Texas is famous for boots, barbecue, and, more recently, biosafety labs, which research biological agents like anthrax and Ebola. Labs have cropped up in San Antonio, Houston, College Station, Lubbock, El Paso-and, most worryingly, on Galveston Island.
With labs all over the place, you might think legislators would back maximum transparency to ensure safety and prevent unsavory uses of the bugs. But Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 2556, sent to the full Senate by a unanimous committee vote, would exempt information concerning so-called “select agents” from the Texas Public Information Act.
Huffman says the release of “sensitive information” on select agents poses a security threat. Ed Hammond, director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit biodefense watchdog, says she has it backward. When it comes to select agents, he says, more transparency equals more security. “Transparency of the lab increases the confidence of other countries of our peaceful intent,” Hammond says. “It serves to prevent the growth of tension between countries over things biological.”
The issue isn’t just about national security or what other countries perceive-it also has to do with how much caution scientists exercise. “The guy working in San Antonio or Galveston … in a high containment lab is going to be more careful and more likely to follow the rules and do things right if he knows that people like me are looking over his shoulder,” Hammond says.
The Sunshine Project has exposed several laboratory accidents in Texas. The highest-profile incident was revealed in mid-2007, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated Texas A&M employees’ exposure to brucellosis and Q fever, perhaps the world’s most contagious disease. The A&M lab’s research was suspended until the university paid a $1 million fine for failing to report the infections. Top research officials were embarrassed into resignation.
Huffman’s bill, brought to her by the new Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, would make it harder for watchdogs like Hammond to do their work. While she was laying out her bill in committee, Huffman said the issue came to her attention when the Galveston lab “received an open records request from a person out of the country wanting information on these select agents.” That person was Hammond, a Texas native who has been living in Bogota, Colombia.
Galveston lab Associate Director Jim LeDuc says that Huffman’s bill is just an attempt to apply the same information-disclosure regulations to Texas labs that apply to federal labs. “What the legislation is trying to do,” LeDuc says, “is just to align the laws of Texas with the existing laws of the nation.”
In fact, the feds allow most information about select agents to be released through open records requests. There are a few exceptions, such as agents’ precise location (room numbers, lock combinations) and identities of people handling them.
Huffman’s bill goes much further, broadly exempting all information about select agents from disclosure.
Senate Bill 1912
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock
What did mild-mannered, moderate Senate President Pro-Tempore Robert Duncan do to find himself the target of screeds on editorial pages statewide? He filed Senate Bill 1912.
The Lubbock Republican’s bill and the identical House Bill 4207, by Rep. Helen Giddings, a DeSoto Democrat, would remove the birthdates of public employees from public record under the auspices of identity-theft protection. The rationale? “All the experts agree that having the date of birth of state employees and retirees is something that can exacerbate the likelihood of identity theft,” Andy Homer of the Texas Public Employees Association told a state Senate committee.
In the years this issue has been argued in the courts, nobody has cited an incident of identity theft as a result of a public information request. Using birthdates is an unwieldy way to crack somebody’s identity. There are easier ways to come by a birth date than making a public-information request.
The effort to remove birth dates got rolling in 2006 when then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn took the issue to court after refusing to release them to The Dallas Morning News. Attorney General Greg Abbot has consistently maintained that birth dates are public records. The Texas Supreme Court is expected to add its 2 cents in a matter of months.
Birth dates are vital for journalists, who use them to distinguish between, and connect, state employees with similar names. “With all due respect,” Dallas Morning News columnist Jennifer LaFleur told the Senate committee, “there are multiple Robert L. Duncans with criminal records in Texas.”
Watchdogs in the media have relied on birth dates to ferret out hundreds of public employees with criminal records working in school districts, hospitals, and state agencies like the Texas Youth Commission and Child Protective Services.
Other legislators have filed similar bills. House Bill 2491, by Arlington Republican Rep. Diane Patrick, specifically applies to public school employees. Senate Bill 280, by Flower Mound Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, also limits access to birth dates.
Duncan and Patrick’s bills have made the most headway as the end of session draws near, but their passages remains uncertain.