What’s Geg Abbott Hiding?

The Texas Tribune reports extensively on Gov. Greg Abbott’s penchant for secrecy and obfuscation in the release of his emails.  Abbott has repeatedly sought the help of embattle Attorney General Ken Paxton in this attempts to keep the public from knowing what he is up to.  Abbott has used a private email for official communications and has argued that he is a “member of the public” and that the Governor’s office is a “competitor” in the private market place in his so-far successful attempts to prevent the public from knowing what is going on with their Governor.

In his objections to releasing various records to the Tribune, Abbott cited exceptions available under increasingly weak state transparency laws — from attorney client privilege to broad protections given to lawmaking deliberations — so it’s hard in many instances to tell which legal provisions triggered each redaction, or what types of records his office is refusing to provide.

The two objections drawing the most criticism from transparency advocates relate to Abbott’s email address and his successful attempt to avoid scrutiny of his use of taxpayer money to encourage business relocation or expansion in Texas.

On the email address issue, the Republican governor cites an exemption that was written into the law to protect the privacy of regular citizens who correspond with state and local government officials. Under that provision, authorities are forbidden from giving out “an email address of a member of the public that is provided for the purpose of communicating electronically with a governmental body.”

That’s the exemption Abbott cited when his office unilaterally chose to block out identifying information in the address fields on emails provided by the governor’s office. Without that information included — or some explanation from the governor’s office — it’s impossible to say for sure if it was the governor himself who promised a top donor some last-minute assistance on a lawsuit-restriction bill that was stuck in committee last May. Somebody in his office did, albeit unsuccessfully.

Several government transparency experts say the provision Abbott cites was never intended to protect the email addresses of public officials who are discussing state business inside the government.

“I can’t see how a governmental official’s email address that he or she uses to conduct official business can be redacted,” said Joe Larsen, an open government attorney who also serves on the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

Larsen said the email address, like the body of the email itself, becomes a public record the minute it’s used for public business.

“He’s not communicating with the government,” said former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, a Democrat.  “He’s communicating within the government — with other government officials. And that email address ought not be confidential.”

Aleshire, an open records expert and attorney, is awaiting a decision on that very question in a lawsuit pitting an Austin watchdog publication, the Austin Bulldog, against the former Austin mayor and members of the City Council who have tried to withhold their email addresses using the same exemption. Aleshire is representing the Austin Bulldog. 

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