Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

open records

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.

“Poopgate” is a big load of…

Well, you know.

Documents released Monday by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s provided no new evidence that officers found one jar of urine and 18 containers of feces at the Capitol before a July 12 debate on a controversial abortion bill.

DPS released a press statement the day of the debate that said officers had discovered one jar suspected of containing urine and 18 jars suspected to contain feces. After initially resisting requests for additional information about the reported discoveries, DPS on Monday released 144 pages of documents about the alleged incident. But the documents contain no official reports of the findings, and several DPS officers said they had not seen any of the suspected items.

The documents included photos that show a bottle of acrylic paint and a small jar — reportedly collected at the Senate gallery entrance — that DPS Commander Jose Ortiz said he was “trying to getting clarification on.” There was also a photo of three bricks collected in the Capitol extension.

In a text message exchange three days after the debate, one DPS employee asked others if they were aware of “urine or feces taken during our shakedowns.” Three employees responded that they had not seen any discoveries of excrement.

DPS director Steve McCraw indicated he was frustrated about media reporting on the incident, and in a July 14 email he asked DPS officers to give the media photos of the suspected items.

“I’m tired of reading that we made this stuff up,” Steven McCraw wrote in an email. “Let’s get the photos we have to members and the media. Does anyone realistically believe we would fabricate evidence to support a political agenda. Amazing.”

Well, Steve, the evidence, or rather the lack of any evidence to back up that ridiculous, irresponsible, and inflammatory press release you put out on July 13 (scroll down here to see it), would suggest that’s exactly what you did. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but you have a past history of dirty tricks, so you get zero benefit of the doubt from me. Cry me a river if you don’t like it.

The Observer was first out with the story of DPS’ document dump, which came after several weeks of stonewalling on their part. I refer you to this remarkable exchange at the end:

A DPS spokesman responded to questions from the Observer. Here are the question we posed and the agency’s response in its entirety.

1) What advantage did closely monitoring social media accounts provide DPS?

We do not discuss security measures or methods.

2) How did DPS gather intelligence on the meetings of activist groups? Were there undercover law enforcement personnel present at the meetings?

We do not discuss security measures or methods.

3) The documents still do not show any evidence of those “suspected” jars of feces and urine despite Director McCraw’s requests to produce any photos showing potential disruptive objects. Was DPS definitively unable to locate any photographic (or other) of these items?

We have no additional information to provide you.

4) Is it routine for DPS to monitor the social media accounts of private citizens?

We do not discuss security measures or methods.

Transparency, y’all. I didn’t blog about this before because there was just too much else going on at the time, but needless to say the wild and unsubstantiated claims by DPS, based on little more than rumor and fearmongering on Twitter by anti-choice activists got wide play, egged on by shameless political opportunists like David Dewhurst. The truth will likely never dislodge the belief that any of this really happened, but at least now we know the truth. BOR, nonsequiteuse, PDiddie, and Juanita have more, and I have a special musical dedication to Steve McCraw and his poop-seeking cronies:

It’s a little gross in places, but could hardly be more fitting.

Texas Watchdog followup on HCC reports

So after I published those HCC Trustee campaign finance reports, I got an email from Jennifer Peebles of Texas Watchdog, who asked me if I had redacted the files to hide the mailing addresses of the trustees and their donors. I said no, I had uploaded exactly what they gave me. Turns out they should have left the trustees’ addresses in there.

A public entity such as HCC may redact home addresses of its elected officials and employees only if those officials or employees requested that in writing within 14 days of taking office, [Tom Gregor, a Houston lawyer who provides legal advice for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin] said.

Home addresses for candidates for public office are important, among other reasons, to ensure they live at a residence that qualifies them to run.

[…]

“It sounds like they redacted everybody without putting too much thought into it,” said Joel White, an Austin-based lawyer who also provides legal advice for the FOI Foundation of Texas.

