Friday, April 16, 2010

Forensic commission's Willingham committee meeting in secret

Committee meetings of the Forensic Science Commission are being held in secret, including a committee evaluating the Todd Willingham arson investigation which met yesterday. Death penalty activist Scott Cobb emailed FSC coordinator Leigh Tomlin to ask:
I heard your voice mail that the Complaint Screening Committee and the Investigative Committee on the Willingham/Willis Case held meetings yesterday in Dallas. When and where were they held? I didn't see any meeting notice posted on the website. I only knew about it because I had read in the Houston Chronicle that it was going to be held next Thursday. Did the Commission provide a public notice before the meetings were held? How can the public be aware of when these meetings are going to be held in the future? Are there minutes available of the meetings yesterday?
Tomlin replied with a single sentence: "The meetings were not public meetings."

They could be public, of course, at the discretion of the commission and the chair. But the new rules Chairman John Bradley rammed through at the commission's last meeting allow him to opt to have closed sessions.

Having watched that meeting online, I seriously doubt the majority of commissioners understood that this would be the result or intended to close their deliberations. This is simply the chairman exercising his discretion in the convenient absence of any rule to the contrary. This is what happens when rules aren't publicly posted or even shared with commissioners before the day they're required to vote on them. One hopes the commission majority will override their chairman to revisit and amend those rules, making committee hearings public and publishing their agendas just like regular commission meetings.

The Forensic Science Commission never conducted its business in secret before. What do they have to hide?

Cobb emailed me the above exchange and asked, "Do you think the Texas Forensic Science Commission is justified in holding non-public meetings of the three person committees it has set up?" I replied, "Legally, yes. However clearly discussing more things in private was a primary purpose of the new rules."

Doublechecking on the legality, according to the AG's Open Meetings handbook (p. 19 of the pdf), "Generally, meetings of less than a quorum of a governmental body are not subject to the Act," except "when a governmental body appoints a committee that includes less than a quorum of the parent body and grants it authority to supervise or control public business or public policy, the committee may itself be a 'governmental body' subject to the Act."

But who cares? It may be legal but that don't make it right.

MORE: See the Houston Chronicle's Rick Casey's column predicting further delays in the Willingham investigation published earlier this week.



Anonymous said...

Will the next meeting in Irving, TX be broadcast live on the internet?

Ryan Paige said...

Does this subcommittee even really exist. I mean, Chairman John Bradley, a man who is consistently reminding us of his integrity, said that cases already in the pipeline and/or those which already had outside consultants and whatnot would not be sent to these subcommittees.

So clearly, if John Bradley is as honest as he claims to be, this subcommittee doesn't even exist.

Scott Cobb said...

Thanks for double checking the legality of it.

It may turn out to be legal for them to hold private meetings, or it may not, but given the fact that Williamson County Attorney and FSC Chair John Bradley violated the Open Meetings Act during the meeting in Harlingen by kicking out a film crew until the AG told them to let them in, it seems he should be closely watched to make sure he doesn't violate the Open Meetings Act again.

Anonymous said...

Is the the same John Bradley that was in Hawaii with now convicted felon Ron Sutton? Was he not at the same conference; with his wife?

R. Shackleford said...

IMHO, Bradley has no integrity.

Anonymous said...

"Retribution Against Truth?"

Anonymous said...

Bradley needs to be ran out of Texas right along with Rick Perry.

Jennifer Laurin said...

I completely agree about how troubling this move was to take committee work out of the Open Meetings requirements. My only small quibble with the post is with the assertion that the Commission didn't realize that was an implication of the new committee structure. As I recall from the webcast of the last meeting, Bradley actually did say that this would mean the committees wouldn't be subject to the law, and there was actually a bit of discussion about it. May be (this is sheer speculation) that the whole Commission got a little open-records gun shy after the release of the Willingham expert report.

BTW, I understand the IP is trying to set up a webcast of the Irving meeting.

Anonymous said...

live broadcast

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennifer, you're absolutely right. Looking back at Grits' liveblog of the meeting, I wrote at the time, "These committees, according to Mr. Bradley, won't be subject to open meetings and don't have to post their agenda before they meet, which judging by his overall goals for the commission is probably in part why he wants to create them."

I'd just forgotten it, my bad. FWIW, my sense at the time was that this was railroaded through. The other commissioners didn't really seem to understand the import of all the procedural details or how to change them, and certainly didn't come prepared with amendments, etc., as they might have if rules had been posted well in advance, been authorized by the commission, etc..