Elected officials in Texas often misuse open records laws to conceal public records and documents.
It's all perfectly legal – and that's the problem.
In the most glaring abuse, law enforcement officials frequently use an exemption to the Public Information Act to conceal reports on in-custody deaths.
Legislators should eliminate this glaring loophole in state public information laws. Moreover, they ought to give the Texas Attorney General's Office statutory authority to decide whether public officials are misusing other exemptions to the statutes, sometimes called sunshine laws.
Anderson County is a case in point.
Over the past year, county and state officials have rejected more than a dozen public information requests by the Herald-Press for documents relating to the June 15, 2018, death of Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome.
Last week, Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell denied a request for the Texas Rangers' investigation into Newsome's death.
On May 15, an Anderson County Grand Jury cleared Sheriff Greg Taylor and his staff of criminal wrongdoing.
Without leading to a conviction or deferred adjudication, the Rangers' report became exempt from public information law.
Exempting the report on Newsome's death is a clear misuse of the law's intent: To protect the reputations of ordinary people.
Law enforcement agencies should not be permitted to use the statute to conceal reports, even from family members, on suspects who die in their custody. A Grand Jury determination of no criminal wrongdoing does not preclude public misconduct, or even malfeasance.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said legislation to close this loophole will be introduced next session. Lawmakers should approve it.
Attorney General Ken Paxton's office handles about 29,000 public information cases a year. It should have authority to investigate decisions by local government to withhold information based on unwarranted or over-broad exemptions.
Last October, the Anderson County Sheriff's Office, citing Newsome's privacy rights, denied a request by Newsome's son for her medical records. Applying medical privacy rights to a son's attempt to learn how his mother died in jail is twisting the law.
In May, Taylor also rejected a request for jailhouse video surveillance from the day Newsome died, arguing that releasing it would “create a safety issue for officers,” another stretch of the law. At minimum, such claims should be justified to the Attorney General's Office.
All of this matters. Without access to public information, the people can't hold their government accountable. They can't fix problems they know nothing about, whether it be a council member improperly billing the city for a meal, a mayor giving his best friend a no-bid contract, or a sheriff providing inadequate medical care to prisoners and triggering a costly civil suit.
To keep government in Texas transparent, legislators ought to make it more difficult for public officials to misuse the law. Above all, that means eliminating their ability to conceal reports on in-custody deaths.