Elected public officials and public employees also cannot choose to withhold their home addresses after a public records request for that information, is submitted, White said.

In HCC’s case, “we don’t know if they made that election or not,” White said.

As I said in the story, I was given the docs on a thumb drive, but was not told that they had been altered in any way. I did not know about the legal issues until Peebles and subsequently reporter Mike Cronin mentioned it to me, but had I been told that some data had been hidden I would have asked why. I have to say, if HCC was like the city of Houston where candidates generally fill out the forms electronically and they get posted to a public webpage, this sort of issue would not come up. As I noted before, Trustee Richard Schechter has taken up the issue of at least getting the reports posted on the HCC webpage. I guess this is one more detail that will need to be ironed out first.

On a side note, the original reason Peebles had contacted me was to tell me that she had managed to greatly shrink the size of the PDFs that I had in Adobe Pro. She very generously sent me smaller versions of each file that was too big to be previewed in Google Docs. I have uploaded these smaller files and updated the post and the 2011 Election page to display them. My sincere thanks to Jennifer Peebles for the assist.

DA clears Metro

Nice.

Months after prosecutors took boxes of documents from Metro’s downtown headquarters and experts examined the agency’s computers, the investigation into allegations that Metropolitan Transit Authority administrators illegally destroyed public documents has ended, Metro officials said today.

In a letter to METRO, the Harris County District Attorney’s office wrote, “Our investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and those allegations were unfounded.”

The letter clears the agency of any wrongdoing.

That sound you hear is the wailing of all the Metro haters, who were convinced that evil was afoot and are no doubt disappointed to come away so empty. To recap, back in February Metro was accused of shredding documents related to an open records request Lloyd Kelley made. The DA opened its probe a week later. Shortly after that, Kelley admitted he didn’t have any actual evidence to back up the original claim of document shredding, which may or may not have had anything to do with the nookie that then-CEO Frank Wilson was allegedly engaging in with one of his staffers. Said alleged nookie apparently never happened, or at least if it did it wasn’t done on Metro’s dime. Kelley eventually settled his lawsuit with Metro, with an acknowledgment that there was no evidence of any shredding; Kelley also never said just what it was he’d been looking for in the first place. A grand jury heard evidence related to the alleged shredding in May. And now here we are. About all that’s left from the last days of Frank Wilson is the Pauline Higgins lawsuit and the ongoing Buy America saga. I think that about covers it. Mary Benton has more.

UPDATE: Hair Balls has more.

The Metro settlement agreement

I presume we’ll get some more details in the morning, but for now I wanted to highlight one aspect of the story of Metro’s settlement agreement with Lloyd Kelley.

The suit accused Metro and several of its top officials, including then-President Frank J. Wilson, of destroying documents Kelley requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

The final judgment approved by state District Judge Al Bennett states that the parties agree that all investigations revealed no evidence that the transit agency engaged in any improper destruction of documents.

It recognizes that the Metro Transit Authority Board adopted a new document retention policy on May 18.

Emphasis mine. Now, an agreement of no wrongdoing is common in settlements like this, and there is still that ongoing criminal investigation, which could turn up anything, not to mention to Pauline Higgins lawsuit. But admit it: You were expecting Kelley to find something, especially after the hanky panky allegations were made. From where I sit, this doesn’t look all that much different from a dismissal. Maybe Kelley will have something to say about it tomorrow, maybe his still-unnamed client will speak up about why the suit was filed and what they thought they might find, and maybe that will change my mind. But right now, as I type this, it looks like it was a whole lot of nothing.

More on the Metro lawsuit settlement

As we know, the Metro document shredding lawsuit has been pulled from the court docket in anticipation of a settlement agreement. The Chron has more on what that settlement agreement might entail.

The proposed settlement of an open-records lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority would require Metro to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff, Lloyd Kelley, and to improve its policies for preserving public documents, Kelley said Monday.

The agreement, however, wouldn’t address the lawsuit’s allegations that Metro officials have improperly destroyed public documents, said Kelley, a lawyer and former city controller.

