‘Witch hunt’ fallout: Speaker calls for narrower public records law


By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON — Speaker Joe Straus is pushing to make it easier for government agencies to keep their records from the public.

A decent press corps would challenge Straus, who just charged the chair of the House Committee on Government Efficiency and Reform to review the Texas Public Information Act with a view to longer deadlines, looser procedures and plenty of time for governmental bodies to black out records.

Instead, reporters have been making his job easy, by playing along with the idea there’s something wrong, even criminal, with asking a government agency to produce large stacks of documents.

Investigative journalism consists mainly of asking for stacks (or gigabytes) of public records and looking through them for problems. That’s exactly what Wallace Hall, a regent of the University of Texas System, has been doing, yet several journalists have been repeating the canard this is somehow a “witch hunt” worthy of impeachment.

STRAUS: Speaker Joe Straus’ interim committee charges include an assignment to water down the Texas Public Information Act.

Not to get all weepy about the role of the press in a democracy, but a journalist who won’t defend the principle of transparent government is like a doctor who thinks Hippocrates was just making a suggestion. You’ve got to wonder if he even knows what he’s doing with his life.

By solemnifying a farcical series of impeachment hearings this winter through their uncritical coverage, these reporters have betrayed their profession.

The impeachment hearings were meant to silence Hall, but the best way to silence critics is to keep from learning unpleasant facts in the first place, by limiting their right of access.

So we should expect plenty of dubious claims next year about the cost of compliance with the TPIA and its burden on government, and even more euphemisms, such as streamline, efficiency and coordinate. But these last few months don’t give me much hope that the Capitol press will do anything to challenge this nonsense.

A journalist willing to describe a public records review as a witch hunt isn’t going to stand up for anything. And that’s not a bad way to get ahead.

If you want to make a career covering professional liars, you don’t want to get a reputation as somebody who challenges lies, or nobody will talk to you.

That’s why you get reporters with decades of experience whose stories on the Hall hearings showed no more sophistication than a cubbie’s report on his first city council meeting.

It didn’t matter how flagrant a lie was, these reporters weren’t going to be scrutinizing anything. They still aren’t.

In a letter released this week, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in plain langauge refuted Rep. Ferdinand “Trey” Fischer during those hearings: “This is not true.”

Cigarroa also contradicted testimony by both UT President Bill Powers and a Powers houseboy named Kevin Hegarty.

These ought to be headlines, and they were just a few of the boldest points in a 22-page, point-by-point rebuttal of the calumnies produced by the impeachment committee at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet none of it is getting reported.

The major papers showed up for every day of kangaroo court, playing their part in the show trial by blaring the false accusations against Hall from their front pages the next day.

But they won’t tell the other side, then or now that Cigarroa has done the debunking for them.

The Texas Tribune and the Austin American-Statesman are the only major publications to pick up on the letter, and they both screwed up the story.

The Tribune’s obscurantist lede was that Cigarroa’s letter was delivered on time. Buried 20 paragraphs down, the reporter gets to the point: Cigarroa just set the record straight on some key facts, such as the number of requests Hall made under the TPIA and the number of pages that produced.

“Regent Hall did not make 1,200 requests under the TPIA for documents and emails, but only requested information concerning the TPIA requests previously made by others. Regent Hall filed, as a private citizen, five TPIA requests of his own,” Cigarroa wrote.

That was a challenge to Fischer, who tried to trick people into thinking Hall had made more than 1,200 requests, even after corrected by witnesses.

“It has been represented that as many as 800,000 pages of documents were provided to Regent Hall as a result of his requests,” Cigarroa wrote. “System believes a far smaller number of pages were provided, perhaps fewer than 100,000.”

The press has been treating the 800,000-page figure as some sort of established fact, when it’s based on nothing better than the word of Hegarty, a man who asserts the right to “cancel” the public records requests of others.

At least the Tribune mentioned the correct figure. The Statesman continued to use the 800,000 figure, even while reporting on a letter challenging its accuracy.

Cigarroa corrected other things Fischer said about what sort of legal counsel UT employees had available and imaginary laws requiring regents to use university email addresses. He refuted Powers’ revisionist explanation of why he continued to inflate fundraising figures after he’d been told to stop.

And because the news has been ignored, the only people who know about this are the ones who care the least – the politicians on this committee who have wanted to impeach Hall from the start. The only question is whether their aim is to intimidate or eliminate.

The reporters covering this story all know the fix is in — that this was never an investigation, that it was always a prosecution — but they won’t tell their readers.

The Statesman hinted at it, reporting in December that committee attorney Rusty “Hardin’s role has gradually taken on a more prosecutorial slant.” Only there’s been nothing gradual about it; Hardin hasn’t asked one question that might produce a response favorable to Hall.

Other than Rep. Charles Perry, the politicians on the committee all want Hall gone. Some want to cover up an admissions clout scandal, some honestly think Hall is a threat to the university, that he’d force some unwelcome change, maybe as a pawn of the governor.

I think most of the reporters bought into that story — even if it never made sense, given that the governor could have appointed nine pawns by now, if that’s what he wanted. The question is whether they’re going to keep telling it, now that it’s threatening their own profession.

If the narrative is that Hall abused the TPIA, then the resolution is to “reform” the law, make it less susceptible to “witch hunts.”

We all agree, don’t we, that if government officials think you’re a troublemaker, they shouldn’t have to tell you what they’re doing?

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000.

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