Top Texas Officials’ Failures of Transparency

State leaders in Texas have frequently avoided providing requested records to the public by claiming overly broad exemptions and applying heavy redactions to versions that are released. American Oversight is investigating this failure of transparency.

American Oversight has opened investigations into dozens of issues of concern in Texas over the past several years — from efforts to cast doubt on election integrity to the conditions of migrant detention centers — by submitting requests under the Texas Public Information Act for documents that could shed light on top officials’ actions, spending, and communications. 

Unfortunately, these requests have not yielded the transparency Texans deserve. The requests have been met with implausible claims of records not existing, or overly broad assertions that certain communications are subject to exemptions to the Public Information Act, such as attorney-client privilege. This persistent lack of transparency goes beyond overzealous interpretations of the law and represents a potentially troubling threat to the public’s ability to hold government leaders accountable. 

American Oversight is investigating how top officials in Texas have upheld or, conversely, sought to circumvent their obligations under the state’s public records statute. In the summer of 2022, we filed a lawsuit seeking to better understand the reasons for the implausible responses to requests we filed with the offices of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Withholding Records from Public Release

Under Texas’ Public Information Act, some information belonging to members of the public is confidential and not subject to release. In 2015, Abbott claimed that, despite serving as governor, he was also a “member of the public” and could therefore shield certain requested records from disclosure, including email addresses that were used to conduct governmental business  — a claim that Paxton supported. 

In March 2021, the Tribune reported that Paxton had refused to release communication records related to his attendance and speech at the rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Paxton also refused to comment on who paid for his trip to Washington. In January 2022, a Texas district attorney determined that Paxton’s failure to release Jan. 6 communication records had violated the state’s open records law. In response, Paxton called the ruling “meritless” and claimed that he had fulfilled his duties under the law.

Following the May 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Abbott supported efforts by agencies to shield records that could help illuminate details about law enforcement’s delayed response to the shooting, with members of Congress calling upon Paxton to order their release and news organization later filing suit against the Texas Department of Public Safety for related records.

American Oversight’s Records Requests and Lawsuit

American Oversight has also filed public records requests for documents — including those related to officials’ actions on Jan. 6 and communications from the time of the Uvalde shooting — but few records have been released, leading the group to file a lawsuit in June 2022. 

In response to American Oversight’s request for Uvalde-related communications, Abbott said that his office had no records reflecting communications with pro-gun groups in the days after the attack, though his office had at that time canceled an in-person appearance at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston. American Oversight’s lawsuit argues that Abbott’s claim is implausible, and that it “is not credible that no senior official in the Governor’s office was communicating with external entities focused on gun advocacy” during the week of the shooting and the convention.

Other public records requests included in American Oversight’s lawsuit include those seeking documents that could shed light on Abbott’s and Paxton’s use of personal accounts or devices to conduct official governmental work. American Oversight’s lawsuit seeks to compel the release of these and other records, and to better understand how Texas officials have met their transparency obligations, including how they have administered searches of personal devices. This investigation is ongoing, and we will continue to update this page as more information is released. 

Updates

DeSantis’ Office Contacted Abbott’s Office Regarding Migrant Flights to Martha’s Vineyard

October 19, 2022
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office appears to have been in contact with the office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott regarding DeSantis’ migrant flight program, according to documents obtained by American Oversight and reported on by the Miami Herald.

American Oversight Opposes Gov. Abbott’s and Attorney General Paxton’s Motions to Dismiss Public Records Case

October 13, 2022
American Oversight’s lawsuit seeks the release of officials’ messages surrounding Jan. 6, as well as communications with the gun lobby.

Texas Child Welfare Agency Instructed Employees Not to Communicate in Writing About Investigations into Gender-Affirming Care

September 1, 2022
Records obtained by American Oversight showed that the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services told staff not to discuss cases related to Gov. Abbott’s February anti-trans directive.

American Oversight Sues Offices of Texas Governor and AG for Communications with Gun Lobby, Messages Sent from Personal Accounts

June 30, 2022
American Oversight filed suit in Texas over several open requests for public records sent to Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Paxton, including requests for communications with pro-gun activists in the days following the Uvalde school shooting.

News Roundup: Evidence of Obstruction

January 24, 2020
We uncovered emails revealing new details about the Ukraine scandal, and the next day, they were on the Senate floor in the impeachment trial.
Show all updates

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