FOIA Files: Learning the Power of Open Records Requests in Texas
Keeping state agencies and elected officials honest can be a daunting task, but this is why we have some important tools to work with. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal program, and an Open Records Request (ORR) is state-level. The Texas Open Records Act, or Texas Public Information Act (PIA), was enacted in 1973 in the wake of the Sharpstown Bank Scandal of 1971, which implicated many of the state's top elected officials - including the then-Governor, House Speaker, Attorney General, a Representative and some aides - in a scheme to defraud the citizens of the state. Consequently, the Texas PIA is actually stronger than the federal FOIA.
See more: "The price of 'free' information: How UT and the state attack the Texas Open Records Act," by Kathy Mitchell. November 1990; pages 6-7, 17; Volume 2, No. 2. Polemicist.
and "Breaking The Dam: Access to Public Information in Texas," by Consumers Union of Texas. Date unknown.
The first step in accessing information on state and federal agencies, including the University of Texas at Austin and the System, is to file an Open Records Request. You may use the Open Records Generator at the Student Press Law Center, which is an excellent and quick guide to writing an ORR. Make sure you use the clearest and most concise language possible; the responders to your request will most likely try to stall on any information you request, and the more unclear the language, the less information you will receive in return.
Step-by-Step Example: Accessing UT's 'Information Gathering' Documents
Step 1: Filing the Request
On March 8, 2007, former UT Watch co-founding member Austin Van Zant filed a request for "any and all documentation of monitoring and/or surveillance and/or 'information gathering' on the activist group, as well as each member of, UT Watch conducted by the University of Texas System ... from February 2002 until the present."
Step 2: Receiving a Response
Within ten (10) days, you are supposed to receive a response from the agency to whom you submitted your request. At this point, you will find out if they will either fully comply to your response or ask the Texas Attorney General (AG) for an opinion or decision on whether to exempt certain documents from disclosure. On March 29, 2007, Carol Longoria, on behalf of the UT System, filed a request for an AG opinion to exempt many documents from disclosure.
Step 3: Filing an AG Brief
If the agency decides to ask the AG for an opinion, you are legally permitted to submit your own brief. In their brief, the UT System cited many past AG decisions and rulings as reasons against disclosure -- many of which were weak attempts to skirt transparency. Little known FOIA Fact: You can submit your brief based on debunking their arguments, and you can shred their case by researching past AG decisions and rulings. The best part? It's quick and easy to do!
If the citation is government code, such as "Section 552.111, Texas Government Code," then go to the Texas Statutes homepage. Note: Section 552.111 of the Texas Government Code means the section is found under Chapter 552 of the Government Code.
If the cited AG decision is phrased as "ORD-___", then go to the AG's webpage on Open Records Decisions and search by number. For example: "Open Records Decision Number 593" (1991) or "ORD-593" would be found by clicking on the website and looking under the respective AG who issued the opinion. In this case, it was Dan Morales, and the decision is listed under the first available column.
If the cited AG decision is phrased as "OR__-____", then the two (or four if it's 2000 or greater) numbers immediately following "OR" is the year that the the Open Records Letter Ruling was issued, and the second set of digits is the number of the decision. For example, "OR2004-5255" was issued by Greg Abbott in 2004. Actually, this was in response to another UT Watch request on Los Alamos...
Go to the respective websites listed above to research whatever AG decision, opinion, or ruling issued to write your own brief. On April 10, 2007, Van Zant countered the UT System with his own brief.
Step 4: Receiving the AG opinion
If you eloquently argue your point, then the AG will have a hard time arguing against you. On June 4, 2007, the Texas AG ruled heavily in Van Zant's favor, meaning that the UT System was required to disclose much information it sought to kept secret.
With this information, you can successfully wage campaigns, keep public officials honest, and spread the truth about our state agencies! Good luck!