That issue would be left to criminal investigators, Kelley said. The Harris County District Attorney’s office launched an investigation in March.

My advice for Metro is to be prepared for sticker shock. You’ll want to know what those legal fees will amount to before you sign on the dotted line. We’ll see if that actually causes a problem in the negotiations.

As for the criminal probe, that’s the more appropriate vehicle for settling the question about what Metro may or may not have done. I have no idea when that may conclude. Houston Politics has more.

New frontiers in open meeting laws

There’s an awful lot here to think about.

The Texas Legislature may become the first in the nation to tackle whether tweeting and texting is being used to circumvent open meetings laws and whether the private devices of public officials can be subject to open records searches.

“They are new tools to communicate with constituents … and in some ways they are a better way to engage the public in the public policy process,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

But he told the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the tools of the Internet and smart phones can lead to quorum and open meetings violations.

“Everybody here today has been texting and answering e-mails,” Elkins said. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a quorum of any body has texted each other to say ‘Yes, I’m voting and why.’ ”

[…]

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said he would be concerned that people may think he was violating the law by texting during a meeting when, in fact, he may be dealing with a family emergency, a message from a constituent or even taking a moment to read the Gospel of the Day.

“Texting has become an excellent way to get staff to assist you during committee meetings,” Lucio said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he is concerned about subjecting private computers and private cell phones to public information requests. He said he also is worried that public officials may end up having to carry three cell phones to cover public use, campaign use and private use.

“Everybody ought to have some expectation of privacy, even if they are a public official,” Duncan said.

No question there’s a can of worms here, but I am sympathetic to what the Senators have to say. Among other things, many public officials are parents, and I’d bet they get lots of text messages from or about their kids, just like millions of other parents do. Basically, this is in some sense no different than email, and we had this conversation about email some years ago. Everyone more or less understands the rules with email – what you can and can’t send from your official account, for example – and it shouldn’t to too hard to translate those rules for other forms of communication. Just codifying what’s allowed and what’s not will do a lot to discourage official business from taking place out of sight.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be loopholes to exploit. That happens now with email. We’ve seen Governor Perry and various members of the Bush administration use personal email accounts for a lot of stuff that may have been official or campaign communications because they can avoid this kind of scrutiny by doing so. There isn’t always a sufficiently clear distinction between different kinds of communications, so any number of things can fall between the cracks by accident or design. With new technologies constantly emerging, those who want to operate in secret will always have an advantage, as the law will never be able to keep up. Confusion is an issue, too, as illustrated by this paragraph:

Not long after a Florida state commission recommended all agencies adopt policies on electronic messaging last year, the state’s utility regulation agency was caught in a scandal when staff gave out private Blackberry messaging accounts to utility lobbyists, who treated them to a Kentucky Derby trip. Though no texts were preserved, it gave the appearance of trying to circumvent the state’s open meetings law.

I’m not what they mean by “BlackBerry messaging accounts”, but as far as I know, one normally sends text messages to a phone number. You can use BlackBerrys for instant messaging as well, however, and I suspect this may have been referring to IM accounts, which can be on various services like AIM or Yahoo or Microsoft OCS if you are on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server that is configured to work with it. Personal IM usage would not be recorded on a BES, if that’s what these guys were doing. Getting a real handle on this will be a challenge, but using existing guidelines for email usage will be our best bet for where to start.

One last thing: The opening sentence of this story referred to “tweeting and texting”, but that was the only mention of anything related to Twitter. Say what you want about Twitter, it’s not normally used for clandestine communication. Yes, you can protect your tweets, and yes you can send text-like direct messages, but for the most part Twitter is the opposite of what needs to be dealt with here.

Like I said, it’s a complex issue. Vince makes a compelling case that what’s at issue is open records, not open meetings. I encourage you to read what he has to say on the subject.

Got evidence?

