Snubbin' the Public

The Texas Department of Public Safety has now spent more than two years and almost $166,000 in lawyer fees fighting a Texas Observer request to release information we believe should clearly be made public. Attorney General Greg Abbott agrees. A state district judge agrees. The state public records law is on our side.

But DPS-invoking a patently absurd argument that it is protecting us from terrorists-soldiers on in stubborn commitment to a flawed policy, refusing to admit that it is wrong. That recalcitrance is costing taxpayers a pile of money and usurping the public’s right to know what goes on in their state Capitol.

On October 24, in a courtroom at the University of Texas at Austin, DPS will try again to keep the information secret, this time in an appeal before the Third Court of Appeals. If that fails, and it probably will, we have no doubt DPS will go for a fourth strike by appealing to the state Supreme Court.

This descent into lunacy, DPS argues in part, is necessary to keep it from revealing the locations of surveillance cameras in the Capitol that anyone with reasonable vision can simply walk into the building and see.

Here’s the story so far:

We thought our readers and the public should know if one of the richest, most politically influential men in Texas was in the Capitol strong-arming lawmakers to pass his pet legislation. On the morning of May 23, 2005, the Capitol was rife with rumors that San Antonio multimillionaire James Leininger had arrived to pressure lawmakers into voting to establish a pilot voucher program for public school students. Leininger had invested heavily in political campaigns to elect a Legislature that would favor vouchers. His influence had persuaded Speaker Tom Craddick to force the unpopular issue onto the floor. Now the hospital-bed magnate needed votes.

One rumor making the rounds was that Leininger was meeting lawmakers in a room off the hallway behind the House chamber. Plainly visible by anyone standing in the hallway are video surveillance cameras operated by DPS, as there are throughout much of the Capitol. We filed a public records request for the hallway video to see if we could identify Leininger. Imagine our surprise when the DPS claimed that giving us the tape would somehow compromise homeland security and aid terrorists by revealing sources and methods of the surveillance.

In response to DPS’s refusal, Abbott ordered the agency to hand over the tape. Instead, DPS told its outside counsel, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, to sue. On November 20, 2006, after hearing the case, state District Judge Stephen Yelenosky ordered DPS to release the video. Shortly before the trial, DPS’ attorney switched law firms moving to Diamond McCarthy Taylor Finley & Lee, which took over the case. Curious to know how much money this frivolous lawsuit was costing taxpayers, we asked for the invoices from both firms. We have recently taken the liberty of putting them on our Web site. We invite readers to peruse the legal bills DPS has been paying and decide for themselves whether taxpayer money is being wasted. We’ve posted the information for the same reason that we joined a lawsuit to ascertain if an innocent man was put to death (see “Truth Hangs By a Hair,” page 14).

Basic information on how the government operates-what its spending priorities are, who influences public officials, and the mechanics behind vital decisions such as how the death penalty is administered-belongs to the public, not the public’s servants. Without the free flow of information, democracy dies.

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Published at 12:00 am CST