video from high-profile incidents may never see the light of day.

At issue, they say, are provisions in the law that could stymie requests for camera footage, privacy protections, and local departmental reluctance to release information.

When the Legislature passed SB 158 last year – easily in the House and with some opposition in the Senate – it was touted as a way to bring more transparency to law enforcement.

The legislation was enacted as police departments across Texas began weighing the use of body cameras and its intent was to set statewide policies for their use and establish a grant program for departments to defray costs.

But six months after it went into effect, civil liberties and open government activists are concerned that the law may make it harder for the public to obtain footage of controversial interactions between civilians and the police than it is to obtain other information under the Texas open records law.

Among the concerns, they argue is that the law gives police more time to decide whether to release the footage and it protects footage shot in a “private space,” such as a home. Also, people requesting it are required to provide the date and time and the name of at least one individual involved in the incident and it allows agencies to charge more for processing the release.

Kelley Shannon, with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, called the new law “a good step in the right direction,” but pointed out that some of its provisions were more restrictive than the state’s policies regarding dash cam video.

“It might put up a hurdle that some people may not realize exists,” she said.

Kim Ogg, a Houston attorney and candidate for Harris County district attorney, who was among those addressing their concerns recently to the Houston City Council, said footage from the cameras may not be as accessible as people may think.

“The public believes the body cameras are going to provide them objective and independent evidence (of) police interaction with citizens and with each other,” she said at a news conference before the City Council meeting. “And it doesn’t look like … the digital recordings are going to be made public under this new law. It looks like they’re going to be less accessible than under the Open Records Act, and so it’s a step backwards, not a step forward.”

As we know, this has been an issue in Houston, and continues to be one. Some of this is because this is all new and we’re still figuring parts of it out, some of it is because of the natural tendency to want to keep things secret, and some of it is because the current state law is unclear. The courts will address some of the latter, and the Lege is sure to revisit things in 2017. Some of it will need to be addressed by the public raising a fuss. It’s going to be a process, and the more engagement everyone has in it, the better.

On a tangential note, I came across this Ars Technica story a few weeks ago and have been waiting for a reason to mention it.

One of the world’s most prolific computer worms has been found infecting several police body cameras that were sent to security researchers, the researchers reported.

According to a blog post published last week by security firm iPower, multiple police cams manufactured by Martel Electronics came pre-installed with Win32/Conficker.B!inf. When one such camera was attached to a computer in the iPower lab, it immediately triggered the PC’s antivirus program. When company researchers allowed the worm to infect the computer, the computer then attempted to spread the infection to other machines on the network.

“iPower initiated a call and multiple emails to the camera manufacturer, Martel, on November 11th 2015,” the researchers wrote in the blog post. “Martel staff has yet to provide iPower with an official acknowledgement of the security vulnerability. iPower President, Jarrett Pavao, decided to take the story public due to the huge security implications of these cameras being shipped to government agencies and police departments all over the country.”

That’s from November, so it’s certainly possible that this issue has since been addressed. The point is, Conficker was malware from 2008. Your modern OSes are not affected by it. For it to have been found on these body cameras speaks volumes about security practices and software versions, none of it good. This doesn’t have anything to do with the question of how body camera data should be used and accessed, but it is a question to keep in mind. And as long as we’re talking security, CM Stardig was quoted in the Chron story in favor of a cloud solution for camera data storage. I think that’s fine, and it’s in line with current corporate practice, just make sure that standards and penalties are clearly spelled out in any agreement that gets signed. While there’s time to figure out the best practices for making the data public, safeguarding it is well-established. Let’s get that right the first time.

Paxton prosecutors sue AG office to block records

Hold on to your hats.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

In an unusual and head-spinning twist, prosecutors in the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the attorney general’s office Thursday to block the release of sensitive case information that could hinder Paxton’s defense but that his own agency ordered to be turned over to a Texas newspaper.

Go ahead, read that sentence again.

The latest twist began Oct. 14 when The Dallas Morning News requested copies of thousands of pages of investigative records that prosecutors had provided to Paxton’s defense lawyers in preparation for a potential trial on allegations that Paxton broke state securities laws in private business deals in 2011 and 2012.

