Update on the release of the Leininger capitol video during the 2003 voucher battle. -Angela
Oct. 24, 2007, 10:33PM
Court hears appeal on Capitol surveillance video
By GARY SCHARRER
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — It's a legal case that joins conservative Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott with a liberal political magazine against the Department of Public Safety over what a surveillance camera saw in a back hall of the state Capitol.
Lawyers for the Texas Observer argue that the camera is clearly visible and that the videotape is subject to scrutiny under the state's Public Information Act because it does not betray any confidential security measures.
Lawyers for DPS argue that bad guys, including potential terrorists, might be able to detect blind spots and weaknesses in the security system if the agency is forced to share video with the public.
"It's a very interesting case ... a very tough case," said Third Court of Appeals Justice David Puryear, who presided Wednesday over a three-member panel hearing the dispute.
The Observer wants to look at only one tape in an effort to validate reports that political mega-donor James Leininger of San Antonio camped out behind the House chamber May 23, 2005, to lobby legislators on a school voucher bill.
"We thought it was important that the public know that one of the largest campaign contributors in the state was talking to state representatives and trying to get them to change their vote on an issue of paramount importance to the future of the state," Observer executive editor Jake Bernstein said after the hearing.
The Observer has won the early rounds, including an attorney general's opinion that the tape contents belong to the public and a district court ruling along the same lines. But the nonprofit investigative publication has not yet seen the tape.
"We still want to know if, in fact, (Leininger) was on there or not," Bernstein said.
It could take the appellate court months to rule, with the losing party possibly petitioning the state Supreme Court. So far, DPS has spent at least $165,000 of to defend its position.
"The whole key of this case is the precedent that it would set," said Austin lawyer Raymond White, a partner in the law firm of Diamond McCarthy, which represents the agency.
Allowing the public to see the videotape from one surveillance camera means that every tape in each part of the Capitol would be subject to public scrutiny, he said.
Collectively, the videotapes show how the Capitol security system works, White told the justices.