Q & A with Greg Abbott

Attorney general champions effort for open records

Compiled by Brad Olson and Nancy Martinez
Corpus Christi Caller-Times
July 17, 2005

Among open-government advocates, Texas has a reputation for having some of the most progressive open-records laws and policies in the country.

As the chief administrator and enforcer of those laws in Texas, state Attorney General Greg Abbott has been behind much of the push for openness.

He has won indictments and criminal convictions against public officials who refused to turn over public documents or who violated open-meetings laws. He championed landmark legislation passed this year to educate tens of thousands of state public officials about open government. And, less notably, he has required every public entity to request an opinion from his office if they wish to withhold documents or information from the public.

Abbott, a former Texas Supreme Court justice who was elected in 2002 to a four-year term as attorney general, spoke with the Caller-Times about why he believes open records are important and why public bodies do not always follow the law.

Q: What has your office done to champion open records in Texas?

A: We've used a two-pronged approach, working on the enforcement side and on the education side. On the enforcement side, I have created a special prosecution unit that goes after those who refuse to comply with open-government laws.

I was the first attorney general to get a criminal conviction against a public official for a violation against the Open Records Act. I was also the first attorney general to get a criminal conviction for an open-meetings violation.

I worked hard to get the Legislature to pass a landmark piece of legislation requiring a mandatory education for all government officials in Texas. This is legislation that should impact more than 35,000 officials in the state, so it's extremely broad in its impact.

Q: Why are you passionate about open records and open government?

A: I consider open government to be fundamental to our democratic form of government. A democracy only works when we have fully informed citizens. Citizens can only be fully informed when they have open access to their government.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face in enforcing open-records laws?

A: There are ongoing challenges. First and foremost, there are so many people who are still unfamiliar with what the Public Information Act requires. Here's one thing that I see over and over again: Sometimes, there are requests made to public officials or public entities where we receive either no response at all by the governmental entity or an inadequate response. Sometimes, it's just a misunderstanding of what's required, or frankly, an oversight. Another challenge that we all face, really, is that the response time is just too slow.

Q: What have you done to meet those challenges?

A: The rule I try to establish is the "no excuses" rule. There is no excuse why an official should not know what is required of them to comply with public-information laws.

All they need is the Open Government Hotline: 1-877-OPEN-TEX, 1-877-673-6839. They can call us Monday through Friday during business hours. We have the personnel here to answer any and all open-government questions.

We also have the mandatory training. On top of all that, we write and publish the Public Information Act handbook and Open Meetings handbook. We distribute it for free to any member of the public who asks for it. To make sure there are no barriers at all, we mail it free of charge.

Q: How and why do public bodies conceal records that they shouldn't?

A: We have found that governmental bodies fall into three different categories.

The largest category is the group of people who work at governmental bodies who simply don't know what the law requires and don't know all the rulesthey're supposed to comply with.

The second category is what I would call stonewallers. They try to stonewall, delay and different things like that. They try to find ways that they don't have to go about the process.

In the third category are the people who we'll just call the blatant violators. There are some folks who just blatantly say, "I'm not turning over the records." What we also find is that when someone doesn't want to turn over information, they're really trying to hide or cover up something else.

Q: How do Texas' open-government procedures compare with other states and federal laws?

A: Texas is the most aggressive state in the country with regard to what is required to be disclosed, with regard to enforcement and with regard to education.

For example, a top priority of mine as attorney general was to get the Legislature to pass a bill requiring disclosure of investment information held by governmental bodies. Texas now has the most progressive and the most open law with regard to disclosure of investment of the public's money.

As for federal laws, everyone knows that Texas far exceeds the federal law. The U.S. Congress right now is working to try to expand the Freedom of Information Act and is using Texas somewhat as a model.

Q: Can you name some interesting or extraordinary public-records cases your office has handled?

A: We are forced to make what people would label as tough calls. We required the governor to turn over his budget records.

There is also a very hot topic here that is the subject of litigation. It relates to general security issues. The University of Texas and the city of Austin have security cameras at various locations. They did not want the information to be turned over, but we ruled that information was public and had to be disclosed.

We're not requiring public entities to turn over anything that could be considered a national security priority. But just because some governmental entity has something they label a security camera, doesn't mean that label inoculates it from being disclosed.

Compiled by Brad Olson and Nancy Martinez