Prosecutors sent a same-day reply email denying the request, saying previous attorney general opinions had declared such information off limits under the Texas Public Information Act. They also sought an attorney general’s opinion on whether the records could be withheld — a step the law requires when requested government information is denied.

On Jan. 4, however, the attorney general’s Open Records Division sent a letter informing the prosecutors that they had failed to take a second step required by the law — submitting their legal reasons for denying the request, along with samples of the requested information so Open Records Division lawyers could verify whether it fell under the law’s exceptions to disclosure.

Because the law wasn’t followed, the requested information must be automatically released, the letter said, adding that the only step remaining to prosecutors is a lawsuit “if you believe the information is confidential.”

That lawsuit was filed in Travis County district court Thursday by Dave Feldman, a Houston lawyer that Paxton’s trial judge appointed to represent prosecutors Kent Schaffer, Brian Wice and Nicole DeBorde in the matter.

[…]

“Talk about meeting yourself coming around the corner,” Feldman told the American-Statesman. “We’re having to sue the AG so we don’t have to disclose information adverse to the AG that we shouldn’t have to disclose under the law.”

Usually a story requires some element of time travel to have that kind of brain-bending quality. I might suggest that this is the sort of thing that happens when criminal defense attorneys get employed as special prosecutors: They actually take this kind of thing seriously. Look at it this way – this will not be an issue when Paxton appeals his conviction. Getting it right the first time has its merits. Trail Blazers, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

(By the way, it’s not clear to me if this is the same “Dave Feldman” as our past City Attorney, but I’m going to assume that it is. If nothing else, it’s simpler that way.)

More HERO public information requests

The bullying continues.

He’s a bully!

Does President Barack Obama regularly drop a line to Houston City Council members?

Probably not, but we could soon find out, thanks to a public records request that opponents of the city’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, filed this week. It’s a response to a public records request that a nonprofit filed earlier this month seeking correspondence between members that voted down the city’s equal rights ordinance and national anti-LGBT groups.

At the time, Councilman Michael Kubosh called a press conference to denounce the request, saying he was particularly upset that just the six council members that voted against the law, not the full council, were subject to the request. He called it “bullying.”

A week later, however, HERO opponents have taken the same approach. In a request filed Wednesday, conservative lawyer Jared Woodfill sought all communication between pro-HERO council members and a slew of local and national figures and groups, most pro-LGBT.

Fourth on the list, sandwiched between Mayor Annise Parker and the Human Rights Campaign, is Obama. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders along with mayor-elect Sylvester Turner are also included.

See here for the background. I’m sure CMs Kubosh and Martin will be holding a press conference to denounce this bit of bullying any minute now. Or maybe we’ve all managed to get a grip and recognize that this is just normal politics and nothing to get upset about. Regardless, I expect this request to have about the same effect as the other one, which is to say, not much. But at least everyone will have gotten it out of their system.

Council members complain about open records requests

Oh, please.

CM Michael Kubosh

CM Michael Kubosh

Councilmen Michael Kubosh and Dave Martin on Tuesday blasted a records request from a D.C.-based nonprofit to those council members who voted against the Houston equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, last year.

The Campaign for Accountability’s request seeks communication between prominent local anti-HERO activists as well as anti-LGBT groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, and the six council members who voted against the law. Kubosh and Martin were joined by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and councilmen Jack Christie, Dwight Boykins and Oliver Pennington in opposing the law in May 2014.

[…]

At a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday, Kubosh said council members were being “harassed and intimated” by the request. He called on the mayor to condemn the request, and said the six council members were unfairly targeted.

“I felt like when we received this open records request for over tens of thousands of emails and 51 names of individuals and organizations that we’re going to have to search through, this is a type of bullying,” Kubosh said.

The Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group that files records requests all over the country, responded in a written statement that the move was not meant to intimidate council members. The group called Kubosh’s charge an “outlandish allegation that seems contrived more to attract press attention than to express a serious concern.”

In an interview, deputy director Daniel Stevens also denied Kubosh’s allegation that Mayor Annise Parker, a proponent of the law, was behind the request. Kubosh called it a “lump of coal” from the mayor.

Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans responded to Kubosh’s comments in a written statement, saying his charge that the mayor is connected to the request is “totally unsubstantiated.”

