New ruling keeps old travel records secret
After critics raised a stink about the tax dollars being spent to provide security for Gov. Rick Perry while he was gearing up to run for president, lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 designed to let Texans know — eventually — what they were getting for their money.
Now, thanks to a new ruling from the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Public Safety will not have to provide itemized travel records for the security detail after all. The DPS is still releasing the overall spending, with figures broken down into into five broad categories. But the ruling means that the public won't know precisely what their tax dollars paid for when it comes to the governor's security detail.
Relying on DPS assertions that releasing the old information represents an ongoing security threat, Abbott’s office blocked inspection of the travel records even though they were submitted years after the expenses were incurred. That includes the ones from Perry's last presidential run, which ended in a spectacular nosedive a few months after it began.
Transparency advocates who had pushed for disclosure of the records, which once were available for public inspection, say Abbott’s ruling is another blow to open government in Texas. As attorney general, Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, decides what information government agencies have to provide under state transparency laws.
“It flies in the face of what the Legislature intended,” said Michael Schneider, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs at the Texas Association of Broadcasters, which has fought to lift the long-standing veil of secrecy over the records. “It’s just plain wrong.”
Abbott's decision cites a loophole in the open records law that allows DPS to block release if it believes disclosure would present a “substantial threat of physical harm” to the governor or his family. Abbott’s office said there was no choice but to apply that provision and withhold the records.
The ruling comes as Perry is fanning out again across the country — and soon to China and Eastern Europe, advisers say —amid heavy speculation that he will run for president in 2016. This week alone, he was at the RedState gathering in Fort Worth and made about a dozen stops in Iowa, including one Tuesday at the Iowa State Fair, where Perry gushed that it was “a relief to be out of the Texas heat.”
A phalanx of security guards accompanies him on those trips, and that costs money. In March of this year, the costs of providing Perry’s security in Washington, D.C. alone, where he addressed the CPAC Conference — a magnet for GOP White House hopefuls — hit $16,000. That included $8,600 for transportation, $4,000 for lodging and $2,200 for food; another $1,200 was listed as "other." The state spent $48,000 on security — including $7,000 for "other" — for Perry’s April trip to Palau in the South Pacific.
From January through May of this year, Perry's security detail spent over $210,000 in travel costs. That number could rise as new bills come in. DPS did not immediately respond to a request for totals covering previous months. Because of Abbott's ruling, the details of those expenditures may never be revealed.
Issued on July 31, Abbott's ruling came in response to a public information request from The Texas Tribune — not for itemized records of the new expenditures for Perry’s latest travels, but for old ones.
The request was aimed at getting DPS travel vouchers that would show what the money was being spent on, including items such as hotels and restaurants or other incidentals, from late 2011 through 2012.
Spending on security for the well-traveled governor has been a source of regular controversy. In 2004, before the records were deemed to be secret, Perry traveled to the Bahamas, and the Austin American-Statesman obtained vouchers that revealed taxpayers had paid for the security guards’ rental of scuba gear and a golf cart.
In 2009, KEYE-TV reported that taxpayers shelled out $70,000 for a single trip the governor and first lady Anita Perry took to Jerusalem, including “$17,000 for rooms at the swanky King David Hotel.”
By the time Perry went on the road in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, the DPS quit providing the voucher information and instead gave out raw totals for the security spending. The agency said giving out more detail could compromise the governor's safety. At the height of his run, the state was spending as much as $400,000 a month to provide security for Perry, figures provided afterward revealed.
Three newspapers sued to get the travel vouchers in 2007, and in 2011 the courts ultimately ruled that the state could withhold them.
Amid the controversy, the Texas Legislature stepped in with what proponents described as a careful balance between government transparency and the security concerns raised by the DPS and the governor’s office.
The bill authored by then-state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, called for the the itemized records to remain confidential for a period of 18 months. After that, they “become subject to disclosure,” the 2011 law says.
Duncan, who is now the chancellor of Texas Tech University System, was not available for comment Tuesday, a Tech representative said.
During a 2011 debate on the proposal, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he didn’t understand how records submitted after the travel occurred could harm the governor going forward. He also said blocking disclosure eliminated an important check against waste and abuse.
“What if they’re using security details for nonofficial business? How can the public find out if they’ve misused their security detail?” Eltife said. “After the fact, I don’t see how it’s a security threat to anybody.”
In an email, Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said the ruling is “dictated by the Supreme Court’s interpretation” of the exemption related to possible threats against the governor. That exemption remains part of the law Duncan passed.
“This ruling does not change existing law,” he said.
Strickland also said Abbott was not in the loop on the decision. With over 22,000 such rulings issued yearly, he said Abbott “does not and physically could not” review them all, but he appoints a staff that does the job.
“Consistent with that approach, General Abbott was not aware of this ruling,” Strickland said in a prepared statement.
Perry’s office referred questions about the ruling to the DPS or the office of the attorney general.
Joe Larsen, a First Amendment attorney and board member for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the ruling from the attorney general’s office ignores the Texas Supreme Court’s admonition that the DPS should provide more than some “vague assertions of risk” when it seeks to withhold the records, particularly since it's been so long since the travel occurred.
“This is all vague assertions of risk,” he said.
But Larsen said the ruling likely means itemized security travel records will never see the light of day. He said the loophole allowing the government to guard against future threats is “big enough to drive a train through.”
“The AG is not going to let this out,’’ he said. “Somebody is going to have to file a lawsuit, because the AG is not going to do it.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/08/13/new-ruling-keeps-old-travel-records-secret/.