in Houston, Texas
State windstorm agency TWIA fails to produce records promptly or comply with public records law
Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011, 02:58PM CST
By Steve Miller
magnifying glass

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, already under state control for failing to report alleged fraud in its ranks, has violated the law by failing to provide a public record that was readily available at a meeting on Wednesday, according to a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

 

Texas Watchdog reported earlier this afternoon on TWIA's executive session, in which board members have been referring to the lone finalist for the agency's general manager position as "candidate number four," rather than naming him. The meeting is open, but the board members' code language has guaranteed that only they know the substance of their discussion.

 

And under the state's Public Information Act, that is illegal, lawyer Joel White said.

 

"It is unlawful to hold on to that name when it is right in front of them," said White, a board member of the foundation. "They ought to give it to you this minute; it's the law."

 

When confronted about the secrecy, a spokeswoman for the agency said she would attempt to get the board members to name the finalist. But board member Georgia Neblett, in a brief conversation Wednesday afternoon, refused to identify the finalist, saying he was "candidate number four."

 

TWIA may have also violated state public records law for refusing to release records “promptly," another Freedom of Information Foundation official said.

 

Even though the insurer possessed by last week the applications, resumes, and other documents associated with its search for a general manager, TWIA slow-walked on release of the records and only relented after being confronted this week by Texas Watchdog about whether the agency was complying with the law.


The agency was asked in a public information request on April 1 by Texas Watchdog for “all applications, resumes, and other forms of inquiry for the position of TWIA general manager received between January 1, 2011 and March 31, 2011.”


TWIA’s executive committee met with the recruiting firm contractor Thursday. IPS Search President James Evan Cook addressed the panel and said some of the candidates were “gainfully employed” and asked that their names “not be included” in any discussions. Hear the meeting here.


Even after that meeting, TWIA refused to provide the names to Texas Watchdog. Susan Banowsky, a lawyer with the firm Vinson & Elkins who has been handling open records requests for TWIA, did not respond to an e-mail on Monday asking that the available information be provided.


The agency handed over the names and resumes of the four finalists on Tuesday, but still has not provided a complete list of applicants. Under the Texas Public Information Act, if an agency holds public records that have been requested, it must release them.


“The attorney general has said that public information should be (provided), quote, promptly when available,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Unfortunately, 'promptly' is not defined, but informally the office has explained that if it is available, provide it.”


In practice, many agencies take 10 business days to respond to public information requests because that is the deadline for the agency to ask for an attorney general's ruling on whether the records are open. But the 10 days noted in law “has nothing to do with if you are giving the information or not. That is the deadline that they must notify the attorney general’s office if they are not releasing," Elkins said.


The insurance agency has been beset with other transparency issues. In January, a spokeswoman unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the public from being part of a meeting of the board. In its online meeting postings of this week's meeting, the agency posted conflicting information on its own website and the Secretary of State’s online posting board. And at a recent meeting, the audio connection that is supposed to allow the public to listen in remotely failed and the discussion was not audible.


State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, has filed a bill aimed at making TWIA more transparent. It would address some of these issues, forcing consistency in meeting postings and more advance notice to the public.


"Not later than the seventh day before the date of a meeting of the board of directors, (the association must) post notice of the meeting on the association’s Internet website and the (insurance) department’s Internet website," the bill says. It also specifies that “the association shall broadcast live on the association’s Internet website all meetings of the board of directors.”


Texas Watchdog has reported extensively on TWIA. Here are some of those stories:
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:11 p.m. April 13 to make clear that the board may have violated the Public Information Act by withholding the name of "candidate number four."

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo of magnifying glass by flickr user Auntie P, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
mjrdm
Wednesday, 04/13/2011 - 09:26PM

TWIA operates above the law and have proven that time and time again. Most of the architects of the TWIA mess are still there and still in control such as the board. The board is substantially unchanged since before Hurricane Ike and they are responsible for this mess but untouched. Too many fat cat politicians made too much money off of TWIA and if there was any real interest in cleaning up that mess most of them should be headed to jail. You have reported on corruption, ethics violations, conflicts of interests even with the regulators, back room deals, stonewalling, and the list goes on. No one will be prosecuted and TWIA will continue just as it has throughout the last 3 years. The taxpayers will pay for the TWIA debacle through assessments passed on by the TWIA member insurance companies who also control the board. Talk about conflicts of interests. The very definition is TWIA.

j.davis
Thursday, 04/14/2011 - 10:01AM

Actually, Section 552.221(a) of the public information law does define "promptly."

Sec. 552.221. APPLICATION FOR PUBLIC INFORMATION; PRODUCTION OF PUBLIC INFORMATION. (a) An officer for public information of a governmental body shall promptly produce public information for inspection, duplication, or both on application by any person to the officer. In this subsection, "promptly" means as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.

reader
Thursday, 04/14/2011 - 12:10PM

This article should replace TWIA with "The TWIA Board of Directors, who is appointed by the Insurance Commissioner, who is appointed by the Governor."

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