“There are hundreds of people who have made political contributions to the mayor during her 18 years in office. Receiving open records requests is very common. We tend to get one or more a day here in the mayor’s office and they often come from people who disagree with something the mayor has done or a position she has taken on an issue. They can be overwhelming and time consuming to process but it is part of being an elected officeholder. If this is the first time the council member has received one, he should count himself lucky.”

Indeed. Of course some of these requests are going to be annoying, politically motivated, and/or time-consuming. That’s part of the job. You want to complain about people who don’t like you demanding to poke through your emails, go have a drink at the bar with Hillary Clinton. I’m sure she’d have a sympathetic ear to lend. Beyond that, I say suck it up.

If you think I’m being a bit harsh here, I admit that I am. But ask yourself a simple question: What would the reaction have been like from the folks at this little event if it had been Mayor Parker calling a press conference to decry the “bullying” open records requests of a political opponent? My guess is that sympathy would not have been the first order of the day. Sometimes the best course of action is to just get over yourself and show these people that you have nothing to hide and they’re the ones who are wasting their time. Assuming that’s how you feel about it, of course.

One more thing:

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also attended the event in support of Kubosh and Martin. Bettencourt is already planning to convene the Senate Intergovernmental Relations committee to look into why the city has been rebuffed by the Texas Supreme Court on ballot language issues, including one pertaining to HERO. He added Tuesday that he would seek to discuss a law that would “limit out-of-state access to this type of punitive open records request.”

Seriously? I’m going to outsource my reply to one of the commenters on the Chron story, who is not at all aligned with me politically:

Note to “Uncle Paul” — all your anti-transparency bill would do was (sic) lead the out of state organizations to get a member or supporter from Texas to file the request. It is done more frequently than you think, anyway.

So unless you’re proposing to do away with open records requests altogether, such legislation would do exactly nothing. But thanks for playing. The Press has more.

Uber sues Houston

It’s all about the secrecy.

Uber

Uber is once again suing to keep its secrets.

The ride-hailing service filed suit in Houston last week to block the release of public records that would reveal how many drivers it has licensed in the city, who they are and how the company operates in Texas, according to court documents obtained by The Huffington Post.

Reporters from Al Jazeera America and the Houston Chronicle requested the documents earlier this year as Uber began lobbying for a bill that would allow it to work throughout the state, expanding its reach to 27 million potential customers. The records could shed light on how Uber, which has faced fierce opposition in many new markets, brokers deals in different cities and states to skirt regulations that apply to taxi and limo drivers. They would also show how many of the Uber drivers in Houston were licensed by the city.

Uber argued against the release of those records, insisting that the information constituted trade secrets and would give an edge to smaller rivals such as Lyft and Sidecar.

“Uber is a private company and as such, information about driver partners is considered confidential and proprietary,” Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock told HuffPost in an email.

On April 1, the state attorney general ruled against Uber in favor of making the documents public. Weeks later, the Travis County District Court granted Uber a temporary order to bar Houston officials from releasing the records as the company prepared to sue the city to keep the information secret.

[…]

A clause in the Texas Public Information Act allows companies to review requests related to them before documents are released. In theory, this is to ensure that state officials don’t publicize trade secrets that could damage a firm. For the infamously litigious Uber, the law offers an opportunity to try and quash attempts to peer inside the $40 billion company.

There are other lawsuits involving Uber and Lyft in Texas, but they are the defendants in those cases. The federal lawsuit filed by cab companies has been cleared to continue and is the only one whose recent status I know. There was a hearing for this lawsuit yesterday, and the judge issued an injunction to allow the information to remain confidential pending the outcome of the trial, which is scheduled to begin October 19. We’ll see how it goes. Link via Swamplot.

Abbott does one last solid for Perry

He lets him keep his little secrets.

A code of silence sounds pretty good right now

After critics raised a stink about the tax dollars being spent to provide security for Gov. Rick Perry while he was gearing up to run for president, lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 designed to let Texans know — eventually — what they were getting for their money.

Now, thanks to a new ruling from the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Public Safety will not have to provide itemized travel records for the security detail after all. The DPS is still releasing the overall spending, with figures broken down into into five broad categories. But the ruling means that the public won’t know precisely what their tax dollars paid for when it comes to the governor’s security detail.