If you saw Wednesday night’s rather sensational coverage of the allegations that Metro CEO Frank Wilson had an “improper” relationship with an employee, you would have come away with the impression that things were about to go all Chuck Rosenthal at that agency. But if you read this Houston Politics post about that hearing, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

During Wednesday’s hearing in the open records lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority, an attorney for lawyer and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley acknowledged that he had no witnesses ready to testify that the transit agency had destroyed specific documents his client had requested.

Instead, attorney Michael West told state District Judge Al Bennett that Metro couldn’t be trusted to comply with the court’s order not to destroy any documents. West also said he could produce witnesses who would testify that Metro officials — particularly its chief executive, Frank Wilson — had strong motives to hide or shred documents Kelley wanted to see.

When Bennett questioned West about this, West stated in open court that Wilson had a “personal relationship that is inappropriate” with his chief of staff, Joanne Wright.

When I asked West later if by “inappropriate” he meant a romantic or sexual relationship, he said he wasn’t certain.

So Kelley has no witnesses to testify that any documents or emails he’s requested have actually been destroyed as he’s loudly been alleging for weeks now, and the best he can do is produce someone to testify that Wilson had motive to destroy documents – the documents he can’t find anyone to say were destroyed – because these documents might have to do with an inappropriate relationship, the nature of which he’s not sure about. It sounds a lot less sensational when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

This doesn’t mean that documents weren’t shredded, or that Wilson didn’t have an inappropriate relationship with Wright. All the things Kelley is alleging may be true. But he’s not acting like a man who has evidence of the charges he’s made, he’s acting like a man who’s hoping to find evidence of them. Those are two different stories.

Kelley claims Metro is holding out

So now the Metro document shredding case gets more interesting.

Documents supplied by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in response to Houston attorney and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley’s open records request were incomplete and “sanitized,” Kelley said Friday.

“I know for a fact that I didn’t get all the e-mails,” said Kelley, adding that people within Metro, whom he didn’t identify, have told him of documents responsive to his request that weren’t included in what he received from the agency. “They’ve definitely sanitized this stuff.”

Metro board Chairman David Wolff, who provided the same documents to reporters Thursday, said they were a complete response to the open records request.

Kelley’s comments came amid growing indications that two legal challenges to Metro — Kelley’s records case and an expected lawsuit by the agency’s fired chief counsel — will feature accusations that the transit authority hasn’t met legal requirements for retaining documents.

Kelley obtained a temporary restraining order Wednesday forbidding Metro from destroying any of the e-mails, travel records and other documents he requested in January. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.

Kelley said his open records request was made in connection with his representation of a client. He wouldn’t name the client or explain specifically what he hoped to learn from examining the documents.

It’s a little hard to judge Kelley’s accusations here without knowing those details. How can you know if he got what he asked for if you don’t know what he asked for? That said, this is Metro’s screwup. The onus is on them to prove they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and as noted by Mayor Parker later in the story, they do not err on the side of too much information with open records requests. I hope for their sake that the hearing on Friday will show that they have complied with Kelley’s request, but I won’t be surprised to find that they did not include some things.

Oh, and Metro does have a documents retention policy. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they’re any more transparent than Governor Rick Perry is.

Please don’t shred the documents

This isn’t good.

At a crucial moment in the development of its light rail system, Metro confronted accusations Wednesday that it shredded documents sought in an open-records request, then fired two attorneys who objected to its handling of the request.

State District Judge Robert Shaffer signed a temporary restraining order forbidding the Metropolitan Transit Authority from destroying records requested by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

In January, the Houston lawyer had requested travel records, e-mail and other documents involving several top Metro officials, Board Chairman David Wolff and an executive of an agency rail contractor.

In a hastily called news conference, Metro President Frank Wilson said one of the agency’s lawyers shredded some documents on Monday. When he discovered this, Wilson said, he ordered an investigation of what was shredded and the circumstances.

