Friday, October 19, 2007

DPS argument over tapes is weak and waste of money

The tapes should be made available to the public, period. -Angela

DPS argument over tapes is weak and waste of money
By The Editorial Board | Tuesday, October 16, 2007, 03:35 PM

The Texas Department of Public Safety says its refusal to turn over videotapes of goings-on in a back hallway of the Capitol during a legislative session is a matter of state security. It’s a weak argument, and both Attorney General Greg Abbott and a state district judge have rightly rejected it.

But DPS continues to waste taxpayer money, paying $165,000 in legal fees so far to fight disclosure of the videotapes, shot from security cameras in the back hall behind the Texas House chamber at the Capitol.

The Texas Observer, the liberal publication, filed an open records request for copies of the tape in connection with a May 23, 2005, legislative battle over a bill to enact a pilot school voucher program, as American-Statesman staff writer Mark Lisheron reported in Sunday’s editions. The Observer wants to see if James Leininger, a wealthy advocate for school vouchers from San Antonio, was in the back hallway lobbying and, if so, with whom he met.

Jake Bernstein, the executive editor, said the magazine is engaged in “an exercise to see what we can find out” - a basic mission of a free press.

Citing the Homeland Security Act, DPS refused access to the videotapes. DPS and its lawyers aren’t saying much. But in court filings the department has claimed that the tapes “contain critical, sensitive information” regarding details of Capitol security.

Bernstein said he believes the department is worried most about setting a legal precedent that would make it easier for others under different circumstances to force it to give up more information about security procedures and plans.

The department’s position hasn’t passed muster with the attorney general, a conservative Republican who understands the importance of openness in government.

Abbott’s office told the department that it had “not adequately shown how the submitted video taken from Capitol security cameras relates to the specifications, operating procedures, or location of a security system used to protect public property from an act of terrorism.”

But the department persisted, even hiring private attorneys to pursue its case in the courts once the attorney general said it was wrong. A state district judge, Stephen Yelenosky of Austin, ruled against the department. The department then took its case to the 3rd Court of Appeals, which has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 24, and the department appears willing to go to the Texas Supreme Court, if necessary. The American-Statesman has filed a brief in support of disclosure.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, has criticized the department’s resistance to disclosure, saying it was “simply wrong on this issue. This has nothing to do with security. I can think of no conceivable reason why DPS should be using taxpayer funds to hire private attorneys” to fight the attorney general’s ruling.

Carona, the attorney general and the judge are right, and DPS ought to back down on this issue. There may be some security information that truly needs protection, but videotapes of people moving about in a public hallway in the Capitol during a legislative session don’t qualify.

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