Relying on DPS assertions that releasing the old information represents an ongoing security threat, Abbott’s office blocked inspection of the travel records even though they were submitted years after the expenses were incurred. That includes the ones from Perry’s last presidential run, which ended in a spectacular nosedive a few months after it began.

Transparency advocates who had pushed for disclosure of the records, which once were available for public inspection, say Abbott’s ruling is another blow to open government in Texas. As attorney general, Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, decides what information government agencies have to provide under state transparency laws.

“It flies in the face of what the Legislature intended,” said Michael Schneider, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at the Texas Association of Broadcasters, which has fought to lift the long-standing veil of secrecy over the records. “It’s just plain wrong.”

Abbott’s decision cites a loophole in the open records law that allows DPS to block release if it believes disclosure would present a “substantial threat of physical harm” to the governor or his family. Abbott’s office said there was no choice but to apply that provision and withhold the records.

[…]

Issued on July 31, Abbott’s ruling came in response to a public information request from The Texas Tribune — not for itemized records of the new expenditures for Perry’s latest travels, but for old ones.

The request was aimed at getting DPS travel vouchers that would show what the money was being spent on, including items such as hotels and restaurants or other incidentals, from late 2011 through 2012.

Spending on security for the well-traveled governor has been a source of regular controversy. In 2004, before the records were deemed to be secret, Perry traveled to the Bahamas, and the Austin American-Statesman obtained vouchers that revealed taxpayers had paid for the security guards’ rental of scuba gear and a golf cart.

In 2009, KEYE-TV reported that taxpayers shelled out $70,000 for a single trip the governor and first lady Anita Perry took to Jerusalem, including “$17,000 for rooms at the swanky King David Hotel.”

By the time Perry went on the road in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, the DPS quit providing the voucher information and instead gave out raw totals for the security spending. The agency said giving out more detail could compromise the governor’s safety. At the height of his run, the state was spending as much as $400,000 a month to provide security for Perry, figures provided afterward revealed.

Three newspapers sued to get the travel vouchers in 2007, and in 2011 the courts ultimately ruled that the state could withhold them.

Amid the controversy, the Texas Legislature stepped in with what proponents described as a careful balance between government transparency and the security concerns raised by the DPS and the governor’s office.

The bill authored by then-state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, called for the the itemized records to remain confidential for a period of 18 months. After that, they “become subject to disclosure,” the 2011 law says.

This is a load of crap on so many levels. The “security” issue only became an angle when what was being revealed was embarrassing to Perry. It boggles the mind to think that details of travel in 2011 could cause a legitimate problem for a government official in 2014. The hypocrisy of Rick Perry, after years of bragging about cutting spending and zero-based budgeting telling us all to go suck an egg when we want to know just exactly what he did last summer is stunning, even for him. I accept that travel is part of his job description, and that in that capacity it is proper for the taxpayers to cover the cost of his security. But it’s not a blank check, and it’s certainly not justification for veiling the transactions. We have a right to know, and I guarantee you that if Wendy Davis gets elected this November she is not going to get anywhere near this level of deference from the people that are now defending Rick Perry.

And as for Greg Abbott, this totally says it all:

In an email, Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said the ruling is “dictated by the Supreme Court’s interpretation” of the exemption related to possible threats against the governor. That exemption remains part of the law Duncan passed.

“This ruling does not change existing law,” he said.

Strickland also said Abbott was not in the loop on the decision. With over 22,000 such rulings issued yearly, he said Abbott “does not and physically could not” review them all, but he appoints a staff that does the job.

“Consistent with that approach, General Abbott was not aware of this ruling,” Strickland said in a prepared statement.

He doesn’t even have the guts to own this. Remember when Abbott was campaigning as a champion of government transparency? Yeah, so much for that.

Sam Houston enters the chemical disclosure fray

From the inbox:

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Sam Houston, Democratic Nominee for Texas Attorney General, today promised to reverse the current AG’s letter ruling on the release of the locations of dangerous chemicals, putting the safety of our families and children first.

