Like the sun moving through the man-made canyons of the urban landscape, the shift in Capitol Hill’s ruling demigods has dramatically changed the appearance of the political field, casting former golden boys in deep shadows. The politically motivated firing of eight federal prosecutors has grown into a major scandal that may bring down our backstabbing Beto; this weekend The New York Times’ editorial board called for the Attorney General’s removal. But Gonzales was bad from the get-go — tossing the Geneva Convention out the door, signing off on torture, warrantless eavesdropping, and any other abuse of power that caught the administration’s fancy — it just took a shift in the political light to embolden the mainstream media and Capitol Hill to go for the jugular.
Other rays of hope during Sunshine Week (dedicated to open records since 2005; March 11-17 this year): As we go to press, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a package of improvements to the Freedom of Information Act, and Texas’s John Cornyn is supporting similar legislation in the Senate. HR 1309, already approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would give FOIA carrots and sticks, including agency hotlines, tracking systems, and penalties for agencies that delay releasing public information — and may help to reverse a decade-long trend toward more government secrecy.
Demonstrating the need for this reform, a partnership including the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government recently conducted a National Information Audit of the country’s Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans. Hundreds of volunteers across the country requested copies of local plans from officials, and public officials fully complied less than half of the time. Citizen auditors were asked for I.D., cross-examined for motives, and in one case made the subject of an 88-county alert.
Texas split three ways. A third of the officials contacted provided the full CERP, a third handed over a partial CERP, and a third just said no. In almost all of the cases, auditors were asked either to identify themselves or provide ID. While these numbers should be alarming in the context of catastrophic emergencies — you deserve to know if, like Puerto Rico, your evacuation plans haven’t been updated since padded shoulders and stick-up bangs were in fashion — journalists run into these kinds of roadblocks all of the time.
Texas public officials, who are governed by the state’s open-records legislation, have told Current reporters that the requester has to prove they’re a writer for the paper (“Anyone, citizens and non-citizens alike, can request Texas public information, for any reason or use,” says the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) and tried to charge redacting fees for documents that had already been edited for information that can legally be withheld (“The charges for public information may not … exceed the actual cost of producing the information,” confirms RCFP) among other stalling tactics.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has styled himself an advocate of open government, and at least one recent ruling, related to the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and corporate use of eminent domain, gives him some cred. On February 15, in response to a request from San Antonio State Representative Frank Corte, Abbott ruled that private entities that use eminent domain to take private land for redevelopment are subject to the Public Information Act for those activities — which means they must retain and make available documents, correspondence, and other records that the public would be entitled to if it were a governmental entity.
This ruling gives Trans-Texas Corridor opponents whose property lies in the path of the juggernaut some extra ammo, because when the 79th lege drafted its post-Kelo v. New London, Conn. eminent-domain “protections,” it left a TTC-size loophole for commercial development of gas stations, convenience stores, hotels, and other highway-related services.
Journalists are not the biggest filers of open-record and FOIA requests. According to Sunshineingovernment.org, a 2003 Heritage Foundation study reported that the largest number of requests, 40 percent, are filed by corporations. SIG reports that the most FOIA-needy interest group includes veterans and retirees who are just trying to get accurate information about their benefits.
Of course, these citizens probably aren’t who Bush & Co. had in mind when he signed that first-term executive order giving former presidents and their heirs control over administration documents. In the new light of retribution shining on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are also considering legislation overturning this blatant abuse of executive power. You can learn more about these issues, follow the legislation, and contact your representatives through: Sunshineingovernment.org, Rcfp.org, and Oag.state.tx.us.