Wilson said he didn’t know whether the shredded documents included any sought by Kelley, but said he was confident Metro will produce the records Kelley wants.

“I’m not sure there was anything sinister about it,” Wilson said. “It may be very innocent and very coincidental.”

That’s usually not the way it is, and even if it does turn out to be the case, the timing is still lousy. Does Metro have a document retention policy in place, and if so was it followed? If it doesn’t have such a policy, now would be a good time to put together a team to create one. Just please make sure the process to create it is done openly, and allows for plenty of input from the public.

To its credit, Metro’s response is appropriate.

Faced with a lawsuit, an increasingly critical mayor and lingering questions about document shredding and high-level firings, Metro board chairman David Wolff took steps Thursday to prop up public confidence in his embattled agency.

Wolff released documents that he said was fully responsive to a January open records request by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

He joined Mayor Annise Parker in asking Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to investigate the shredding of as-yet unidentified documents Monday by a Metro employee.

“It is very important to maintain public confidence in Metro, and that’s why I’ve urged the mayor to involve the DA’s office beginning today, if possible,” Wolff said.

Lykos, through a spokeswoman, declined to say whether she would comply with the request.

The best outcome is for the DA to investigate and determine that nothing sinister happened. Let’s hope that is the case. Martha and Hair Balls have more.

Chron sues Perry over clemency files

Good for them.

The Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers LLC are suing Gov. Rick Perry in an effort to force the release of a clemency report Perry received before denying a stay of execution to Cameron Todd Willingham.

The report is a summary and status of the case against Willingham that was given to Perry at 11:30 a.m. on the day of Willingham’s 2004 execution in the fire deaths of his three daughters. Anti-death penalty advocates say modern fire forensics show the blaze cannot be proven as arson.

Perry’s office has refused to release the report, claiming it is a privileged document. The clemency document was used by Perry in the process of deciding whether to give Willingham a 30-day stay of execution.

“When it comes to human life, there is no place the governor should be more transparent in his decision-making,” said Jonathan Donnellan, an attorney for Hearst and the Chronicle.

“It should raise eyebrows that the governor is seeking to shield communications with his advisers as ‘legal advice,’ when the very idea of executive clemency power is to make a policy decision after the legal process has run its course,” Donnellan said.

In a just world, this would be a slamdunk, but in the world we inhabit, you never know. We know that Rick Perry really loves his secrets, and regardless of the context that’s just bad for transparency and good government. I hope the Chron gets a quick and decisive ruling in their favor.

On a related note, Grits does his own analysis of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, and puts in an open records request to see if any of the recorded conversations between Willingham and his lawyer contained a confession. I’m very interested to see what he finds out.

HISD set to hire Grier

But not without some drama first.

The Houston school board is expected to officially hire Terry Grier as superintendent Thursday and offer him a multiyear contract that is likely to top $400,000 a year in salary and perks over time.

Three weeks of intense negotiations on the deal dragged into Wednesday evening, with trustees trying to ensure they didn’t end up repeating the costly deal they had with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who stepped down last month.

Saavedra’s exit package cost taxpayers $978,967, according to the district. Much of the payout was for unused time off he had accrued over his career, plus extra vacation days the board granted him.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said Saavedra’s contract served as a “lesson learned,” and this time around the board paid “a lot more attention to detail.”

“It’s a fair contract,” Harris said. “Both sides should be quite pleased.”

Harris said she expects the board to unanimously appoint Grier at its 5 p.m. meeting today — though state Sen. Mario Gallegos is threatening to derail the process.

Gallegos, D-Houston, said he is prepared to ask Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ office to investigate the school board for possible violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

He said he believes trustees unlawfully deliberated about Grier’s contract before naming him the lone finalist for superintendent last month, and he has requested documents from the district to try to prove his case.

“I’m serious about this,” said Gallegos, who sent a letter with his demands Tuesday to HISD’s outside counsel, Chris Gilbert. “I believe the public was shut out.”