“I have reviewed the law that General Abbott cited when his office upheld the state health department’s decision to withhold this vital information,” Houston said. “That opinion is wrong. Under the Texas Public Information Act, information is open to the public absent any specific exception. Federal and state statutes specifically make this information available to the public. General Abbott took a nonspecific statute and said it overrode the public right to know statutes. Legally, this is incorrect.

“Texans have the right to know whether their homes, schools or churches are located near facilities with dangerous chemicals,” Houston said. “As soon as I receive a request for an opinion on this issue , I will re-review the issue and, absent any new information, will reverse the decision.”

Houston noted that information on chemicals stored at corporate facilities has been available for decades under state and federal law. He said the suggestion that Texans could just “drive around” and ask these facilities what chemicals they have on site is insulting and leaves thousands of Texans vulnerable to another incident like the one that occurred in West. Additionally, Houston said General Abbott’s “drive around and ask” suggestion contradicts his claim that this information is confidential.

“Texans need to know that their attorney general will aggressively defend the rights of all Texans,” said Houston. “I will re-establish trust in the attorney general’s office.”

I’d been hoping Houston would jump on this, as it seemed to be an obvious opportunity to make some noise on an issue that’s already in the news and where he can boost his own candidacy while aiding that of Wendy Davis as well. It’s totally fair game for him to say that he disagrees with something the incumbent AG has done and that he would do it differently if he were in office, and given Abbott’s blinkered view of the law this is a pretty fat target. Houston has done this before, and honestly I wish he’d do it more often. It’s not like there’s a shortage of issues on which Abbott has been worthy of criticism as AG, and the news hook for Houston would be bigger when he aims up.

Speaking of which, Houston’s release did in fact make the news.

Kicking off a four-city tour to keep the issue on voters’ minds, Houston charged Abbott, the GOP front-runner for governor, with disregarding public right-to-know laws when he ruled the Texas Department of State Health Services does not have to disclose information about hazardous chemicals kept at private facilities, citing a 2003 anti-terrorism law.

“All that they’re relying on is a vague statute that’s not specific enough,” Houston said during a news conference at a union hall in Houston. “That’s not good enough.”

[…]

“Voters are always going to want to hear about it because it’s going to come home in the future if we don’t change this and they don’t find out about the information,” Houston told reporters, brushing off the idea that voters have heard enough about an issue that has dominated the governor’s race for most of the month so far.

It’s also an opportunity for a free shot at his actual opponent.

Houston speculated [Ken] Paxton has avoided speaking about the ruling because “he’s got his own issues about openness,” an apparent reference to Paxton’s violation of a a state securities law. He was fined $1,000 for not informing clients of his relationship with an investment adviser.

It’s okay to be a little less oblique about that, but otherwise, well done. More like this, please.

Close enough for Greg Abbott

What more do you need to know?

Attorney General Greg Abbott first stirred things up by saying the state would not release information about the locations and amounts of hazardous chemicals held by private companies, reversing nearly three decades of public disclosure.

The Republican front-runner for governor then suggested Texans could “drive around” to find companies and ask them for the information, prompting his Democratic opponent, Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, to launch a seven-city “Texans Deserve to Know” tour lambasting Abbott.

Still battling criticism over his office’s ruling restricting the state release of information about hazardous chemical stockpiles – a position that Abbott said simply applies state homeland security law – the attorney general this week told Texans they can go to the state Department of Insurance website for “general” information about the storage of the volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.

That “general information,” it turns out, consists of little more than a yes or no answer to whether ammonium nitrate may be present in a ZIP code.

“It’s useless,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of watchdog group Public Citizen. “ZIP codes are by their nature relatively large geographic areas. The presence of ammonium nitrate on one side of the ZIP code or another doesn’t give you the information about how close it is so you can make a decision on whether you want to buy a house in the neighborhood, nor does it give you enough information to determine the relative risk based on the quantity of ammonium nitrate.”

The site has a disclaimer saying it is “for informational purposes and is not prepared for or suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying purposes. It does not represent an on-the-ground survey and represents only the approximate relative location of property boundaries. … No warranty is made by TDI regarding specific accuracy or completeness. It is the user’s responsibility to verify all data represented in the maps.”

“I would think that it would be more informative to simply post a map of Texas with all of the storage sites identified by location,” said Wendy Wagner, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The embedded image is included to give you an idea of what a ZIP code can look like in Texas. Doesn’t really tell you much, does it? But hey, at least it’s an answer.

