Proposed bill would weaken Texas open records laws

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A state representative who has twice proposed a measure blocking open records requests from out-of-state requestors has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from law firms that have represented cities in public records disputes.

Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy

Passage of the bill, House Bill 526, proposed for the second consecutive session by Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, would join Texas with nine states that have language in their open records law that either directly or peripherally allows publicly-funded offices to avoid complying with requests.

That group of states includes Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia and New Hampshire.

Schofield has received contributions from blue-chip law firms and lawyers who have contested open records requests with the state Attorney General including Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, Locke Lord, Gibbs & Bruns and Linebarger Goggin Blair & Samson.

Critics note that such a law would hinder national collection of data, hamstring lawyers from out of state representing clients with interests in Texas, and potentially suppress any outside interests in cases such as alleged police abuse.

In a hearing of the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee in 2015, when the legislation was first introduced, Schofield, who was a $92,000-a-year advisor to Gov. Rick Perry when he conceived of the act, described the measure as “a very simple bill.”

“The idea first came to me when I worked for the governor, and we were constantly bombarded with requests by people from other states who thought Texas government ought to be brought to heel by them and ought to answer to their constant requests,” he said. “Some of them were weekly. They thought they were going to be the guardian of the email system in Texas or of the ethics situation or anything else.“

Gov. Perry was besieged by the public seeking access to his security records during his 2011 presidential bid and the cost of a dramatic redesign of the governor’s quarters in Austin. Perry and his office also took heat for trying to keep private his scheduling records.

Schofield – who did not return calls — is also a private attorney for the law firm Hoover Slovacek. He is currently representing a Wichita Falls manufacturer, Sharp Iron Group, whose president was a Perry donor. The plaintiff is seeking damages in a Harris County case involving the bankruptcy of a vendor.

Schofield took office after a primary and runoff in which his residency was questioned. He moved to a small house in the district shortly before the 2014 campaign began.

Schofield is a rare Republican seeking to push through a measure that would dilute the state’s open records laws, although each session sees more such measures introduced by Republicans.

“You would think that Republicans, with their support of limited government, would be in support of open records, a transparent government,” said Joe Larsen, a First Amendment lawyer in Houston, who opposes the bill.

In his presentation to the government operations committee in 2015, Schofield referred to a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Virginia. The court ruled that a state could structure language to limit out-of-state access to public records in another state.

“Every time an agency has to dig through its records you are taking time of state employees, who are paid by our taxpayers, away from the duties we are paying them to do,” Schofield said. “Away from the service they are supposed to be providing to the state to go digging through records to find out often voluminous stuff on behalf of people who don’t live here and whose government this isn’t.”

He added that if a requester can’t find a “single friend” in Texas to access the information on their behalf, “they’re not entitled to the information.”

 

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