I doubt Sen. Gallegos will get any joy out of this, but as one who’s on record opposing the secret superintendent search, I am interested in seeing what he finds out. I do think the Board should have been more open, and if they say that makes their job of finding superintendents too hard, then it’s on them to lobby the Lege to write a new law that explicitly allows them to do it their way. I hope in the end that Dr. Grier will be such a success that all of this will some day be looked back on as a mere trifle, but in the meantime we ought to know if all the rules were followed in hiring him.

Craddick’s cleanup

I’m amused by this.

Before the House voted Speaker Tom Craddick out of his powerful job, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that important public records may have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

Craddick left the speaker’s office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member without a vast staff and without the sweeping power the presiding officer wields.

The computers were removed from the speaker’s office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council, which oversees computer issues for the Legislature. Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was sworn in as speaker at noon the next day.

But before Craddick gave up the gavel to Straus, the council let Craddick take what he wanted and deleted everything else, officials said.

“Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative’s) office,” Billingsley said. “As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker’s office and they got wiped.”

Deleting computer files is standard procedure, Craddick’s chief of staff Kate Huddleston said. But it’s not clear what files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions “outrageous.”

“If it’s on a state computer, it’s a state record. They’re not his records. They belong to the people of Texas,” Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

My reaction upon seeing this was, is this really standard procedure? If the commenters on Burkablog are to be believed, apparently so. It would be standard in the business world, but then we don’t have open records laws to worry about. This followup story goes into more detail.

[The Texas Legislative Council] said it followed its regular procedures, which included computer “sanitization” guidelines that had been issued in 2003 and revised in 2007. The bottom line: only the legislators themselves — and in this case former speaker Craddick — get to decide what to keep and what not to keep.

“The legislator makes all decisions regarding their files,” the council said in an unsigned news release on the stationery of council director Milton Rister. “The council simply follows its operating procedures in reformatting the computers for use by other or new legislators.”

But state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, said Rister should resign over the incident.

“I’m very concerned about records being destroyed the day before the election of a new speaker without anyone in the Legislature in charge of stopping it or preventing it,” Merritt said. “Milton Rister needs to resign.”

Council spokeswoman Araminta Everton declined to comment on Merritt’s request.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said he was filing legislation to prevent such destruction in the future. He said his bill was designed to “preserve the public’s right to know about legislative information when a legislator leaves office.”

I think that’s a better approach. At the very least, there’s no reason why a backup of the computer can’t be done before the wipe is performed. As for Milton Rister, he’s been the subject of controversy since he was first named director of the TLC.

And of course, with Tom Craddick, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Even as fellow House members were wresting him from his leadership post, former House Speaker Tom Craddick directed state officials to renovate his cherished Capitol apartment, spending all but $18.55 from a restoration fund that once totaled over $1.3 million.

The final purchase order — $45,400 for two historic Texas oil paintings — was issued just hours before Craddick had to hand power over to Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, after House members voted him out of the No. 1 post because they didn’t like his autocratic leadership style. Straus got Craddick’s job as well as the keys to the 1,804-square-foot apartment behind the House chamber.

Private funds, donated from wealthy contributors and lobbyists, were used to pay for the renovation. State employees were also dispatched to perform minor installation work on the project late last year, officials said.

Craddick, a Midland oilman, announced he was withdrawing from the speaker’s race on Jan. 4, after it was clear he no longer had a majority of the House behind him. A day later, on Jan. 5, the Texas State Preservation Board approved the expenditure of $124,000 on the apartment, including the purchase of a $75,000 crystal chandelier that had already been hung over the speaker’s spacious dining room.

All told, the State Preservation Board — in charge of modifications to the state capitol — approved $169,400 in expenditures on the apartment renovation during Craddick’s final week in office. The last expenditure, for the oil paintings, was approved just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, only hours before the Republican speaker formally relinquished power, records show.

I have to admit, the man does have a certain flair.