Abbott’s justification for giving these increasingly convoluted non-answers is that he’s just interpreting state law. If we accept for the sake of argument that this is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then this must be a bad law. You’d think that the natural thing for a politician to do is say that maybe the law ought to be changed so that The People can have a better idea if they might be living next to a potential explosion. Greg Abbott hasn’t done that. I don’t think Greg Abbott is capable of doing that, because I don’t think Greg Abbott thinks this is a problem. Oh, he recognizes that there is a problem, because people keep asking him about this, but he thinks the problem is that people just won’t accept that they don’t need to know this information, that the corporate interest trumps theirs. So he’s going to keep saying the say thing, in however many different ways, and hope that the questions eventually stop. So I don’t think this is going away any time soon.

In the meantime, of course, this is a hanging curveball for the Davis campaign.

After several reporters tested the theory and were shown the door at various chemical facilities, Abbott acknowledged that citizens did not have easy access to the information and has since proposed a new law that would require fire departments to make the data available during normal business hours.

Although his campaign had earlier suggested that local fire departments already could give out that information, Abbott told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday that they were not allowed to disseminate the information.

“Right now they can’t,” he said. “That’s why my proposal is to make this information more conveniently accessible, is to allow people to seek and obtain the information from the fire marshals who already have this information.”

Abbott was asked what might prevent a terrorist from gaining access to the information through the fire marshals or the departments they work for. He said it would be up to those local officials to determine whether the people asking for it were up to no good.

“If this information can be obtained from a fire marshal, it can be done in a way where they’re going to know who it is seeking the information and they can make assessments about whether or not the people acquiring the information can pose any type of terroristic threat.”

Davis told reporters Saturday that Abbott’s proposal was “absurd.”

“He’s trying to have it both ways,” she said. “He’s trying to say that this information should not be disclosed to the public because of terrorist fears, and then on the other hand he wants to tell the public, ‘Look, here’s how you can find the information.’ It makes no sense.”

Abbott had previously claimed that making this information available to the public meant that terrorists could get it, too. Thus his plan to delegate the task of telling terrorists from ordinary folks to firefighters. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to take on that responsibility. Did I mention that there’s a much easier answer to this problem that would be obvious to a lot of people that aren’t Greg Abbott?

Davis takes her attack on Abbott’s chemical info obstruction on the road

Keeping it going.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis on Tuesday recalled the deadly explosion just up the road in West as she lambasted her GOP opponent for governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, over his decision restricting disclosure of information about chemical facilities’ hazardous caches.

“Texans deserve to know where these chemicals are located,” Davis told supporters at the Waco building that houses the Democratic Party, her campaign and Battleground Texas, a group working to make the state competitive for Democrats.

“A candidate for governor should have more concern for the people of the state that she wants to run than to let them sleep next door to explosives and not only not say a word about it, but actively seek to hide that information from them,” said Davis, who has seized on the issue as part of her effort to paint Abbott as an insider who is not working for everyday Texans.

She launched a “Texans Deserve to Know” tour across Texas Tuesday to pound on the issue, starting in Fort Worth and traveling to Waco. The tour also will include San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Austin and El Paso. Davis has said if elected, she will make disclosure of the information a priority.

There’s a lame explanation from one of Abbott’s spokespeople claiming that he’s just interpreting a law from 2003, which even if one is inclined to believe that still leaves one wondering why this information continued to be routinely disclosed in the 11 years since. What there still isn’t, as I noted yesterday, is anything resembling a counterattack from Abbott on this. It’s duck and cover all the way. That right there says more than anything Davis could say. Trail Blazers, which embeds a long video segment that Rachel Maddow did on this, has more.

UPDATE: I take it back. Abbott is now responding, and he’s playing the terrorist card. Perhaps someone should ask him 1) why didn’t he take this threat seriously before now, and 2) if homeowners can find out about dangerous chemicals by “just driving around” and asking, can’t the terrorists do that, too?

Why would you want to regulate that?

I mean, what are a few fiery explosions among friends?

Members of the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee have been struggling for several months over how to respond to last year’s massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and devastated the nearby city of West.

