Texas Attorney General Exempts Friends from Freedom of Information
Veronica Escobar argued to the Texas Attorney General that her years-long friendship with Susie Byrd is reason sufficient to exclude her from the Texas Public Information Act – and the Texas AG bought into that argument. That is the essence of Escobar’s reasons for not releasing the public information records about El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen in her possession. Whoa, what? Let’s backup for a moment and let me catch you up on the latest in regards to my complaint against Veronica Escobar’s refusal to release public information records.
As you likely know, in August I filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General alleging that Veronica Escobar had failed to release public information documents. The documents are about the letter she organized about El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen’s comments about Black Lives Matter. Escobar has argued that any communications between her and the other public officials, in regards to the letter, were not conducted under auspices of the County of El Paso and therefore they are not subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Never mind that many of the letter signers are elected officials, under Escobar’s argument the deliberations they held about organizing and the contents of the letter are not public information.
Since, Veronica Escobar had not sought a Texas Attorney General opinion on whether she could withhold the documents, as is the common practice, I was forced to file a complaint with the Texas AG. The Texas AG gave her ten days to either release the documents to me or seek an opinion from the AG asking whether she could withhold the records I had requested.
Escobar did neither.
Instead, Veronica Escobar, through the County Attorney’s Office, argued that the communications she held with the other elected officials about Greg Allen were not official public deliberations and thus she is not obligated to release them under the Texas Public Information Act.
The Texas Attorney General agreed with her.
In a letter I received from the Texas Attorney General on October, 14, 2016, the Texas AG wrote that they were satisfied that Veronica Escobar had released the documents I had a right to, one document, and that they considered the matter closed.
The TX AG’s letter to me included a copy of the arguments postured by the County Attorney’s Office as to why Veronica Escobar did not have to release any documents to me. In essence, I do not have access to the Greg Allen documents in Escobar’s possession because they are “not official business of the County.” Because they are not official business, Veronica Escobar does not have to submit them to the Texas Attorney General for review.
The County Attorney’s Office argues that to require Veronica Escobar to submit her documents to the Texas AG “may cause great hardship.” The County Attorney adds that Escobar’s friendships with many elected officials creates numerous records which may not be official business related. The County Attorney offers Susie Byrd as an example:
“Susie Byrd is one such individual. Judge Escobar has been personal friends with Susie Byrd for approximately 20 years, which long predates when either of them ever became an elected official. Thus, to ask for any documents to or from her, even if those documents are on the County Judge’s private cellular phone or email account, could clearly result in many responsive documents which have absolutely nothing to do with the official business of the County of El Paso.”
The bottom line is that as long as Veronica Escobar hides behind the notion that her communications with Susie Byrd, Jim Tolbert and others are between friends then don’t bother asking for the documents under the public information laws of the state. Byrd and Tolbert are elected officials, along with Veronica Escobar, and according to the Texas Attorney General as long as they communicate via private messaging services you don’t have a right to see the communications even if they involve public policy discussions. You have to take her word that their communications were not “official business” even though it involves setting public policy by demanding that the El Paso Police Chief be censured by the City of El Paso.
That’s the bottom line, so don’t bother trying to pierce through the backroom communications that are taxing you to death.
For those if you who are interested, you can read the letter by following this link. It is the last letter in the set.