Monday, May 07, 2007

"The light of day is good ... but": Attack on open records worsens in 2007

Today's Texas Legislature contains many good, well-intentioned people in both parties, but not one of them in either chamber would I describe as an advocate for open records. Christy Hoppe in yesterday's Dallas News ("A push against open records") says that more than 400 bills at the Texas Lege aim to seal records.

Mostly this stems from near-complete ignorance on the part of legislators about why open records are important or what anybody would ever use them for. One particular statement that stood out to me in her article:
"The light of day is good," said Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, who is pushing a bill to shield judges' addresses. "But do we want people to die? Is it that important to have an address?"
Yes sir! Without question, judges' addresses are really that important. Allow me to explain why:

In a past life from 1992-2004 I performed opposition research professionally for a total of 68 candidates' political campaigns, 22 of them in judicial races. To perform a thorough background check on someone it's absolutely critical to have their address. While some people have distaste for opposition researchers, think about it: Who wants judges elected who haven't been thoroughly vetted during the election process?

One notable race for district judge I worked on shows why such data is important. Through real estate and court records, I discovered the opposing candidate had been caught using money from his attorney's escrow account in his private practice to pay for additions and remodeling on his home. For you non-attorneys, a lawyer's escrow account is where they put OTHER people's money, and using it for your personal expenses violates bar rules and attorney ethics.

How could I have ever discovered this malfeasance if I didn't know his home address?

Once I figured out what he'd done, I drove to his house and took pictures of the new home additions illicitly paid for - I wasn't stalking him and caused him no harm, but I think voters deserved visual evidence confirming allegations if they were going to be used in a campaign.

To not investigate all this would have been a disservice to the voters, IMO. Judges targeted for violence by people who got their address through real estate records, I imagine, happens incredibly rarely - indeed, someone that determined to do harm could find the information many other ways. But those records are used for legitimate commercial as well as democratically beneficial purposes all the time for reasons most people, and certainly most legislators, have never even considered.

Paxton's question is astonishing to an oppo researcher, private investigator or investigative reporter
- of course the address is important. Duh! How can they not understand that?

We need new open records champions in the Texas Legislature. There's not a single member in either chamber who's effectively pushing for greater openness, and LOTS of them, as seen in Hoppe's report, seem to find plenty of information they think the public shouldn't get to see.

As a final aside, I wish Hoppe had also highlighted a goddawful piece of legislation closing misconduct records for DPS officers. If the same information had been closed about Texas Youth Commission employees, media could never have broken the West Texas scandal and none of the recent revelations would have come out. It's already passed both chambers and it's my (admittedly faint) hope that the Governor will veto that bill.


Anonymous said...

There is "alarm" on the part of many people regarding their privacy rights and the possible violation of personal privacy. The courts have ruled time and time again that public figures i.e., movie stars, politicians and public employees do not enjoy the same right to privacy as others in our society.

Challenges to laws preventing public access to government information are costly and more importantly time consuming. A tremendous amount of wrongdoing can take place while waiting for bad laws to be ruled unconstitutional.

Our current President has used this tatic in the past and is paying for it now. The treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo is an example. Law makers can learn a valuable lesson from all that.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how those elected quickly forget the fundamental philosophy of government in this Land.

Here it is in BLACK LETTER LAW of the Open Records Act - TX Gov. Code:

(a) Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of
representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, ....

The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.

JT Barrie said...

Not all that transpires at a public meeting is "a matter of public record". In Oregon we theoretically have access to public meetings. However, I have repeatedly brought up a complaint about the curriculum about the school lying to kids about drugs via equivocation.
The school board has never made a record of my complaint. They have never even address any of allegations or offered any explanations - for public record - of why they refuse to divulge the lack of studies done prior to criminalization of any drug. They just keep this complaint from public view. Furthermore the local paper - that published a complaint about "bad words" in a play brought up outside the meeting by someone who had never actually seen the play - refuses to publicize my legitimate complaint.
If it involves "widely acceptable" chicanery, the media will participate in covering up details of public meetings. The pick and choose what they believe to be newsworthy - and it often involves covering up lies.