On Tuesday, committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a draft bill that would require businesses to store ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertilizer, in noncombustible buildings or in buildings equipped with a sprinkler system.

Affected businesses would have three years to comply, though new facilities would have to meet the heightened standard immediately, Pickett said.

The bill also would open the facilities to inspections by all certified firefighters to verify safe storage and to create a strategy on fighting potential fires. Pickett said the provision was in response to a state law that allows inspections only by paid firefighters.

“Over 70 percent of firefighters in Texas are volunteers … so 70 percent of our first responders do not have that authority,” he said.

Most controversially, Pickett’s proposal would require storage facilities to meet standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops research-based fire codes.

Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, said the bill includes fire standards that are too complex for small businesses to navigate.

“I count no less than 10 different state and federal codes, standards and regulations listed in this bill, some of which I have a problem with,” he said. “We may be making things a little too complex.”

Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said the proposal was overkill, and he recommended letting businesses opt out of bill’s provisions if they agree to store ammonium nitrate in a noncombustible building and allow fire inspectors to conduct periodic checks.

“I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business,” he said. “I recognize the tragedies that we’ve had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry.”

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said he was concerned about shifting unaffordable costs onto an industry “that has operated safely for decades.”

“It seems like we’re out there with kind of a power grab,” Flynn said.

Pickett replied that he could not live with himself if he didn’t try to improve safety around the facilities.

“I think, Dan, that if we do nothing, we’ll have another West disaster,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If I have an ammonium nitrate facility, with the possibility of a catastrophic situation, I am going to be asking them to spend some money.”

The Chron story has more of the same in this vein. I mean, come on, who in their right minds could possibly think that requiring highly combustible materials to be stored in non-combustible buildings is a good idea? How could these poor businesses possibly be expected to survive if we made them do that?

Well, at least we have the right to know where the hazardous material is, right? Surely the government will require that the places that could blow sky high any minute tell us about that possibility, right? Wrong.

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called Tier II reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.

But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.

Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of spare time in my day to drive around to every chemical facility in Houston and ask them about what hazardous and explosive materials they have, which I’m sure they’ll be delighted to tell me all about. Why, I’ve got so much free time I may just drive around to chemical plants that aren’t in my area and ask them about this. Thanks for the great suggestion for how to spend my time, Greg Abbott! I’m sure the terrorists that you’re hoping to hide this information from are thinking the same thing, too.

Of course, you know the real reason why Greg Abbott issued this opinion:

The story.

Five months after an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West, Attorney General Greg Abbott received a $25,000 contribution from a first-time donor to his political campaigns — the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division.

The donor, Chase Koch, is the son of one of the billionaire brothers atop Koch Industries’ politically influential business empire.

Abbott, who has since been criticized for allowing Texas chemical facilities to keep secret the contents of their plants, received more than $75,000 from Koch interests after the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility, campaign finance records filed with the state showed.

[…]

For decades, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the state.

But Abbott has said that those records are closed. And the state agency that collects and maintains information on large chemical supplies has stopped sharing it with the public.

Abbott contends his opinion, issued in May, strikes a balance. On Tuesday, he called it a “win-win” that keeps information about large chemical inventories off the website of the Department of State Health Services but doesn’t forbid homeowners from asking companies in their neighborhoods what they store.

He said companies should respond within 10 days, but it’s not clear what penalties, if any, private companies face if they decline to tell a member of the public what chemicals are on site.

In blocking public access to the information, Abbott cited a state security statute passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A Davis aide rebuked Abbott for the remarks.

“The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives,” said spokesman Zac Petkanas. “Parents have a right to know whether their kids are playing hopscotch next door to the type of facility that exploded in West.”

[…]

Chase Koch donated $25,000 in September, shortly after his father, Koch board chairman Charles Koch, also gave $25,000. The Koch Industries political committee sent Abbott $25,000 in November.

In addition, the company flew Abbott on a company jet in August to an invitation-only gathering in New Mexico that offered wealthy donors an opportunity to meet and mingle with GOP elected officials and leaders of conservative groups supporting the Koch agenda of less government regulation and disclosure.

In the Texas Legislature, Koch lobbyists are on record advocating repeal of notification requirements regarding company pipeline construction and discontinuing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s compliance history program.

