At 8 p.m. on August 21, 2012, Thomas Reed Taylor turned himself in to the Bexar County jail, opting for time served on outstanding drunk driving and misdemeanor drug possession warrants in lieu of fines he couldn't pay. Guards found him dead in his cell six hours after entering the jail.
Since his death, Taylor's family and jail reform activists have demanded the Bexar County Sheriff's Office explain the circumstances surrounding the death — Bexar County got notice last month of a pending lawsuit from Taylor's family. Last October, a week before participating in a small rally with Taylor's family on the local courthouse steps, Diana Claitor sent out a simple records request asking the sheriff's office for a list of inmates processed and guards on duty in the hours surrounding Taylor's short, deadly stint at the jail. Claitor was told she'd have to pay $920 before the office lifted a finger on the request.
"The whole point of getting this information was to help a family find out what happened to their son in the last hours of his life," Claitor, who heads the nonprofit reform-minded Texas Jail Project, told the Current. "Essentially, it felt like a way of blocking the release of this information."
Claitor tried to amend her request, seeking a lower cost estimate. Former sheriff Amadeo Ortiz was defeated in the Nov. 4 election. Claitor heard nothing back regarding her request during Ortiz's final weeks in office.
"They basically ignored her," said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. After meeting with Claitor, McGiverin sent an email to the sheriff's office on Dec. 30 threatening to sue. The office responded on New Year's Eve, amending the cost for Claitor's request down to $784, claiming that drawing up the list of inmates alone would require 20 hours of "programming" time.
McGiverin responded that the new cost estimate was "totally beyond the realm of good faith."
"This happens with alarming regularity," said Joe Larsen, a board member with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and a Houston-based First Amendment lawyer who regularly works with media outlets on public records fights. "This is one of the most frequent means deployed by government bodies to discourage requesters from pursuing public records."
Larsen represented the Dallas Morning News when the daily requested electronic check registers from the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center. "My client was quoted in the upper six figures for that information," he said. "Charging an excessive price is the functional equivalent of refusing to release information at all."
The Texas Administrative Code outlines how and when government bodies can charge to recoup costs for providing public records –– like charges for copies or time spent filling the request. Larsen says that in his experience agencies often over-estimate the time it takes to redact non-public information from government records, therefore charging a higher fee. The law outlines an hourly charge for "programming" at $28.50 an hour.
It's unfathomable that booking and staffing information wouldn't be readily accessible at the Bexar County jail just to perform core functions, McGiverin asserts (how else could authorities magistrate arrestees, release inmates on bond, or compile daily jail-activity lists?). Still, it's unclear if the office's large cost estimate for "programming" was a flat-out lie, as the TCRP and Claitor insist, or sign of a woefully antiquated records-keeping system at the jail.
"The way they keep records … It has not been great, I can tell you that," said Laura Jesse, Bexar County's public information officer. Jesse says that in the past she's had to play middleman between the sheriff's office and media outlets or families seeking records from the jail.
When the Current first began requesting records on inmates who died in custody in 2011, we faced months of silence waiting for the jail to respond to Attorney General rulings ordering the release of information.
Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks similarly waited months for staffing records from the department, Jesse says; Hicks' eventual story showed how Ortiz's failure to fill vacancies exacerbated the jail's staffing woes. Much of the staffing records Hicks requested were hand-written in spiral-bound notebooks, Jesse says.
"Seriously, spiral-bound notebooks," she said. "I'm not kidding."
Sheriff Susan Pamerleau continues to say she's been left to deal with the consequences of years of mismanagement under Ortiz, most notably financial and staffing problems. When asked about Claitor's public records spat, sheriff's spokesman Paul Berry echoed Pamerleau's statements at a press conference soon after her January 1 swearing-in. "She's the sheriff now," he said. "What happened is in the past."
By the end of January, with Claitor's records request still unresolved under the new administration, McGiverin with the TCRP sent a demand letter to Pamerleau and jail administrator Mark Thomas, again threatening litigation. Thomas responded the next day, saying he'd review Claitor's request.
Two days later, Claitor got a new cost estimate: $146.80, far below the $920 she was initially quoted. McGiverin says the lower estimate proves Bexar County tried to radically overcharge Claitor from the outset.
Last Friday, the TCRP filed a complaint with the Bexar County Commissioners Court, saying the incident "reveals a culture permissive of concealing information from the public."
"Withholding public information is unlawful; it is undemocratic; and it is bad policy," the letter states. "It cannot be tolerated."