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.