Remember when Greg Abbott made ethics reform a key component of his campaign? Boy, those were the days. Burka has more.

UPDATE: Looks like Abbott realized he stepped in it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott this week said private companies must release information about their hazardous chemical stockpiles, weeks after his office ruled the same information no longer would be available from state agencies.

“Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday, adding, “And if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

Not everyone agrees with Abbott’s reading of the law, however.

Requests by the Houston Chronicle to 20 companies and local emergency response agencies last month produced mixed results: Half of the companies and agencies sent extensive data on the hazardous chemicals they held on site, known as Tier II reports; five sent basic chemical inventories that often did not include amounts or other details; one asked for more information; two refused to release any data; and two did not respond.

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said “this is a huge campaign issue and should be.”

“Other former attorneys general would have stood up for the citizens,” Smith said. “The process Abbott has now created is almost impossible for the average citizen that doesn’t have the Houston Chronicle’s name to back them up.”

Abbott acknowledged to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process may be more difficult than he originally had proposed, calling it “challenging” to get chemical facility information.

Abbott’s statements also could encounter opposition from the business community.

Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland said any private company that denied the Chronicle’s requests was providing the public with “misinformation” and could face unspecified “penalties.”

“Chemical companies have an obligation under the Community Right-to-Know Act to disclose that information to the general public within 10 days,” Strickland said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Private companies are required to provide the information. Any failure (to) do to so carries with it penalties to be assessed by the Department of State Health Services.”

Strickland said Abbott’s office was reaching out to the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group to which Orica does not belong, to ensure its members understand the law. TAIA President Donnie Dippel said he would urge his members to comply with the law.

Strickland reiterated that the refused information requests were not Abbott’s choice, but what was required under state law.”

Industry lawyer and lobbyist Pam Giblin said the issue was not that cut and dried.

“If the government doesn’t have to release it, how in the world does a private company get this disclosure obligation thrust on it?” Giblin asked, adding she sees possible litigation on the horizon. “There are a lot of homeland security issues. … I think you’re bound to see some court tests because this just doesn’t make sense.”

What would make sense would be for the state’s top law enforcement official to ensure that this information is made available to the public by the government. Too bad Greg Abbott is answering to a higher power than that.

Tracking city performance

Cool.

HoustonSeal

The City of Houston launched a website Monday pulling from a massive database of 311 service requests that allows visitors to create custom graphs counting everything from bad tasting water and missed yard waste pickups to storm sewer odors and traffic signal timing.

The site also includes links to the most recent quarterly performance report to the mayor, the site’s Data Portal website where it hopes to inspire civic-minded programmers and a partnership with a community group, Open Houston, dedicated to innovation.

“Through the Performance Insight report and the Performance Improvement Portal, citizens are now able to see how the City measures its own performance, participate in civic innovation projects and join in an ongoing conversation about government improvement,” read a city press release.

City officials also touted the soon-to-be expanded site as an important transparency measure.

“There are currently over 200 datasets available through the online portal, and the City is finalizing an Administrative Procedure that will lay the groundwork to make all non-exempt data publically accessible in the future,” the release said.

The website is here and the data portal is here. That has a bunch of GIS data sets, which even now are sending out a siren call to folks like Greg Wythe. I don’t know how much this site will be used by most normal people, but it’s an impressive piece of government transparency. Check it out.

Who watches the private police departments?

Not good.

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

“We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. “Does stuff like this happen every day and they’re able to withhold it?”

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university’s police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

[…]

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a “bait bike” that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required to release information such as the arrest video.

“Of course it was a beating,” said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “If (Rice administrators) don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin.” He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

The KPRC report is here, with a followup here that includes reactions from Sen. Whitmire and State Rep. Garnet Coleman. There are many law enforcement agencies in Texas, including some highly specialized ones, and some that are under the auspices of private entities like Rice University. It should be clear that all law enforcement agencies should be subject to the same level of disclosure and transparency, but they’re not, and as usual we don’t think about it until something like this happens. The same rules should apply to anyone that has the authority to arrest someone and to use force to subdue them. I look forward to the bills Sen. Whitmire will file as a result of this, and I recommend Rice take him at his word.